Hunting with New York’s spotted lanternfly squishers: ‘I come to kill’ | New York

mIchael Thomas, a maintenance worker, was inspecting the base of 3 World Trade Center in late June last year when he began noticing groups of heart-shaped insects, three or four at a time, “crawling on the walls” of the thousand-foot skyscraper in lower Manhattan. He went to sweep them up, hoping they wouldn’t come in through the revolving doors or fly into the lobby. Then he said, “they just started multiplying”.

What Thomas saw were spotted lanternflies, a visually arresting, rapidly spreading invasive species — which New Yorkers strictly need to kill. In the age of overlapping viral outbreaks (Covid, monkey pox, the return, in some places, of polio), this kind of clear government communication is a gift. The New York State Department of Agriculture is very direct: “If you see a spotted lanternfly in New York City, kill it immediately by stepping on it or crushing it.”

Some insects have strong defenses. The ironclad beetle has a thick shell, stronger than an entomologist’s pin; sting bees. Not so the spotted lanternfly. It flies slowly, does not bite and even when startled, it often only has the energy for one jump. It is as soft as a butterfly, but less brittle than a moth. (“Every time I tried to kill them, they just jumped. They hopped like bunnies,” Thomas said. “I’d just go outside and I’d just start stomping.”)

The lantern fly is harmless to humans, but is a prodigious killer of some crops and plants, including hops, grapes, apples and blueberries. It drinks sap from tree trunks, weakening them, and the waste product, a sticky, high-glucose liquid known as honeydew, coats leaves and blocks photosynthesis. Since it was first discovered in Pennsylvania in 2014, it has spread to 11 other states, as far as North Carolina and Indiana. A 2020 study found that the insects could cause $324 million in economic damage and the loss of 2,800 jobs each year in Pennsylvania alone.

This year, the bugs have been spotted near Wall Street, along 42nd Street, on the Upper East Side, near UN headquarters, and in large groves of trees in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island. The URL of a recent CBS News article betrayed the urgency: “spotted-lanternfly-is-back-immediately-kill-them”. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture hotline to report them is 1-888-4BADFLY.

Joshua Nunez, 13, shows off the body of a spotted lanternfly. Photo: Naaman Zhou/The Guardian

As a result, a sort of late summer frenzy has descended on New York City. “I saw a belt of four-year-olds with an adult on each end at 28 Liberty [Street] just running around yesterday and stomping on them,” one person commented on Reddit. “Was pretty cute.” Back at 3 World Trade Center on Wednesday, Jaeso Rich, an office worker at Spotify, got out during his break to crush some. The day before had someone explained to him what the bugs do. Now the corner behind him was strewn with lantern flies. He’d already killed twenty of them. “Until yesterday I didn’t know they were going to be killed,” he said. “But when I came today, I to kill them. I have come to protect the environment.”

Jonathan Nunez shows his sons the snout of a spotted lanternfly.
Jonathan Nunez shows his sons the snout of a spotted lanternfly. Photo: Naaman Zhou/The Guardian

Last weekend, Jonathan Nunez, another lanternfly hunter, was at Coney Island to do the same. Nunez, an ex-Marine, is an animal lover. At home, he has three rescued sugar gliders (a type of opossum), three rescued ferrets (he rescued seven in total), and two turtles.

On a bright, clear day, when those around him were going to the amusement park or the beach, Nunez and his three sons—Jayden, Joshua, and Jerry, all in the back seat—drive to Coney Island Creek Park, a stretch of urban scrub that Nunez called “one of the toughest locations” where he goes. Joshua, 13, wore a bright yellow net.

In their native habitat in China, the numbers of spotted lanternflies are kept low by parasitic wasps. They lay eggs inside young lanternflies, which in turn are eaten from the inside once the baby wasps hatch. On Coney Island, Nunez uses his hands. “Sometimes I just hit them,” he said. “They’re slow. You literally put your hand at 45 degrees? They will die.” He estimates that he kills 200 to 400 lanternflies a week.

Nunez stopped at a particularly infested tree, decorated with fifty to eighty lanternflies. “A blowtorch would kill them instantly, but you’d damage the tree,” he mused. “Chemicals would kill them instantly, but you damage the tree, damage the soil, damage the environment.”

Instead, he sprayed the insects with a solution of water and vinegar (it would block their breathing openings) and the family resumed stomping. “Stamp them out with your Timbs, man!” Joshua said to his older brother, Jayden. “Stamp them out, stomp them out,” Nunez said like a mantra. He beat weary lantern flies against the bark of the tree. He held one in his hand, said, “This is how I execute,” and pulled his head off. He put the body in a plastic container to feed to his turtles and pets. (“Sugar gliders need protein, so insects are part of their regime.”) In the middle of the fight, a bright green grasshopper landed on Nunez. “This is actually what we’re not trying to kill,” he said. It stayed on his finger for a moment and then flew away.

Despite his skill, Nunez is clear that what he is doing “isn’t the answer”. In his spare time, he studies the lantern fly online. He wanted to be an entomologist or a vet before the military got in the way. “You know, it’s killing me because I really like bugs,” he said. “And they’re not ugly critters.”

The answer, he said, was “environmental stabilization”. The key would be to find a natural predator to eat the lanternflies. He claimed to have seen starlings starting to prey on them. “I think they are learning. I hope this is the end,” he said. “We love beer and grapes. I want my kids to know what grapes taste like.”

Jared Nunez holds a cup full of spotted lanternfly carcasses, which his father will feed to their tortoises.
Jared Nunez holds a cup full of spotted lanternfly carcasses, which his father will feed to their tortoises. Photo: Naaman Zhou/The Guardian

After an hour and a half, Nunez and his sons packed their things. He said he would buy the boys slushies and enjoy the rest of their weekend. The sun had begun to shift, but there were many lantern flies in the other trees, high in the branches. “I can’t even reach this one,” Nunez said. New layers on the suitcase he’d cleaned up. There were lantern flies climbing the sides of a public artwork in the middle of a community yard. Jared yelled, “They think it’s something to suck on!”

“They’re on the street!” yelled Jayden.

At one point, Jonathan said, “Ooh, monarch!” and pointed his children to an orange butterfly. They stopped to watch it go by.

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