The unmistakable red, polka-dotted spotted lanternflies were first sighted in New York in 2020.

A year later, our marching orders were clear: kill, kill, kill, no questions asked. In their third summer in the city, however, our collective efforts feel a tad futile.

Spotted lanternflies are living their best lives, scaling skyscrapers, riding the subway, and lounging at the beach in seemingly more plentiful numbers than in the last two summers combined.

After all the hype, perhaps now is the right moment to pause, take stock of these spotted little creatures, and appreciate the fact that, according to some experts, they may not actually be as bad as we thought.

The doomsday predictions have come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as local state offices. Researchers at Penn State sounded alarms in 2020, six years after the invasive little bug arrived in Pennsylvania — their first stop on U.S. soil. They warned the bug could decimate agriculture production of all kinds, damage forests and timber industries, and wreak havoc on fruit production. The bug feeds on upwards of 70 different types of plants, and there was a possibility it might kill them in droves or dramatically reduce agricultural output for a host of crops.

But fast-forward two years and that’s not quite what happened, according to Julie Urban, a research associate professor at Penn State's entomology department.

“It's not as bad as we first thought,” she told Gothamist. “It's really just a stressor. It doesn't kill it.”

In many cases, like the travelers they are, spotted lanternflies will stay and feed for a while and move on, not staying long enough to have any lasting impact on most fruit trees. There were concerns that maple or apple trees would be affected if the lanternfly continues to push north. But it turns out they’re mostly okay, too, Urban said.

There were other worries that saplings could be killed, but the bugs don’t appear to be making their way deep into forests and researchers haven’t found any evidence that young trees are at heightened risk, according to Urban and Brian Eshenaur of Cornell’s Integrated Pest Management Program, which is tracking the infestations nationwide.

There were other concerns that the secondary impacts of the bugs might dampen agriculture production in other ways. When they stay for extended periods of time on a single tree — sucking in the sap with their tiny, straw-like proboscis — their sticky poop, or “honeydew,” can rain down on plants below, making them more susceptible to sooty mold, which can decrease photosynthesis and blunt their growth. But they don’t seem to like fruit trees enough to dwell long enough to have that kind of effect.

“[We have] no reports of honeydew impacting stone fruit production,” Urban said.

Eshenaur said that while they haven’t seen fruit production affected yet, it’s not impossible.

“I haven’t heard of that occurring in places where spotted lanternflies are prevalent, but I wouldn’t rule it out,” he said. “I would say it is a potential concern.”

The USDA lists a variety of trees that may be at risk, but the bugs can be fatal and cause other damaging impacts to two types of plants specifically: grapevines and the tree of heaven.

The latter is a leafy green tree that’s also an invasive species and can famously grow almost anywhere – it was the tree that managed to thrive in cracked pavement at the heart of the book "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."

A photo of researchers at Penn State studying the effects of the spotted lanternfly on grapevines.

Researchers at Penn State studying the effects of the spotted lanternfly on grapevines in 2018.

Researchers at Penn State studying the effects of the spotted lanternfly on grapevines in 2018.
Bill Uhrich/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

But the real threat is for vintners, who fuel a $6.6 billion industry in New York.

Infestations cause headaches for grape growers, who might have to ramp up pest management or do extra pruning and could see some of their crops killed. In Pennsylvania, the infestations cost an estimated $42.6 million in 2017. Infestations can also reduce the hardiness of grapevines and lead to a reduction in fruit production. But winemakers in already infested areas say they’ve have honed coping mechanisms to handle the pests.

Larry Shrawder, owner of the Stony Run Winery outside of Allentown, Pennsylvania, said that in their fourth year on his vineyards, the spotted lanternfly population is declining dramatically and the bug has started to move on.

While it was at first jarring to see the insects swarming on grapevines and they had some damage the first year, Shrawder says in the years since they’ve devised a variety of methods to manage the lanternflies as they would any other pest: Treating the surrounding trees with insecticide and treating the vine during the fall when the fly is laying eggs — a period when they’d typically let the vine go dormant.

“It costs money. It's expensive,” he said. But, he added, “It's a manageable viticultural hazard.”

His biggest concern for his crop isn’t spotted lanternflies, or any other kind of pest for that matter. What keeps him up at night is when nearby farms spray soybeans or corn with clouds of noxious plant growth regulators, like Dicamba; 2,4-d; or Triclopyr. The chemical clouds can waft into surrounding fields, destroying grapes and other kinds of crops that aren't genetically modified.

“Those clouds can come into your vineyard and just wipe you out,” he said. “That's a much bigger financial [risk].”

Some winegrowers in New York have expressed a little sigh of relief as news filters out of earlier-hit areas, though there are still many unknowns. Kareem Massoud, a Long Island winemaker and president of Long Island Wine Country — an association of growers in the region — recently ran into Shrawder at a wine conference in Philadelphia and said he came away relieved.

“I left that conversation feeling a little bit better about it because he led me to believe it can be managed and that eventually it'll begin to fizzle out,” he said. “But you know, we have no idea if that's gonna be true here. If it’s somehow more hospitable here than there. I honestly don't know.”

Spotted lanternflies are born hitchhikers, and their trajectory from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and New York, has been paved by highways. Their ideal host, the tree of heaven, often thrives along the cracked pavement at the edge of roadways, making it easy for them to jump on cars and trucks and pogo onto a new host — or for recently born bugs to set up shop along the highway. They can only survive for two days without feeding on some type of tree or plant.

Once the females lay eggs in late summer into early fall, however, the egg masses can survive near-apocalyptic conditions on basically any surface.

As far as New York City and environs go, we seem to have lost the war on the flies. Last year, New York State’s agriculture department received 4,996 spotted lanternfly reports; so far this year they’ve fielded 9,500, Hanna Birkhead, a spokesperson for the agency, said.

It’s gotten to the point where they don’t want to hear about them any more. At a press conference on Monday, Chris Logue, with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, politely asked New York City residents to please stop telling them there are spotted lanternflies. They get it, we’re infested.

“We would ask that those reports be minimized,” Logue said.

They are laser-focused on the spread of the creature into grape-growing regions of Long Island and upstate New York, though. The lanternflies have been reported as far north as Ulster County and as far east as Ronkonkoma on Long Island. If you see spotted lanternflies in those areas or beyond, you should still report it to the state online and even capture and freeze the little buggers so you can hand them off to investigators. In addition to squashing live bugs, you should be vigilant for any egg masses in the late summer and early fall that you might be unwittingly transporting from place to place.

“RVs, boat trailers, or any types of goods that you might be shipping that could have egg masses on them,” Logue said. “I can't stress that —  checking for adults and for egg masses — enough. And we do really appreciate any help that the public can give us.”

For folks with access to green space where they might be witnessing an infestation, Eshenaur, with Cornell’s Integrated Pest Management Program, recommends simply leaving them alone in most cases.

They can be an annoyance in the backyard, but they're not gonna threaten the overall health of those trees.

Brian Eshenaur, with Cornell’s Integrated Pest Management Program

“It's important to remember that they don't bite. They don't sting and they can't set up shop inside,” he said. “They can be an annoyance in the backyard, but they're not gonna threaten the overall health of those trees.”

The other annoyance is their “honeydew,” or sticky poop, mentioned earlier. If that becomes a problem, there are recommended insecticides you could use to treat specific locations and you could call in a tree specialist to help with treatment, Eshenaur said, though widespread use of such insecticides can disrupt all kinds of other non-invasive critters.

So is decisively squashing a spotted lanternfly when it crosses your path still the recommended course of action, given that the bugs' impacts are less severe than originally thought? Yes, by all means. You can make a miniscule indent on their population by keeping one more from reproducing. If you find an egg mass come the fall, go ahead and get to scraping.

But if you see a mass swarming in a neighborhood tree, the answer may be to simply let them be. And stop using glue traps: You’re killing innocent, unsuspecting songbirds, as recently reported. The ends do not justify the means!

Shrawder, from Pennsylvania, offered New Yorkers further advice on how to make our killing attempts more deadly. They can’t hop backwards, so if you come at them from the front, they’ll pingpong right into your shoe.

He said, “That's my advice to New Yorkers, always step on them from the front.”