New Jersey

Lanternfly victory inevitable; end the war with the least harm, cost

It’s official. The spotted lanternfly has conquered New Jersey.

The state Department of Agriculture recently announced that each county is now on its “quarantine” list of spotted lantern flies. Which means, oddly enough, that this unstoppable invasive insect from Asia has spread all over New Jersey.

There probably never was a time when this showy fly—with finely striped/spotted forewings and red-white-black hindwings—could have been quarantined once it arrived in America. Like most insects, it reproduces quickly and spreads if possible, especially into new territory with fewer predators and diseases for it.

Like so many invasive animals, lanterns were inadvertently brought to the United States, an expected and inevitable side effect of the surging global trade. A stone shipment from China in 2012 included masses of lantern eggs. The first lantern fly outbreak discovered was two years later in Berks County, eastern Pennsylvania. As tourists know, from there it is only a short drive to New Jersey.

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Luckily for the Mottled Lanterns, their favorite food in their homelands of China, Vietnam and India – the Tree of Paradise – had arrived in the New World and had become well established long before they arrived. They also found many other trees, vegetables, herbs, grains and vines to eat – at least 70 so far.

The US Department of Agriculture declared war on lanterns in early 2018, allocating millions of dollars to try to stop them. It was no more effective than efforts to stop the spread of the Covid virus. Evidence that either of these forces of nature has been slowed down by government programs despite their widespread promotion and costs is lacking.

During the war years that followed, the lanterns gradually spread to a dozen other convenient states, including Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Carolina North, Ohio, Rhode Island, Virginia and West Virginia. Their governments have also joined the war willingly, but will be helpless quarantine habitats suitable for Lanterns.

Entomologists already have a good idea of ​​how far the Mottled Lanterns will inexorably spread. A map of their potential distribution in Entomology Today showed nearly all of the eastern United States to be somewhat Lantern-suitable, with a wide swath of medium to high suitability from New Jersey to Nebraska. They’ve already conquered about half of this band.

This is a war the people of New Jersey and half the country cannot win. Even biological weapons could not provide lasting gains against a less formidable invasive insect, the gypsy moth. The sad truth about invasive species in general is that once people introduce them to what is for them defenseless territory, their future will be determined by complex and powerful forces of nature that are still poorly understood.

Natural enemies already identified as eating spotted lanterns include garden spiders, praying mantises, yellow jacket wasps, garter snakes, chickens, gray catbirds, and koi fish (native cuisine for them). There will be many more before the Lanterns have a stable and limited population in their new home territory.

Americans should no longer need to be told what to do when it is clear that a war is not winnable. Negotiating the best terms of peace with these simple insects only requires being realistic about what can be done, not adding damage, and minimizing time and money wasted on unsuccessful fights.

Lantern controls should now focus on cash crops, subject to the usual cost-benefit analysis. Environmental spraying of pesticides should be discouraged except where careful and limited application provides a specific and valid benefit.

Nature will react and adapt to the spotted lanternflies of New Jersey and much of North America, and achieve containment where possible.

Humans will also have to adapt, which will not always be pleasant. But people have long known the consequences of altering the balances and distributions of nature, and have continued to do so without much consideration. This is just another case of living with those choices and not making things worse with a guilty overreaction.

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