When global issues make us feel small, we long for simple tasks we can incorporate into our daily lives to achieve visible short-term results. Unfortunately, this idyllic problem-solving strategy rarely has beneficial applications in the real world. Environmental issues in particular tend to get worse before they can get better, and individuals’ actions hold little weight over how quickly they are actually resolved.
Spotted lanternflies (Lycorma delicatula) are an invasive insect species first detected in the U.S. in Pennsylvania in 2014. Currently, they’re waging war across 14 U.S. states. Research on ways to thin their numbers has not been able to keep up with the rate at which they spread.
Staff and faculty have tried their best to keep the insect off campus. Although neither are experts on the species, associate professor of environmental science Dr. Eric Wiener and Building Manager Edward Roessler led the fight against it.
“What do you do when you know you have an invasive species coming toward you, and you’re not sure what’s going to happen and how bad it’s going to be? We just started doing research, getting online and reaching out to folks who might know more about it,” Wiener summarized in an interview. Roessler attended a workshop on spotted lanternflies and used the knowledge to lead Ramapo’s ground crew.
The main preventative measure taken was removing a grove of tree of heaven, an invasive plant species used by the spotted lanternfly as a primary host. Karyssa Cendana, a Ramapo alum who did an independent study on the spotted lanternfly during her time as a student, marked each tree of heaven she found on campus to facilitate the removal process.
Knowing how much effort went into deterring spotted lanternflies makes the sight of them swarming on campus today even more disheartening. We continue to long for a world where simple acts done by individuals allows them to rectify a looming issue. The New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s slogan “Join the battle, beat the bug! Stomp it out!” fit perfectly into this narrative. Seeing how spotted lanternflies continue to thrive makes many wonder how else they can help. The answer cheers few.
“Everybody wants to have something you can do. I don’t know if there’s much you can do about spotted lanternflies at this point,” Wiener said.
Environmental issues tend to require long periods of intensive study before effective methods of retaliation can be proven. Until then, spotted lanternfly populations will continue to grow.
In the future, the insect’s natural predators may be imported to control their populations, but this idea requires thorough testing to ensure it will not cause extra damage. Therefore, widespread application is not expected to happen anytime soon.
On campus, Wiener anticipates studies on how the spotted lanternflies are impacting campus starting next year.
“These are insects that have, essentially, sucking mouthparts. It’s not like they chew leaves and you can see how defoliated the leaves might be,” he said. “They’re actually tapping into the xylem and phloem of the plants and pulling the energy from the plants out that way. It’s a little bit more difficult to quantify.”
Another problem to watch out for is the production of honeydew, a sticky substance excreted by spotted lanternflies while feeding, which encourages the growth of black sooty mold. The mold is harmless to people, but it can damage plants.
Overall, focus has shifted from prevention to mitigating any observed damage. “Now we’re more in a reactionary phase,” Wiener said. What mitigation efforts will look like is uncertain, but Wiener believes any plants the spotted lanternflies flock to will be considered for removal.
It is not a satisfying conclusion, but perhaps it is an overdue reminder that nature is not a force anyone can control or “fix” by changing a personal routine — whether you refuse to use plastic straws, always remember to recycle or squash every spotted lanternfly you see, you alone cannot make a difference. In most cases, it is illogical to blame widespread issues on the choices of individuals. What matters is staying educated and supporting larger efforts to understand these complex issues before they can begin to be solved.