When Lee Weiss, 31, sees a spotted lanternfly — an invasive pest so voracious that it is the target of several officially-sanctioned smash-on-sight campaigns — he acts swiftly.
He scoops each crimson creature up. Then he carefully hides it from any would-be assassins.
Mr. Weiss is among an emerging group of conscientious objectors to the open-season on the insect. Their reasons differ: Some are vegans who find killing even pests wrong. Others doubt the threat lanternflies pose or have been repulsed by the glee surrounding lanternfly annihilation. Some people are faced with a flurry of lanternflies, despite years of dedicated squishing, and have just given up.
Still another few think lanternflies are too cute to kill.
The gray-and-red-winged planthopper from China first showed up in Pennsylvania in 2014. It has since swarmed across at least 11 states including New York, growing as an agricultural threat, particularly to grape harvests and fruit trees, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Several studies on the encroaching invasion have projected that lanternflies could do upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars of damage.
While the infestation rages on the East Coast, scientific models have predicted that the bugs could spread across the country, reaching California’s wine country by the next decade.
To fight back, state and local officials in infested areas have enlisted their constituents in an anti-lanternfly militia. Authorities in battlegrounds such as New York, New Jersey and in particular, Pennsylvania, the insects’ apparent ground zero, have framed the campaign against the creature as an act of civic duty.
Calls to action to civilians to stamp out the invaders— literally — have been enthusiastically met; in New York, Brooklyn summer campers engage in lanternfly hunts and the state park preserve on Staten Island hosted a squishathon in 2021. Last year, a New Jersey woman threw a lanternfly-crushing pub crawl; one Pennsylvania man developed an app that tracks users’ kills called Squishr.
Mr. Weiss, a former instructor of Buddhist philosophy who lives in Philadelphia, has not crushed a single lanternfly. “It’s phrased in almost moral terms,” said Mr. Weiss, of the rallying cries gathering the forces aligned against lanternflies. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture runs a hotline to report the bugs at 1-888-4BADFLY, and asks people to “Kill it! Squash it, smash it … just get rid of it,” on its website.
Holding up a picture of a spotted lanternfly like a wanted poster, New York State Sen. Chuck Schumer stood at a news conference near Central Park earlier this month, calling for more federal funds to be used to fight the scourge.
In New York, officials first spotted the lanternfly on Staten Island in 2020. Since then, it has proliferated, Mr. Schumer said, warning that leafy spots from Central Park to Long Island’s wineries to the farms of Upstate were at risk. The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets has put out a hit and asked the public to report any sightings of the bug or to dispatch them.
Jody Smith, 33, a software developer, so far has declined. Mr. Smith is vegan, yet not an absolutist: he will exterminate cockroaches in his apartment in Manhattan’s Union Square, he said. But the state-endorsed bloodlust when it comes to lanternflies, and the sense that they are disposable, makes him uncomfortable.
“If someone was like, ‘Oh we have to kill all the Pomeranians, people might feel a lot differently about it,” Mr. Smith said.
A spokesman for Sen. Schumer, Angelo Roefaro, encouraged New Yorkers to keep on smashing; he would not entertain misgivings like Mr. Smith’s. “Individuals who feel that way can report them to New York State — or look away.”
Those tasked with protecting agriculture say sympathy for the lanternfly is misguided. “We can understand the hesitancy to kill the spotted lanternfly, which appear colorful and harmless,” Chris Logue, director of plant industry for the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, said in an email. “However, the damage this invasive species can do in harming important crops and impacting our food system is real.”
She added: “We just can’t take the chance.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offered a less than full-throated defense of the lanternfly. The advocacy group did advise people, however, to carefully consider their actions if it involves “killing any living being, no matter how small or unfamiliar,” said Catie Cryar, a PETA spokeswoman.
“Any issue involving animals and nature needs to be carefully examined to ensure that any drastic action taken is chosen because it is the least harmful one, that it will not ultimately cause more harm than good,” Ms. Cryar said in an email.
Despite her distaste for the lanternfly, Karen Charles, 31, has gone out of her way to avoid harming them. Ms. Charles, a YouTube content creator from Parlin, in Central New Jersey, was playing with her two-year-old daughter atop a playground slide when she found her way down the ladder blocked by two lanternflies. “It was go down this slide or kill these bugs, and I don’t want to stomp on them,” she said.
Stopping her was a mix of fear and pity, she said. “They’re creepy, I hate them, but feel a little bad for them — and for me,” said Ms. Charles. She ended up squeezing down the slide alongside her daughter.
Aware that their opinions are unpopular, those championing lanternflies often do so in secret. Catherine Bonner, 22, a Temple University student in Philadelphia, shares her lanternfly sympathies — how the red spots on their faces look like they are wearing blush — only with close friends.
The bugs “didn’t ask to be invasive, they are just living their own life,” Ms. Bonner said. “I would be bummed if I suddenly started existing somewhere I wasn’t supposed to exist and everyone started killing me for it.”
Yet even an ardent fan (Ms. Bonner likes to hold them and take them for rides in her palm) is ambivalent about her advocacy. “I feel like I am evil saying this because I know they are so bad for the environment,” she added.
Lanternfly defenders argue that the widespread and costly destruction the bugs aresupposedly capable of has not fully materialized. Lanternflies, for example, do not appear able to kill mature hardwoods, as initially feared. But Shannon Powers, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, said they are not to be underestimated. Some vineyards in southeast Pennsylvania, she said, have lost over 90 percent of their crops to the insects.
“Vineyards looked like they had been burned to the ground,” Ms. Powers said.
And just how effective all the smashing is remains a question. Despite multiyear pro-squash campaigns, the bugs seem almost unchecked, and their numbers have grown. A 2021 study by researchers at Lafayette College, in Easton Penn., indicated that eradication efforts focusing on the insect’s ability to reproduce are among those most likely to make a dent.
Anne Johnson, a Ph.D. student in the department of entomology at Pennsylvania State University who studies lanternflies, recommends traps, or scraping off the grayish masses of eggs they seem to lay on any surface they can find.
“I don’t like killing insects, I love them,” she said. “But the spotted lantern flies being here is our responsibility. It is up to us to fix it.”