The Lanternfly Invades: Ithaca's New Invasive Species

This transcript is from Izzy Frabotta's segment that aired on the Dec. 5th episode of Talk of the Town.

An ecological menace has moved into Tompkins County, but you may have to squint to see it.


Just last month, a sharp-eyed Cornell student walking in the Fall Creek neighborhood of Ithaca noticed something alarming: an inch-long insect with a black and yellow striped abdomen, vibrant red and grey wings, and a smattering of black speckles. The City of Ithaca has confirmed that this bug was none other than the spotted lanternfly, a destructive, invasive insect that is native to Asia and is actually more closely related to grasshoppers than flies. Although the insect has previously been found in other parts of the state, this is the first sighting in the Ithaca area. Spotted lanternflies don’t tend to travel great distances on their own, so these local insects most likely originated in other parts of New York or neighboring states and hitched rides in the vehicles of unsuspecting travelers. For example, adult lanternflies, juvenile nymphs, and even eggs can stick to things like hiking boots, logs, and camping supplies, and these contaminated items can then travel into Tompkins County in the trunks of cars and the beds of trucks.

picture of a lanternfly

At first glance, the threat posed by this colorful creature may not be obvious. To get an idea of the insect’s destructive potential, one has only to look to our neighboring state of Pennsylvania. There, economists from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences predict that, if left uncontained, spotted lanternflies could cause an economic loss of $324 million annually and eliminate around 2,800 jobs. The insects cause this damage by feeding and laying eggs upon a number of plant species, most notably the Tree of Heaven, which is a common invasive plant found throughout North America.


However, the fact that spotted lanternflies like to spend time around agricultural crops is particularly concerning. After feeding, the insects produce a sticky excrement known as “honeydew”. Besides attracting ants and yellowjackets, this honeydew turns crops into the perfect breeding ground for sooty mold, a type of black fungus. In an interview with the Cornell Daily Sun, the coordinator of New York State’s spotted lanternfly outreach efforts Brian Eshenaur explained that the insects can damage grapevines, apple trees, and hops. All three of these crops are agricultural staples of Tompkins County and the Finger Lakes region at large, so any harm wrought by the spotted lanternfly would have a major impact on local farmers, winemakers, breweries, and more. In Tompkins County alone, it has been estimated that farmers contribute around $18 million annually to the local economy, and the Finger Lakes area is New York State’s largest wine-producing region—so this pest could deal a serious blow to both local and state economies.


Tompkins County residents who find spotted lanternflies are strongly encouraged to report their sightings to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets using a special public survey. This public survey can be found at agriculture.ny.gov/spottedlanternfly. Luckily, spotted lanternflies are easy to identify due to their distinctive coloring. Adults are about one inch long and have one set of red hindwings and one set of grey forewings, with each set covered in black speckles. Their abdomens are black with yellow stripes. Young insects, known as nymphs, are wingless and can be black or black with red patterning. Both color variants are covered with white speckles. Finally, egg masses appear as small, grayish-brown clumps, and can be found on any number of smooth surfaces, including tree trunks.


Armed with this knowledge, residents of Tompkins County can do their part by reporting sightings at agriculture.ny.gov/spottedlanternfly, and hopefully, put a stop to agricultural devastation before it begins.