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Photo: Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture

First found in Pennsylvania in 2014, the spotted lanternfly is an invasive species slowly spreading across the Mid-Atlantic. This is what it’s like to live through an invasion.

This month, A Beautiful Perspective relaunched as a digital magazine tackling a single theme each month. For our first month, we’re exploring the concept of home. Click here to read more stories from the HOME Issue.

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First contact came, for me, in July.

I was at my parents’ home—my home, from freshman year of high school until the winter after college—when I noticed an unusual looking insect sitting on the back deck. It appeared carved from the night sky, lustrous black with winking white spots; I had never seen such a creature. I  waved my mother over to see it.

“Kill it!” she ordered. “Kill it fast!”

Heeding the violent missive from my usually amicable mother, I attempted to stomp the celestial insect, which took a great leaping bound away from me, catapulting itself off the deck to safety. This was the juvenile stage of the spotted lanternfly, an invasive species, and in letting it get away I had helped doom Southeast Pennsylvania’s agrarian economy.

The bug was a mere herald of the invasion to come, a promise written in the constellation on its carapace.

Native to China, India and Vietnam, the spotted lanternfly is a large, gorgeous planthopper, shaped like a hatchet head and, although capable of erratic and impressive flight—think C-130—prone to making explosive leaps from place to place. It has invaded South Korea and the United States where, uninhibited by natural predators or disease agents, it has proliferated, threatening important agricultural crops.

 

The lanternfly’s feeding behavior involves cutting gashes into plants—weeping wounds that serve as a warning sign of invasion and a  magnet for other insects to come feed. Thus exposed, the plants are victimized by a melange of insects and molds, eventually dying. According to the USDA, almonds, apples, apricots, cherries, grapes, hops, maple trees, nectarines, oak trees, peaches, pine trees, plums, poplar trees, sycamore trees, walnut trees and willow trees are all at immense risk.

Spotted lanternflies begin life as grey clumps of eggs, as if a papermaker simply couldn’t have been bothered. Once hatched, they emerge as nymphs—the night sky bug was the first nymph form of four. Adult spotted lanternflies are stunning, their bodies draped in a double-layer winged cape of black-speckled botanical brown, and they fling mockingly open to reveal royal ermine or dalmatian and blood-red tips. Crawling Cruella de Villes, they must be struck at swift and true, lest they bolt—pop!— in a flash of carmine.

The spotted lanterfly is native to China, Vietnam and India, and first appeared in Pennsylvania in 2014. Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture

Their U.S. invasion began in this corner of Pennsylvania in September 2014, and has now spread across the region. The counties ringing Philadelphia, including my parents’ own, are under quarantine, as the lanternflies spread primarily via human movement of infected plant material, ashen egg masses unleashing the aliens. In February 2018, the federal government allocated $17.5 million to the war effort; as of August 2018, the invaders have already begun to take over the Eastern Seaboard, including New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Virginia.

Unappetizing to birds, rapidly spawning, multifarious in its appetites, the spotted lanternfly is a threat. And it has blanketed my parent’s home.

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I killed my first spotted lanternfly on a clear morning in late August. It was clinging to one of the posts beneath my parent’s deck, where I blasted it with Raid. The aesthete in me breaks a little at murdering so magnificent a creature.

I killed a second that same morning at a Burger King where I stopped for breakfast. I have since slaughtered countless others, on the deck and driveway, on the chairs and walls, on the sliding door frame and in the front yard. I have killed them in front of fast food restaurants and movie theaters; I have killed them by spray and by strike, slaps and stomps, swift and terrible and true, and I have not made one iota of difference, fighting a useless private war, Southeastern Pennsylvania now Starship Troopers.

They clump around the branches of the tree in the front yard, where they explode like pied fireworks when hit by the insecticide. I have spotted them on the windows at Wawa, an especially brutal sacrilege, a sign of lost hope. I realized the other day, eating dinner on the deck with my parents as the aliens climbed the stucco wall behind our heads, that this home would never be free from them; that in all likelihood we may live with the beautiful invaders forever.

My former home is theirs now.