Spotted lanternflies are spreading in Northern Virginia. How to spot and squash them

D.C. and Maryland officials also have warned people to watch out for the invasive pests

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The invasive spotted lanternfly has been spotted in more areas of Fairfax County, Virginia, recently, and officials are advising people how to kill the pests that feast on dozens of plant species.

Here's a guide on how to spot them and squash them:

What are spotted lanternflies and where do they come from?

The spotted lanternfly, or Lycorma delicatula, is native to China and first arrived in the U.S. in 2014.

Juvenile spotted lanternflies, known as nymphs, and adults prefer to feed on the invasive tree of heaven, but also feed on a wide range of crops and plants, including grapes, apples, hops, walnuts and hardwood trees, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Over the past decade, the pests have been detected in 14 states, including Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and West Virginia.

Why are spotted lanternflies a problem?

Both the nymphs and adult spotted lanternflies feast on more than 70 plant species and drain the plants of their nutrients before leaving a sticky, smelly mess behind known as "honeydew," experts say. That honeydew does further damage by creating mold growth on plants.

In Virginia, the peach, apple, grape and wine industries are most threatened. Spotted lanternflies can also be a nuisance for residents as they feed on trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants in unusually large numbers.

Spotted Lanternfly
Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
A pinned spotted lanternfly with its wings open. (Credit: Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture)

What do spotted lanternflies and their eggs look like?

Adult spotted lanternflies are about an inch long and half an inch wide, with large and visually striking wings. Their large wings are light brown with black spots at the front and a speckled band on the bottom. Underneath, they have smaller red wings with black spots and white and black bars on the bottom.

Nymphs appear black with white spots and turn red phase before becoming adults.

Egg masses are yellowish-brown and usually covered with a gray, waxy coating before they hatch.

leg of metal table. 2 bugs - lanternflies - crawling on the pole toward the eggs
Lance Cheung/USDA
Spotted lanternflies and an egg mass on a picnic table in Reading, Pennsylvania, in August 2018. (Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture)

How and where should I watch out for spotted lanternflies?

Adult spotted lanternflies have started to emerge and will be laying egg masses in September and throughout the first few hard frosts, the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services said.

Cars, trucks and other vehicles are the major way the insects are spread. Drivers often unknowingly give rides to the stealthy hitchhikers, which look similar to moths, perched inside trunks, on wheel wells or on bumpers and side mirrors.

The Department of Agriculture advises to "look before you leave," and said there are many more outdoor items such as bicycles, folding chairs, kids' playhouses, gardening tools and outdoor furniture cushions that lanternflies and their eggs can cling to. Here's a full list of items to check.

Fairfax County officials are asking residents to check their cars, trailers, tractors and construction equipment before they move those vehicles to another location.

Officials are asking residents to immediately kill any spotted lanternflies on sight. The sap-sucking insect poses a threat to agricultural crops and the logging industry.

How can I kill spotted lanternflies?

Once you see spotted lanternflies, it's important to kill them immediately.

Experts advise smashing egg masses and then scraping them off the surface to help to reduce the population. Adults and nymphs should also be squashed.

Another option is to vacuum nymphs and adults with a shop vac, Fairfax County officials said.

Back in June, D.C. encouraged anyone who spotted the nymphs to snap a photo before squashing them. D.C. residents can go here to report any sightings.

Fairfax County residents can report sightings through the iNaturalist mobile app or by calling 703-324-5304.

Here are a few more ways officials have recommended killing the pests in the past:

  • Vinegar: A natural remedy for killing laternflies, vinegar will kill the bug on contact. Just fill a spray bottle with white vinegar and spray directly on nymphs and adult flies. Be mindful of any plants you spray the vinegar on because it may harm them.
  • Neem Oil: You can spray this oil on the bugs to kill them on contact.
  • Soap and Water: Dish soap brands such as Dawn work to kill lanternflies. Combine 1/4 cup liquid soap to a quart of water and a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a spray bottle. The soapy water will suffocate the bugs.
  • Milkweed Bait: Milkweed attracts spotted lanternflies. After they feed on the sap, it poisons them. For the ones that live to tell the tale, they will be a little slower, making it easier to kill them.
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