Damon Young: I let a spotted lanternfly survive. Then 50 tried to kill me.
Kill it! Squash it, smash it … just get rid of it” is in the second paragraph of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s spotted lanternfly alert. This order is directed to anyone who lives in the quarantine zone with the “bad bugs” that will “take over your county” if you don’t “smash them in the temple with a sledgehammer.”
That last quote might be fake, but it’s not that distinct from the news stories I’ve been inundated with this summer, including one from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette simply titled “What you can do to stop spotted lanternflies,” with the grave intonation of describing a deathmatch against the space bugs from “A Quiet Place.” An invasive species native to Asia, the spotted lanternfly was first found in Pennsylvania in 2014. It apparently reproduces like Nick Cannon and could cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to plants and crops.
Before we continue, I should probably share that I am generally not a fan of killing insects. Not because of any bug rights activism or empathy, but because my feelings about them exist somewhere between annoyance (ants, spiders, bees) and terror (anything fast, crawly and gross). I don’t know if it qualifies as a phobia, but I would rather fight five Mike Tysons than kill a roach. (We had a mild infestation for a couple of years when I was a kid, and I’d quote Winnie the Pooh to myself when I had to extinguish one: “You are braver than you believe, smarter than you seem, and stronger than you think!”)
Anyway, about three weeks ago, while I was sitting on my stoop, a butterfly-like creature rolled next to my shoe. Butterflies don’t scurry much, so my immediate thought was that it was a colorful scrap of paper, or a peacock feather. But then I inspected it. Even used my phone to zoom in on it. And there, in all of its infamy, was a spotted lanternfly. If you’ve never seen one, they’re somehow both very distinct and very mundane. A tangle of colors and also a pageant of plainness. They look like stink bugs, but if stink bugs listened to Beyoncé.
After a quick Google to verify — and also to confirm I was supposed to kill it and report the sighting — I found a brick and was poised to crush it. Stepping on it might have been more practical, but I was wearing nice sneakers, and the thought of dragging spotted lanternfly carcass on them felt vulgar. But then, mid-smash, something clicked. The spotted lanternfly wasn’t bothering me, and it was outside — exactly where I ask bugs to be. It was just existing, minding its business. Who am I to interfere with that? Then I was struck by the audacity of the United States of America to ask me, a Black American, to assassinate a living thing, and then snitch on the deceased. The gall of this country, fam. A spotted lanternfly never redlined me.
“Be free, comrade,” I said as I dropped the brick in a bed of mulch. Oblivious to how close it’d come to oblivion, the spotted lanternfly didn’t respond and continued caressing the concrete. (These are strange bugs.)
I hoped my magnanimity would lead to positive karma. We already know that animals have intricate methods of communicating with each other. Maybe my pardon would compel it to tell the rest of the bugs that I’m good people, and to stay clear of the places I inhabit.
I felt so pleased with myself that instead of staying home to finish some work, I took my laptop to a restaurant with outdoor seating and convenient shade and had a drink. Moments after I got settled at my table and ordered a Godfather, I saw another spotted lanternfly on the seat next to me. “How cute,” I thought, as its wings fluttered like cartoon eyelashes. “Maybe it wants a drink too.” I took my eyes off it and continued writing. Ten seconds later, I felt the slightest of smacks against my left cheek. And then the culprit, the same spotted lanternfly from the chair, fell onto my laptop and just stayed there. There was no urgency, no fear, no survival instinct. No, it was taunting me.
Death by a thousand spotted lanternfly cuts.
I smacked it off my laptop, and it quivered away, but the message was obvious. The spotted lanternfly I’d pardoned earlier clearly told the rest of his fam that I was weak. And so for the next half-hour, they attacked me, smacking my cheeks, tickling my neck and dive bombing into my beard. Making it more disconcerting was that they did it one by one, like it was coordinated. These bugs had a plan. One would buzz my ear, and the moment it flew away another would flicker my nose. Death by a thousand spotted lanternfly cuts.
But I fought them off until I was surrounded by their vanquished bodies. Satisfied with myself and my new status as Murder Bug Jason Bourne, I reached for my glass to finish my drink. And there, doing backstrokes in my scotch, were two more.
“I am braver than I believe, smarter than I seem, and stronger than I think!” I said to myself as I packed up, walked home and picked up another brick.