Science

As spotted lanternflies spread, some influencers go viral for capturing or killing them

A hitchhiking bug is social media’s newest star.

The spotted lanternfly — an invasive insect that sucks nutrients from plants and is threatening the country’s grape, orchard and logging industries — is having a moment. And so are people who are coming up with creative and unconventional ways to kill the harmful pests. Videos on TikTok in which people kill or capture the bugs, many posted in the past few months, have amassed more than 143 million views.

But what started out as an informative social media campaign called “See it? Squish it!” — carried out by state and local parks departments to advocate for everyday people to take part in eradicating the plant-hopping insect — has begun to collide with other internet phenomena, most notably ASMR — a brain-tingling sensation induced in some people by certain videos and pieces of audio, which has generated its own internet subgenre of creators.

“There are these people who just find it oddly satisfying, and I get it,” said Liv Volker, who is known as the spotted-lantern fly’s first influencer and has gotten over 7 million likes on her TikTok account that she dedicated to killing the insects. 

Volker, who regularly adds an ASMR tag to her videos, popularized the “bottle method” of capturing spotted lanternflies, using the pressure vacuum of a squeezed empty water bottle to suck up the pests.

“There are times when just watching them go into the bottle is very calming and rhythmic,” she added.

Volker’s bottle method is just one approach. For others, a handheld vacuum has been the means of capture. Viewers can watch dozens of spotted lanternflies get slurped into a vacuum within seconds.

Briana Vazquez posted the vacuum video on TikTok with the hashtag ASMR and within the week had nearly 2 million views.

“ASMR is this sensory thing, and people are constantly looking for new sounds to destress,” she said.

Beyond ASMR, social media users have tried their hand at killing lanternflies with homemade chemical concoctions and DIY tree net contraptions, with many videos tallying millions of views.

The insect phenomenon has carved out more than just a corner of TikTok and the ASMR world. The spotted lanternfly has trended on Twitter multiple times in the past few weeks as users share their mixed experiences squashing the invasive species.

The videos are a welcome addition to experts who have sought to raise public awareness about the lanternflies.

Scientists at Pennsylvania State University predicted the damage done by an unchecked lanternfly invasion could remove $554 million and almost 5,000 jobs from Pennsylvania’s economy in just one year. Homeowners could be forced to pay thousands to eradicate the pests from the exteriors of their homes.  

“We’re really worried about them showing up in grape-growing regions in California, Oregon and Washington state,” said Julie Urban, a research associate professor at Pennsylvania State University. “If it gets established in those areas, that would be really bad.”

The advocacy and awareness being raised during this viral moment are the keys to detecting and stopping the spread before it’s too late, Urban said.

The China native spotted lanternfly, which was first detected in Pennsylvania in 2014, is a known hitchhiker. Believed to have arrived in America on a shipment of stone, the insect most commonly spreads by discreetly attaching its laid eggs to vehicles, lumber or shipping materials.

Currently the bug inhabits 14 states, mostly in the Northeast, and feeds on over 70 plant species, according to the Agriculture Department.

And beyond the agricultural impact, Urban warned, the black, sooty, moldlike substance the bug excretes could cause massive damage to home property values by permanently damaging household exteriors.

Still, many scientists caution that the most drastic effects of the spotted lanternfly have yet to come.

The lanternfly’s egg laying season begins in September, and while most adult bugs will die in the first freeze, a majority of eggs will survive, and they can remain viable until the following July.  

Common practice for conservationists during egg laying season is to scrape away at the egg masses with a metal spatula-like tool.

Vazquez said she already plans to use egg scraping to make more videos.

“With winter will come egg scraping, the new seasonal ASMR,” she said.

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