Lanternfly Natural History

Insect pests are a common occurrence and can cause millions in agricultural damage every year. The lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula), also known as the spotted lanternfly, is a planthopper species native to East and Southeastern Asia. Known for its jumping ability, the spotted lanternfly is one of the most successful pest species in the world, having invaded over 3 separate continents during its lifespan. Read on to learn more about this virulent and interesting pest.

Credit: Walthery via WikiCommons CC-BY-SA 4.0

Lanternfly: Not Really a Fly

Despite the name, the lanternfly is not really a fly and does not fly very much at all. Instead, they jump to get around most of the time. Lanternflies typically measure about 35 mm long and have a black head, gray forewings, and crimson hindwings that are visible when they are resting. The speckled pattern along their wings and thorax have been likened to the appearance of brick and mortar.

Lanternflies are capable of flight, but they mostly jump to get around. When jumping, they use their wings to assist rather than making a sustained flight. They hop around from plant to plant, looking for their next meal.

Lanternflies are native to China, Vietnam, and Taiwan, though they have recently been introduced in several other countries due to human activity. Lanternflies were accidentally brought to South Korea in 2006 and the eastern United States in 2014. Since they lack their natural predators in these new habitats, they have quickly become virulent pests. 

Credit: Renjusplace via WikiCommons CC-BY-SA 3.0

What Do Lantern Flies Eat?

Lanternflies are herbivores and feed on both woody and non-woody plants. Their favorite part of plants is the spongy phloem tissue that they pierce with their sharp mouthparts and drink the sap within. They produce a sugary waste fluid that can cause mold to grow, so they not only will eat crops but can ruin crop yield due to disease and exposure.

Lanterflies also exhibit interesting symbiotic relationships with their host plants. For example, in their natural habitats, lanternflies will lay their eggs on the leaves of the tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima). Tree of heaven has toxic metabolites in the leaves which serves as a form of protection for the growing nymphs. Lanternflies do not eat this plant but use it as a form of self-defense.

Credit: WikiCommons CC-BY-SA 4.0

When tree of heaven is not present, lanternflies will lay their eggs on virtually any stationary object, including natural and manmade structures. This preponderance explains how they have been able to invade so many regions. Their eggs travel to different regions by “hitchhiking” on various things. It is believed that this hitchhiking behavior is responsible for the introduction of the species to the United States from Asia.

Lanternflies go through incomplete metamorphosis and every stage of their development looks roughly similar. Eggs will hatch during the late spring and the nymphs reach maturity by early July. Adults will then mate through September. It is believed that lanternfly eggs require a significant cold interval to develop properly, meaning that the winter months are very important for their development even though they are not active during this time.