Kill him! Smash it, smash it…just get rid of it” is in the second paragraph of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s dappled lantern warning. This order is for anyone living in the Quarantine Zone with the “evil bugs” who “will take over your county” if you don’t “smash them in the temple with a hammer”.
That last quote may be wrong, but it’s not so 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 serious intonation of describing a deathmatch against the space insects of “A Quiet Place”. An invasive species native to Asia, the spotted lanternfly was first discovered in Pennsylvania in 2014. It apparently breeds like Nick Cannon and could cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to plants and crops.
Before I go on, I should probably say that I’m generally not a fan of killing bugs. Not because of any activism or empathy for insect rights, but because my feelings about them fall somewhere between annoyance (ants, spiders, bees) and terror (anything fast , creeping and coarse). I don’t know if it’s a phobia, but I’d rather fight five Mike Tysons than kill a cockroach. (We had a mild infestation for a few years when I was a kid, and I would quote myself Winnie the Pooh when I had to put one out: “You’re braver than you think, smarter than you think. seems and stronger than you think!”)
Anyway, about three weeks ago, while I was sitting on my front porch, a butterfly-like creature rolled by my shoe. Butterflies don’t rush around much, so I immediately thought it was a piece of colored paper or a peacock feather. But then I inspected it. I even used my phone to zoom in on it. And there, in all its infamy, was a dappled lantern. If you’ve never seen one, they’re kind of both very distinct and very mundane at the same time. A tangle of colors and also a spectacle of simplicity. They look like thumbtacks, but if the thumbtacks listened to Beyoncé.
After a quick Google to verify – and also to confirm that I was supposed to kill it and report the sighting – I found a brick and was about to smash it. Walking on it might have been more convenient, but I was wearing nice sneakers, and the idea of dragging a mottled lanternfly carcass on it seemed vulgar to me. But then, mid-smash, something clicked. The spotted lanternfly didn’t bother me, and it was outside – exactly where I ask bugs to be. He was just existing, minding his own business. Who am I to interfere with this? Then I was struck by the audacity of the United States of America to ask me, a black American, to murder a living being, and then denounce the deceased. The gall of this country, fam. A dappled lantern never marked me red.
“Be free, comrade,” I said, dropping the brick into a bed of mulch. Unaware how close she was to oblivion, the spotted lanternfly didn’t respond and continued to caress the concrete. (These are weird bugs.)
I hoped that my magnanimity would lead to positive karma. We already know that animals have complex methods of communicating with each other. Maybe my forgiveness would force him to tell the other bugs that I’m good people and stay away from the places where I live.
I felt so pleased with myself that instead of staying home to finish a job, I took my laptop to a restaurant with outdoor seating and convenient shade and had a drink. Moments after I sat down at my table and ordered a godfather, I saw another speckled lantern on the seat next to me. “How cute,” I thought, as his wings fluttered like cartoon eyelashes. “Maybe he wants a drink too.” I took my eyes off him and continued to write. Ten seconds later, I felt the slightest smack against my left cheek. And then the culprit, the same speckled lantern from the chair, fell on my laptop and just Stay here. There was no urgency, no fear, no survival instinct. No, that bothered me.
Death by a thousand dappled lantern cuts.
I dropped it from my laptop and it shook, but the message was obvious. The spotted lanternfly I had pardoned earlier had made it clear to the rest of her family that I was weak. And so for the next half hour they attacked me, slapping my cheeks, tickling my neck and plunging shelling into my beard. The most disconcerting thing was that they did it one by one, as if it were coordinated. These bugs had a to plan. One buzzed in my ear, and as it flew away, another blinked in my nose. Death by a thousand dappled lantern cuts.
But I fought them until I was surrounded by their defeated bodies. Satisfied with myself and my new status as Murder Bug Jason Bourne, I grabbed my glass to finish my drink. And there, doing backstrokes in my scotch, were two more.
“I’m braver than I think, smarter than I look, and stronger than I think!” I thought to myself as I packed my things, walked home, and picked up another brick.