Homeowners across the region are combating a new insect pest, the spotted lanternfly, a handsome but invasive critter that was accidentally imported into Berks County from Asia in 2012, and has been busily spreading across the area ever since. Blessed with a hypodermic needle for a mouth, it sucks on plants of all kinds, especially tree-of-heaven, and is unbelievably abundant in some yards.
To combat the threat, people are putting up - and hardware stores are happy to sell - sticky tape that wraps around tree trunks to catch the insects. But as your friendly neighborhood nature guy, I have three words to say about those traps:
Don’t use them.
Because they kill more than lanternflies. Way, way more. “We've had 25 patients admitted from glue traps,” said Rebecca Michelin, the Director of Wildlife Rehabilitation for the Wildlife Clinic at the Schuylkill Center, “including white-breasted nuthatches, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, blue jays, Carolina and house wrens, robins, starlings, flying squirrels, and sparrows. Of those, nine are still in our care and the rest had to be euthanized or died from their injuries. We have had at least one hotline call or patient intake every day in the last three weeks regarding wildlife stuck to this sticky tape.” (For those doing the math, 16 of the 25 animals brought in did not survive that experience.)
In addition, any and every insect crawling on trees gets stuck in the tape, and many of them are crucial parts of local ecosystems-- and insects numbers have been dwindling worldwide. (Some people put a chicken wire cage above the tape, which keeps out birds, but continues killing helpful insects.)
Worse, bats have gotten caught on the sticky tape as well, and few bats survive the trauma. Bats as well are suffering a decline in the wild. So for lanternflies, the sticky-tape solution is worse than the lanternfly problem, as indiscriminate killing of all creatures to combat one is rarely an effective path forward.
“Many of the birds and mammals that become trapped are insectivores,” continued Rebecca, “that would consume far more insects throughout their lifetime than the tape could ever catch, if their lives were not unfortunately cut short.” So that downy woodpecker stuck on the tape was eating more ants off the tree than the tape would likely catch - and doing it for free.
And if you use the trap, and find an animal glued to it? “The first instinct for many people who come across an animal stuck to this trap is to pull them off, but it is essential that you don't try to remove them yourself. The process to remove the animal from the glue is time consuming and delicate,” she continued, “and should be trusted to experienced professionals. When done improperly, removing the animal results in the loss of large amounts of fur and feathers, torn skin, and even broken bones.”
So what do you do when you find one? “The best thing to do,” Rebecca offered, “is to carefully cut the tape around the animal, cover any exposed sticky areas with tissue or paper towel so the animal doesn't get stuck further, place the animal in a cardboard box and contact your nearest wildlife rehabilitator immediately. Rehabbers have training in how to remove the animals from the tape with minimal damage and far less stress, resulting in a higher chance of survival and a faster recovery time.”
And then you should take down the sticky-tape trap.
Chris Strub, the clinic’s Assistant Director, notes, “I have had some frustrating interactions with repeat visitors who bring two or three birds trapped by tape. They will either make no effort to remove the tape or make it bird-safe, or they will leave the tape up while waiting for supplies to make the tape bird-safe. The other day a gentleman brought us a downy woodpecker, which died of its injuries later that day, and said that he had been waiting a week for chicken wire to secure the tape. Other times, someone will call about one bird, bring it in, and an hour later call about a second bird who had gotten stuck in the meantime. We ask everyone who calls about the tape to take it down right away, but not everyone listens, unfortunately.
So what should you do? On July 1, Rebecca posted a YouTube video of a bird-safe lanternfly trap, a mesh funnel that traps the bugs but leaves the birds alone. Go to YouTube, search for “lanternfly trap,” and her video will pop up high in your search.
To combat lanternflies, let’s not kill birds, bats and beneficial insects too.
Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.