High School

New Jersey Teen Hopes to Mass Exterminate Lanternfly – Without Squishing

New Jersey high school students are conducting research on two invasive species, the lanternfly and Italian wall lizard, in hopes to rid of the former and learn to live with the latter.

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What to Know

  • New Jersey student, Debolina Sen, aims to rid of the pesky lanternfly by utilizing a certain fungi that will not harm other species.
  • The lanternfly poses a major agricultural threat to the tri-state area, particularly the wine industry.
  • Two Princeton High School students, Julian Velazquez and Ida Sidik, are researching the varying characteristics amongst another invasive species, the Italian wall lizard.

Students at New Jersey's Princeton High School are working diligently on new research to better understand and control invasive species found in the tri-state area, particularly the lanternfly and Italian wall lizard.

The spotted lanternfly originally came from China and poses quite a threat to agriculture, feeding on the sap of over 70 types of plants. According to Princeton High School teacher Mark Eastburn, these bugs made their first appearance in Pennsylvania years ago.

"I live in Pennsylvania, and the spotted lanternflies first showed up in 2014. There was a shipment, from what I understand, of paving stones that came from China," Eastburn told NBC New York.

These insects like to lay their eggs on flat, hard surfaces. The egg cluster that was attached to the stone shipment arrived in Redding, Pennsylvania, and from there, the lanternflies have been spreading ever since across northeast regions in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

"It's a really huge concern for the grape industry because in addition to the tree-of-heaven, which is their preferred food source, they'll also go after grapevines and completely drain vines of their life and sap," said Eastburn, who notes the particular panic if these critters head toward California's wine country.

To give further perspective, New York is estimated to produce more than 30 million bushels of apples each year, while grapes are valued at an annual harvest of $52.8 million, based off New York's Dept. of Agriculture and Markets.

"Our plants are not in any way set up to defend themselves for this. It starts to suck the sap out of the plant, and it weakens it to such a state that in the next year or two, you'll just watch this plant basically die off," Connecticut winery owner Jonathan Edwards told NBC Connecticut.

Experts say, "If you see it, squish it." State agricultural departments want you to report sightings. However, 11th-grade student Debolina Sen is aiming to do more than just individual stomping and is using fungus to help.

In my project, we're basically infecting some of them with a certain fungi and seeing if they will interact with one another. We'll see if they transmit the fungi through breeding with other lanternflies. If so, even a small group of lanternflies will effect everyone, and the group will perish.

Debolina Sen
Princeton High School student

Sen sprays collected lab subjects with a mix of water and fungi, which is eco-friendly and will not harm other insects or plants. Afterwards, she marks down the number of deceased insects, hoping this mixture will be a key to fighting the spread.

"We're basically infecting some of them with a certain fungi and seeing if they will interact with one another," Sen said. "We'll see if they transmit the fungi through breeding with other lantern flies. If so, even a small group of lanternflies will effect everyone, and the group will perish."

In a separate project, two other Princeton H.S. students have been studying another invasive species that has been inhabiting our neighborhoods for decades: the Italian wall lizard.

From Boston to the Bronx, these reptiles have migrated and prefer hiding out in shrubby vegetation, rocky areas and rural gardens. Originally from France and Italy, these lizards were first introduced to New Jersey during the early 1980s and feed on invertebrates like caterpillars, grasshoppers and beetles.

11th-grade students Julian Velazquez and Ida Sidik have collected specimens across the northeast from Fenway Park to Fordham University. They are studying the different characteristics depending on location.

Image Credit: Mark Eastburn, Princeton High School

"We have collected species from Mount Laurel, New Jersey and Topeka, Kansas. We noticed that one of the lizards in Mount Laurel population seemed to be particularly more aggressive than the rest of the other species we've collected. We want to look into the behavioral studies along with that," said Sidik.

As for the lizards, you cannot get rid of this invasive species by simply squishing. But if you are already a reptile pet owner, this could be a new addition.

"When I reached out to the N.Y. Dept. of Environmental Conservation, they said you can catch as many as you want. Since we can't release them back into the wild, there's no other option than to keep them as pets," said Eastburn.

All three of these students are a part of the Princeton High School Research Program, which Velazquez says is more than just getting "good grades."

"The research program allows me to use my creativity and imagination to contribute to the real world," said Velazquez, who hopes his research will not only be published but can add to the scientific field.

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