A hitchhiking bug is the new star of social networks.
The spotted lanternfly, an invasive insect that sucks up plant nutrients and threatens the country’s grape, orchard and logging industries, is having a moment. And so are the people who are coming up with creative and unconventional ways to kill harmful pests. TikTok videos of people killing or capturing bugs, many posted in recent months, have amassed more than 143 million views.
But what started as an informative social media campaign called “See? smash hit! — conducted by state and local parks departments to advocate for regular people to get involved in eradicating the plant-jumping bug — has begun to collide with other internet phenomena, notably ASMR — a brain-tingling sensation induced in some people for certain videos and audio pieces, which has spawned its own subgenre of creators on the Internet.
“There are these people who just find it weirdly satisfying, and I get that,” said Liv Volker, known as the first spotted lantern fly influencer and has earned more than 7 million likes on his TikTok account dedicated to killing bugs.
Volker, who regularly adds an ASMR tag to his videos, popularized the “bottle method” of capturing spotted lanternflies, using the vacuum pressure of a squeezed empty water bottle to absorb the pests.
“There are times when just watching them get into the bottle is very relaxing and rhythmic,” he added.
Volker’s bottle method is just one approach. For others, a handheld vacuum has been the means of capture. Spectators can watch as dozens of spotted lanternflies are sucked into the void in a matter of seconds.
Briana Vázquez posted the vacuum cleaner video on TikTok with the hashtag ASMR and within the week it had nearly 2 million views.
“ASMR is a sensory thing, and people are constantly looking for new sounds to de-stress,” he said.
Beyond ASMR, social media users have attempted to kill lanternflies with homemade chemical concoctions and DIY tree netting contraptions, with many videos boasting millions of views.
The insect phenomenon has forged more than one corner of TikTok and the ASMR world. The spotted lanternfly has been trending on Twitter multiple times in recent weeks, as users share their mixed experiences squashing invasive species.
The videos are a welcome addition to the experts who have tried to raise public awareness of lanternflies.
Scientists at Pennsylvania State University predicted the damage caused by an uncontrolled lanternfly invasion could wipe $554 million and nearly 5,000 jobs from the Pennsylvania economy in just one year. Homeowners could be forced to pay thousands of dollars to eradicate pests from outside their homes.
“We’re really concerned that they’re 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.”
Advocacy and awareness building during this viral time are the keys to detecting and stopping the spread before it’s too late, Urban said.
The native spotted lanternfly of China, which was first detected in Pennsylvania in 2014, is a known hitchhiker. Thought to have arrived in the United States in a shipment of stone, the insect is most commonly spread by inconspicuously adhering its laid eggs to vehicles, wood, or shipping materials.
Currently, the insect lives in 14 states, mainly in the Northeast, and feeds on more than 70 species of plants, according to the Department of Agriculture.
And beyond the agricultural impact, urban warned, the black, sooty, mold-like substance the insect excretes could cause massive damage to property values by permanently damaging home exteriors.
Still, many scientists warn that the most drastic effects of the spotted lanternfly are yet to come.
Lanternfly egg-laying season begins in September, and while most of the adult insects will die in the first frost, most of the eggs will survive and may remain viable until the following July.
The common practice of conservationists during the egg-laying season is to scrape the egg masses with a tool similar to a metal spatula.
Vázquez said he already plans to use scraped eggs to make more videos.
“With winter will come egg scraping, the new seasonal ASMR,” he said.