are lanternflies poisonous to birds

A juvenile eastern bluebird holds a spotted lanternfly in its beak. Credit: Debra Bangasser Waxler . All Rights Reserved .

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Do birds find the spotted lanternfly to be a tasty treat or a nauseating nibble? That is one of the questions researchers at Penn State hope to answer, and they are seeking citizen scientists, especially bird watchers, to help in their quest for knowledge.

“Because the spotted lanternfly is a non-native insect, it doesn’t have natural enemies in the U.S. to keep its numbers in balance,” said Kelli Hoover, professor of entomology in Penn States College of Agricultural Sciences. “Finding predators that live in our environment would be a great biological control option and useful in guiding management practices.”

Hoover and Anne Johnson, a doctoral candidate in entomology, are spearheading a study to examine the potential for native birds and insects to feed on the spotted lanternfly, which is an invasive insect from Asia that first was found in North America in Berks County, Pennsylvania, in 2014. The pest since has spread to at least 26 Pennsylvania counties and to surrounding states.

At risk are agricultural commodities — including grapes, tree fruit, nursery plants and hardwood trees — as well as natural habitats, parks and backyards. Economists warn that this insect, if not contained, could drain Pennsylvania’s economy of at least $324 million annually and cause the loss of about 2,800 jobs.

Hoover and Johnson explained that in its native environment, the spotted lanternfly is kept in check by several predators, including a parasitic wasp. However, importing new species to the U.S. as a control measure requires numerous studies on environmental impact and regulatory approval — a process that can take years.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have years,” Johnson said. “But if we can find native species that will prey on spotted lanternfly and ways to encourage this behavior, then we can use these species in control programs more effectively. To help with this, more information about the types of birds and their feeding behaviors, such as eating mainly nymphs or avoiding eating the wings on adults, is crucial to know.”

They also want to know if the pest’s preferred diet — Ailanthus altissima, known as tree of heaven — influences how it might taste to birds. They theorize that the chemicals in tree of heaven might cause the insect to have a “bitter” flavor, especially in later life stages when the pest is eating profusely.

“Insects have developed ways of protecting themselves, and one involves colorful markings,” Hoover said. “Colors are a warning sign that signals to predators, ‘Stay away, I taste bad.’ This could be the case with the spotted lanternfly, which displays red and black markings as the insect matures.”

The team, which includes Margaret Brittingham, professor of wildlife resources, and Allison Cornell, assistant professor of biology at Penn State Altoona, will study spotted lanternfly specimens that have been raised in a quarantined laboratory with tree of heaven as their food source. Researchers will analyze the insects for chemical compounds present during each life stage, while examining tree of heaven sap as the potential source of these chemicals.

This information will be integrated with the outcomes of a field study planned for later this fall, which involves the placement of bird feeders at The Arboretum at Penn State and Millbrook Marsh Nature Center in Centre County, and at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center in Huntingdon County.

Suet containing ground spotted lanternfly adults that have fed on tree of heaven or grapevines will be placed side-by-side in suet feeders attached to trees. Video cameras will record birds that visit the feeders and the suet cake they prefer.

In addition to the controlled studies, the researchers are enlisting the help of citizen scientists, preferably bird watchers, in the spotted lanternfly quarantine zone. Bird watchers — or “birders” — traditionally have been involved in citizen science, including the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, the nation’s longest-running community science bird survey, explained Brittingham, an extension wildlife specialist.

“Once again, birders are being called on to contribute data that can help answer important research questions,” she said. “The most pressing of these questions is — are birds eating spotted lanternfly, and if they are, what role can they play in reducing small infestations before they become outbreaks?”

The citizen scientists will post reports, videos and photos of birds they see feeding on spotted lanternflies, where and when they saw them, and whether tree of heaven is located nearby. They also are encouraged to provide information about the birds’ behavior, such as swiping their beaks or shaking their heads after eating a spotted lanternfly.

“Birds are essential in helping to keep plant-eating insect populations under control,” Brittingham said. “We are eager to learn more about their potential in helping with the spotted lanternfly problem.”

More information about becoming a citizen scientist can be obtained by emailing A Facebook page, “Birds Biting Bad Bugs,” also has been created.

A second phase of the research will investigate the potential for native insects to suppress spotted lanternfly populations. Hoover said there have been many reports of insects, including praying mantises and assassin bugs, feeding on spotted lanternflies.

To learn more about the spotted lanternfly, the state-imposed quarantine, management techniques and how to report a sighting, visit the Penn State Extension website at

Visit the Penn State Extension website at to find out more about the spotted lanternfly, the state-imposed quarantine, management strategies, and how to report a sighting. psu. edu/spotted-lanternfly.

“Colored markings are one way that insects have evolved to protect themselves,” according to Hoover “Colors serve as a warning to predators, telling them to stay away because I taste bad.” This may be the case with the spotted lanternfly, which as it ages exhibits markings in red and black. ”.

“It’s happening again—birders are being asked to provide information that can address crucial research questions,” she stated. “The most important question among these is whether or not birds are consuming spotted lanternflies, and if so, how can they help control small infestations before they spread to other areas?”

To learn more about how to become a citizen scientist, send an email to com. Additionally, a Facebook page called “Birds Biting Bad Bugs” has been made.

When and where they saw the birds feeding on spotted lanternflies, as well as whether the Tree of Heaven is close by, will all be documented by the citizen scientists in their reports, videos, and pictures. Contributions regarding the behavior of the birds—such as swiping their beaks or shaking their heads after consuming a spotted lanternfly—are also welcome.

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Although the toxins don’t pose a threat to birds, Johnson notes that they are sufficient to give the bugs an unpleasant taste. To slow the spotted lanternfly’s spread, state officials advise people to remove the tree-of-heaven. However, Johnson’s research points to an additional advantage: “It seems that if you remove the tree of heaven, then the birds can eat them without any issues,” she says.

“If you must take any action, make sure it won’t have any unforeseen consequences of that kind,” advises Irizarry. You might be unintentionally helping the environment by trapping a bird that would have been out there consuming spotted lanternflies. ”.

This study, led by Ph.D. candidate Anne Johnson at Pennsylvania State University, examined hundreds of predation events. She created an email address and a Facebook page, called Birds Biting Bad Bugs, and asked people to send in observations. Combined with data from Irizarry’s iNaturalist page, she has compiled 660 predation events to date. So far, birds are the most-reported predator, though insects also frequently preyed on these bugs. The most common avian predator? Chickens.

Johnson notes that “animals that are defended in some way frequently have these vivid colors with contrasting black patterns.” And spotted lanternflies have red wings with black spots. This made us believe that the spotted lanternfly’s widespread distribution in this newly introduced habitat was likely due to some kind of predator defense. ”.


Can birds eat lanternflies?

Research has found that birds like chickens and cardinals have been spotted eating the spotted lanternfly, Anne Johnson, an entomology doctoral candidate at Pennsylvania State University told WESA. Other insects, including praying mantises, ants, wasps, and spiders, have also been known to feast on the bug.

What animals kills lanternflies?

Predators of the spotted lanternfly include praying mantises, chickens, garden spiders, gray catbirds, yellowjackets, wheel bugs, garter snakes, and koi fish.

Do squirrels eat lanternflies?

Among the predators seen eating spotted lanternflies were a few surprises, according to researchers, who noted squirrels, bats, frogs, goldfish, garter snakes and chickens consuming the pests.

Should lanternflies be killed?

This may impact the health of native species (such as black walnut), as the spotted lanternfly feeds on them in large numbers. Thus, trying to eradicate, or at least reduce populations of, this invasive species is critical for the health of the ecosystem