8 Amazing Facts About Lanternflies

Spotted lanternfly on maple tree with colorful wings spread
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You could call lanternflies the unicorns of the insect world. The enchanting planthoppers, native to Asia and Latin America, are part of a superfamily composed of bugs that can shoot fiber optics from their behinds. Most lanternflies can't do that, but they stand out among other, similarly strange planthoppers because of their protruding "noses," decidedly useful protrusions that even Pinocchio would envy.

From their famous snouts to the way they hop instead of fly, here are eight interesting facts about lanternflies.

1. Lanternflies Are Not Flies

Pyrops candelaria with a bright red, bulbous nose

Yusoff Ahmad / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Despite the name, lanternflies are not actually flies—as in, insects of the order Diptera. Rather, they're "true bugs" of the order Hemiptera, which they share with cicadas, aphids, shield bugs, and even bed bugs. They make up the family Fulgoridae, a group of tropical forest-dwelling insects with more than 125 genera worldwide. All lanternflies are planthoppers, but not all planthoppers are lanternflies.

2. They Have Long Snouts for Slurping Sap

Lanternfly with upturned snout on someone's finger

sumroeng chinnapan / Shutterstock

Many lanternflies, like those in the Pyrops genus, have evolved long, hollow structures that operate as straws to help them get into the bark of trees and retrieve sap. This peculiar protrusion resembles a nose or horn and is often referred to as the insect's "snout" or "lantern." Lanternflies' snouts can be straight or upturned. They can sometimes inflate them to the size of their bodies.

3. They're Common in Folklore

Side view of red and green planthopper on tree bark
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People in Latin America, where many species of lanternfly are from, historically believed these insects' bites to be fatal. Others believed that being bitten by a lanternfly meant they must engage in sexual relations within 24 hours or else they'd die. These superstitions have been proven false by the confirmation that lanternflies don't bite and pose absolutely no direct risk to humans.

4. Their 'Lanterns' Don't Glow

The lantern bug on tree bark at night
Zdenek Macat / Getty Images

The common belief that lanternflies' distinguishing snouts were able to illuminate at night was more than folklore. Scientists—namely the esteemed German naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian—even believed this to be the case, hence how the insect got its charming name. But their rumored bioluminescence was eventually debunked. Those long snouts do not glow in the dark and are, in fact, used only for sucking sap from plants.

5. Lanternflies Are Master Impersonators

Snake-headed lanternbug with wings spread revealing fake eyes
Michel VIARD / Getty Images

While many species of lanternflies are brightly colored and conspicuous, others blend in with the leaves. The insect's camouflage is an intentional defense mechanism which helps them hang from trees, drinking sap undisturbed by predators.

They can also mimic the appearance of more intimidating animals. The Fulgoria laternaria, for instance—is also known as the snake-headed lanternfly because of its peanut-shaped snout and pair of false eyes.

6. They Walk Like Crabs, Hop Like Grasshoppers

Close-up of young spotted lanternfly nymph on plant
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Though they do have (often beautifully decorated) wings, lanternflies are not great at flying. They prefer to travel on foot instead. The "hop" in planthoppers' name is a nod to their tendency to spring, grasshopper-style, from leaf to leaf, tree to tree. This is possible because of their intensely strong hind legs. When hopping isn't necessary, they walk low and slow, side-to-side, like crabs.

7. They Eventually Kill the Trees They Feed On

Close-up of tree wound from lanternfly infestation

U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr / Public Domain

Lanternflies feed on a variety of trees, from willows to maples to poplars to apple trees and pines. The trees they feed on often die slow deaths from the wounds created by the insects' long, burrowing snouts. In the Eastern U.S., their preferred host is coincidentally called the tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), which has been described as a "hellish" invasive species.

8. Lanternflies Are Incredibly Invasive

Swarm of spotted lanternflies on tree
arlutz73 / Getty Images

Lanternflies, like their tree of heaven hosts, are also invasive. The spotted lanternfly—native to China, India, and Vietnam—has invaded South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. just in the last decade. When it was first discovered in Pennsylvania in 2014, the state issued a quarantine and regulated the movement of plant-related materials and outdoor household items. Still, the pest spread to surrounding states and is now wreaking havoc on up to 70 plant species, including economically important grapes, fruit trees, and hardwoods.

Penn State University specialists are educating the public on how to help prevent the spread of these pesky insects. Because lanternflies lay eggs on just about anything from plants to cars, experts are telling people to "look before you leave" and report any sightings.