Invasive Lanternflies, Beware: Teen's New Invention Carries a Shocking Surprise

Mar 19, 2024

Thought Question: What inspires you? Do you have a go-to source for generating new ideas or ways to be more productive? 

When 18-year-old Selina Zhang of New Jersey was younger, she thought spotted lanternflies were pretty. They have polka-dotted wings and vivid crimson flourishes, after all. Then the teen found out about the millions of dollars of damage the invasive species is doing to forests and farms in the US Northeast.   

“As I got older, I wanted to take concrete action,” Zhang told Smithsonian Magazine. She said she wanted to build a new solution that combined her own point of view and current research to target the bug in new ways.

Spotted lanternflies are native to Asia. But they've flourished in the US. They attack a wide range of plants, from grape vines to willow trees. The bugs suck out sap. They kill the plants as they do. Seventeen states have issued pleas for residents to kill the bugs on sight. But squishing each bug one by one hasn’t done much. That’s where Zhang’s "ArTreeficial" invention comes into play. 

ArTreeficial was named a top project this month in the $250,000 Regeneron Science Talent Search. It resembles a broad umbrella. Once planted in a forest or field, it emits the essence of tree of heaven sap. That's lanternflies’ preferred food. The “trunk” of ArTreeficial is covered in electrified netting. Zhang’s system uses AI to figure out when a lanternfly has landed on the netting. Once detected, the bug gets zapped. No squishing, stomping, or human presence is needed.    

“I want to demonstrate that we can use artificial resources as an essential tool,” said Zhang of her AI technology. “As humans, it’s our responsibility to protect what we have and cultivate these resources responsibly to make sure that they’re here for us to enjoy, as well as generations after us.” 

Photo of spotted lanternfly courtesy US Forest Service Northern Research on Wikimedia Commons.

What is the problem Selina Zhang is trying to solve with her invention? (Common Core RI.5.3; RI.6.3)
a. the lack of natural predators for spotted lanternflies in the US
b. the beauty of spotted lanternflies misleading people into protecting them
c. the millions of dollars of damage spotted lanternflies cause to forests and farms
d. the difficulty of studying spotted lanternflies because of their rapid movement
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