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Teen Invents a Way to Control a Pest

High school student Selina Zhang created a device that lures and kills the invasive spotted lanternfly.
A teen stands in front of a patio umbrella to which solar panels and wire mesh have been added.
Selina Zhang
Selina Zhang used a patio umbrella to create ArTreeficial, which can detect and kill spotted lanternflies.

A high school student has invented a device that can detect and kill a harmful invasive species called the spotted lanternfly. Eighteen-year-old Selina Zhang’s invention, ArTreeficial, is a fake tree that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and electricity.

Zhang is from New Jersey, one of the 17 U.S. states where the spotted lanternfly has been damaging trees and crops since it arrived in the country aboard a ship from China a little over a decade ago. When Zhang learned about the insect, she began thinking about ways to get rid of it. She’s not the only one. Officials have tried battling the lanternfly with insecticides and other measures, but these solutions are harmful to the planet.

A teen stands in front of an invention presentation while holding up a poster with information about lanternflies.
Society for Science/Chris Ayers Photography

Zhang created this poster about lanternflies to use as part of her presentation at the Regeneron Science Talent Search.

Zhang started by observing lanternflies to learn how they move and where they land. Since lanternflies often land on the tree of heaven (also an invasive species in the U.S.), Zhang decided to build a structure that mimics that tree species, using her family’s patio umbrella. Employing ultrasound technology, the umbrella emits the scent of the tree of heaven to lure lanternflies. Zhang covered the “tree” with electronic mesh that can zap lanternflies and programmed an algorithm that can distinguish lanternflies from other species. 

A teen connects wires to an umbrella base that has been wrapped in mesh wire.
Selina Zhang

Zhang connects wires to her ArTreeficial lanternfly trap.

At first, Zhang put only a single layer of electronic mesh around the tree, but this caused a safety problem because of the risks associated with electrified metal. So she added another layer of mesh. Lanternflies get zapped only if they step on the inner layer.

Zhang’s innovation placed eighth at the 2024 Regeneron Science Talent Search, an annual competition for high school students. Zhang is hoping that she can mass-produce ArTreeficial and maybe even use the technology to control other pests.

Did You Know?

Officials have asked the public to help destroy the spotted lanternfly. They recommend spraying the invasive insects with a mixture of dish soap and water or simply crushing them instead of using insecticides, which can harm other species.

Another way to control the insects is to plant milkweed. Not only is milkweed poisonous to the spotted lanternfly, but it also attracts butterflies!

A lanternfly reacts to a milkweed plant by saying yikes, while a butterfly reacts by saying yum.
Lance Cheung/USDA Photo, © thawats/stock.adobe.com, © Mark Herreid/Dreamstime.com; Animation Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The Python Problem

Side by side images of a python hatching and a handler holding an adult python.
© Heiko Kiera/Shutterstock.com, © Joe Raedle/Getty Images; Photo composite Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
Burmese pythons are powerful predators that don’t belong in Florida.

Growing up to 19 feet (5.8 meters) long, the Burmese python is one of the most awe-inspiring snakes on the planet. It’s non-venomous, but it’s a killer nonetheless. The Burmese python is a constrictor, meaning it squeezes its prey to death. Small mammals are no match for this snake, which has also been known to chow down on pigs, goats, and even alligators. Like other snakes, the Burmese python swallows its food whole, regardless of the size of the meal.

Burmese pythons are native to southern and Southeast Asia. But in recent years, they’ve been slithering around southern Florida, probably because they were dumped in the wild by people who kept them as pets until they could no longer handle them.

An invasive species in Florida, the Burmese python has damaged its adopted ecosystem. It preys on the state’s native species, some of which are endangered. Experts say Burmese pythons do not make good pets.

Florida officials say the last thing people should do is dump their pet pythons in the wild. The state’s Exotic Pet Amnesty Program connects exotic pet owners with experts and other qualified adopters who can safely care for these snakes.

Powerful Pythons

A man kneels on a street and holds a reticulated python with both hands.
© Eko Siswono Toyudho—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Burmese python is enormous, but the reticulated python, seen here, is even larger.

Did you know that pythons find potential prey using heat-sensing organs in their lips? Learn more about these constrictors at Britannica School.

WORD OF THE DAY

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PART OF SPEECH:
verb
Definition:
: to remove (something) completely : to eliminate or destroy (something harmful)
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