While tackling the invasive spotted lanternfly, fourth grader Bobbi Wilson encountered an unexpected opponent in her New Jersey community: racism
Bobbi Wilson applies homemade bug juice to a tree in her New Jersey neighborhood.
ARMED WITH A SOLUTION OF DISH SOAP, water and vinegar, the little girl aims a spray bottle at a twitching mass of wings gathered on the trunk of a cherry tree. One squirt sends the insects flying in a huff of red and gray.
Ten-year-old Bobbi Wilson is spritzing trees in Caldwell, New Jersey, with her homemade bug spray, trying to rid them of the invasive spotted lanternfly.
Native to Asia, Lycorma delicatula has few natural predators in North America. The pest was first found in the United States in Pennsylvania in 2014. By the time New Jersey launched its “Stomp it Out” campaign several years later, the spotted lanternfly had spread to most of the Northeast. The flying insect hatches in May and June, lays masses of up to 60 eggs in fall and dines on everything from grapevines to willow trees. Infestations can result in wilting, defoliation, low crop yields and even plant death.
A fourth grader, Bobbi joined New Jersey’s eradication effort last year, aiming to rid her neighborhood of the dreaded insects. Following the scientific method, she meticulously records her observations. “First, I was writing down what I saw and how many lanternflies were on the trees,” she says. “I marked down how they were walking and crawling and how they would walk or hop when I sprayed my solution on them.”
The girl shivers with a sudden memory. “They kept on jumping on me and stuff,” she giggles. Undaunted, she kept working to improve her bug spray recipe.
It was a sunny day last October, and Bobbi, then age 9, was on her street scouting lanternflies when a police officer rolled up in his patrol car. “What’s going on?” he asked the girl. When Bobbi’s mother, Monique Joseph, arrived a minute or two later, she learned that a neighbor who lived across the street had called the police. “He could have just rung the bell,” she told the officer.
Joseph later requested transcripts and audio of the 911 call. “There’s a little Black woman, walking, spraying stuff on the sidewalks and trees,” the neighbor reported. “I don’t know what the hell she’s doing. Scares me though.” He described the woman as “real tiny,” and added, “she’s got a hood on.”
“When I heard the words, when I heard the tone, when I read it, my heart dropped,” Joseph says.
About a week later, Joseph and Hayden, Bobbi’s 13-year-old sister, spoke at a borough council meeting. “She was not only doing something amazing for our environment; she was doing something that made her feel like a hero,” Hayden said.
The girls’ mother weighed in. “Racism, intentional or not, is still racism. It is sickening and scary to hear my neighbor use triggering words that have resulted in the death of too many Black and Brown children and adults at the hands of the police,” Joseph said.
The meeting was picked up by the local paper, and a whirlwind of attention ensued. One call came from a young, Black professor of public health at Yale University. “Bobbi is a scientist,” Joseph recalls the woman saying. “She’s one of us.”
The family was invited to the university campus, where Bobbi played with lab mice and met a group of scientists who were all women of color. A manager working at the Yale Peabody Museum told Bobbi the museum did not yet have spotted lanternfly specimens in its entomology collection.
Carefully following his instructions on how to properly freeze and ship the insects, Bobbi sent him dozens of lanternflies she found in her neighborhood. In January, the museum accepted her donation and named the new collection after her.
The Yale trip followed a day at Princeton University, where the family visited the school’s Plasma Physics Laboratory and made liquid nitrogen ice cream. In another meeting, a team from the U.S. Department of Agriculture presented Bobbi with a certificate of appreciation for helping fight the spotted lanternfly.
“The science world identified what Bobbi was because they saw Bobbi in themselves,” Joseph says. “Every one of them who reached out, whenever we would finally meet or speak, said, ‘I was Bobbi at 9.’”
The accolades kept coming. In February, Bobbi was invited to the governor’s mansion in Princeton, where, dressed in a white and orange ballgown, she was honored for her contributions to the state of New Jersey at a formal ceremony marking Black History Month. Later this year, Bobbi and Hayden will attend a STEM summer camp on full scholarships at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
“While this situation came out of something that wasn’t desired, it has turned into a blessing,” Joseph says, explaining that the incident helped her better understand her child. “Now I get to nurture that.”
As the weather warms up, Bobbi says she plans to get back to fighting spotted lanternflies. When asked what she wants to be when she grows up, Bobbi doesn’t hesitate to answer. “A chemist,” she says. “Because a lot of people need something, and they can’t get it. So, I try to make it.”
Shantal Riley is an environmental reporter based in New York’s Hudson Valley.
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