When Bobbi Wilson, 9, took it upon herself to spend hours of her summer aiming to obliterate the invasive spotted lanternflies that were ravaging her northern New Jersey community, she did not expect much attention. She just wanted to help.
She went out to the streets of her neighborhood in Caldwell, N.J., armed with a container with a mix of dish soap and water — a recipe to disarm the bugs that she found on TikTok, and enhanced by adding apple cider vinegar. She was determined to get as many of the insects as she could.
But her one-girl extermination campaign got her reported to the police about three months after it started, when a neighbor complained about a “little Black woman, walking and spraying stuff on the sidewalks and trees” a few houses from the girl’s home on Oct. 22, according to a recording of the call obtained by CNN.
Though no further action was taken, the police questioned Bobbi and her mother in an episode that reflects the larger dialogue on racial profiling and the treatment of Black children across the country — a lesson that Bobbi’s mother does not want to go unlearned.
“I wanted it to be a teachable moment,” said her mother, Monique Joseph, 50, a real estate agent. “This same call could’ve happened in another state with another police officer, and I would be grieving.”
The incident ended up getting the attention of individuals and institutions alike, including Yale University, which held a ceremony on Jan. 20 that recognized Bobbi’s efforts to eradicate the lanternflies. Her insects will be added to the Peabody Museum’s collection.
Close to 30 of the lanternflies she captured will be housed there, with Bobbi’s name attached.
In an interview, Bobbi said that she was excited to be recognized by Yale and that it was “cool that I can help other scientists with research.”
She added that she hoped her story would help other young aspiring scientists feel “not afraid to pursue their dreams and not be afraid to try something just because they’re little.”
“We can make a difference, too,” she said.
Before it all happened, Bobbi just wanted to do something good for her community.
Last summer saw a deluge of spotted lanternflies, an invasive insect that can hurt trees and ruin crops. The infestation of the bug, which is native to parts of Asia and arrived in the United States in 2011, was documented in multiple states, with swarms concentrated in the Northeast, including in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Last year, scientists and state authorities encouraged people to kill the bugs, whenever and wherever they found them, and also advised people to destroy their eggs. In August, New Jersey’s Department of Agriculture started a “Stomp It Out” campaign to get its residents and their children do just that.
Bobbi was on a mission: She sprayed trees and plants around her neighborhood in Caldwell, about 12 miles northwest of Newark, from the peak of the summer into her first weeks of fourth grade. Her solution disarmed the bugs so that she could then collect them in a jar or, with the help of her mother and sister, stomp on them.
Ms. Joseph said her daughter felt she was serving her community in her efforts to kill the lanternflies — she even asked for special permission to go spray the trees by herself. She promised in a handwritten note to her mother to stay close to home, keep her phone on and not talk to strangers. She felt comfortable encouraging her neighbors to kill the bugs and shared her solution with them.
“It empowered her because she was now doing something that she wanted to do,” Ms. Joseph said. “She realized that she was helping.”
But a neighbor called a nonemergency police line to report Bobbi as she was spraying trees a few houses down from her home.
The neighbor gave the police Bobbi’s location and said that she was wearing a hood, according to a recording of the call.
“I don’t know what the hell she’s doing,” the caller said. “Scares me though.”
Ijeoma Opara, an assistant professor of public health at Yale who also directs its Substance Abuse and Sexual Health Lab, said she found Bobbi’s story especially compelling. It closely aligned with her research interests — the impact of racism on Black girls and other children of color. It represented a phenomenon that she and other researchers have called the “adultification” of Black girls, who, they say, are more likely to be seen as more criminal and less innocent than white children.
“Often our society, we don’t view Black children as children,” Dr. Opara said. “We view them as much older than what they are. They end up getting less protected; they end up getting judged more. They end up not being forgiven for mistakes.”
Dr. Opara asked her Twitter followers to help her find Bobbi in November after watching a video of her mother and older sister, Hayden, 13, speaking about Bobbi’s experience during a borough council meeting. She offered to give the family a campus tour so she could visit Yale’s labs and meet other Black female scientists — a small group on campus whose members now call themselves Bobbi’s “Yale Aunties.”
In addition to the honor from Yale, Princeton, the American Museum of Natural History and a host of other universities and state and local officials have recognized Bobbi for her lanternfly solution. In July, both Wilson sisters will attend a summer research program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology on scholarships in science, technology, engineering and mathematics for young scientists.
Ms. Joseph said that the support for Bobbi and her family has come from “far and wide.” Her primary concern, she said, was for her daughter’s mental health; after the incident, Ms. Joseph said she made it her goal to turn an otherwise traumatic day for her daughter into a positive experience.
Dr. Opara agreed with that assessment.
“Those lanternflies that had someone call the cops on her are now at Yale,” she said. “I am just in awe of just how beautiful these events have turned.”