Have you ever seen a Leafhopper?

Cecropia NANPA Award
May 28, 2023

Have you ever seen a Leafhopper?

These common insects in our yards go unnoticed - not just because of their tiny size, but also their skillful behavior to evade detection. That is, until you know how to look for one. With over 3000 described species in North America, they show a mesmerizing variety of beautiful patterns and colors in a tiny package. Dare I say that Leafhoppers are captivating in the way warblers are as birds?
Feeding and waste. In order to explain the purpose of those unique spines, it’s important to understand leafhopper feeding behavior first. Adults, and the immature nymphs, feed primarily on plant juices. But in order to get enough nutrients, they have to sip a lot of sap. That means they accumulate sugary waste product. That sugary poo, more pleasantly called - honeydew - not only promotes growth of bacteria or fungus, but it also attracts other insect groups that feed on it. So to prevent disease and predation, leafhoppers have evolved special methods to keep their bodies clean. One approach is to expel waste in a manner that forces it away from their location. The “Sharpshooter” subfamily is named after an explosive popping sound made as they expel their waste.
Brochosomes and anointing. But more importantly, the Leafhopper family protects their bodies and wings with a protective coating. Leafhoppers produce and excrete milky droplets filled with brochosomes – microscopic structures made up of proteins and lipids. Then they spread the liquid over their body. And here’s where those spines on their tibia get used. They’re used like combs to spread the brochosomes. The term “anointing” refers to the behavior of leafhoppers to coat their bodies. This behavior is typically observed after molting. Adults also “groom” to reapply.
Some female species coat their eggs with brochosomes. A few species dry patches of the substance on their wings in preparation for laying their eggs (see the photo of the Broad-headed Sharpshooter). The purpose for coating eggs may be to prevent parasitoids, but is largely unstudied.
Coppery Leafhopper nymphs and an adult.
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Predators with Leafhopper prey
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These amazing insects rank in the top 10 families of insects globally, yet there’s so much to be learned about Leafhoppers. While there are already 22,000 species described globally, it’s estimated that there may be as many as 100,000 species. The existence of brochosomes was only discovered 50 years ago, yet little is known about them. Brochosomes appear to be exclusive to leafhoppers, and can vary across species and life stage. The purposes of brochosomes are still being hypothesized. Scientists are intrigued about potential materials applications as they can’t be dissolved in water or organic materials, and they’re heat resistant and highly hydrophobic when dried.
Gallery of Leafhoppers
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Look for leafhoppers in your yard starting late spring through fall. Since our most common species can be found on a wide variety of plants, there’s no single spot to search for them. Just remember to look at leaves, starting from a distance, so you can spot those little buggers before they try to hide from you. And once you’ve found one, enjoy a round of hide-and-seek with one of these shy little insects.