The leafhoppers are a large and diverse family of sap-sucking, hopping insects. In overall body form, many look a lot like cicadas — only much smaller! You can distinguish them from similar groups of small hoppers by the hind legs, which have 1 or more rows of small spines on the hind tibiae (“shins”). Their bodies tend to be parallel-sided or taper toward the rear. The bulbous base of each thin, bristle-like antenna is relatively short (compared to that of planthoppers). There are 2 ocelli (small, simple eyes) atop the head (usually between the 2 compound eyes.
Leafhoppers may possess dull, camouflage colors or they may be breathtakingly vivid. Many species are gray, brown, tan, black, or various shades of green or ocher, but some (especially in subfamily Cicadellinae, the “sharpshooters”) sport racy striped patterns of robin’s-egg blue and red, or chartreuse and deep orange, maroon and yellow, chartreuse and baby blue, or black and sky blue.
Even the species with relatively drab colorations frequently possess intricately beautiful markings, resembling the swirls of agate or the patterns on moth wings. Some species have bold patches of contrasting colors.
Unique among insects, leafhoppers excrete a substance containing microscopically small, waxlike granules called brochosomes. Using the comblike rows of spines on their hind legs, leafhoppers rub this material over their bodies (scientists call this behavior “anointing”). Functionally, it is about the same as waxing a car: it protects the outer cuticle of the insect from water and from the sugary excretions from fellow sap-drinking insects.
Females of several leafhopper species wipe and clump the brochosomes into an oval patch or a line about midway along each wing. They use this white material in the egg-laying process (see Life Cycle, below). So be advised that a white patch or line on the side of a leafhopper may not be useful for species identification, since it’s not actually a body color.
Because they are a very large and diverse group, leafhoppers may best be identified by determining that they are not treehoppers, planthoppers, or spittlebugs/froghoppers:
- Spittlebugs and froghoppers are a lot like leafhoppers but have only 1 or 2 stout spines on the hind tibiae (“shins”), plus a small ring of spines at the outer tip of that leg segment. Many species’ bodies are widest at the hind end (a little like a resting frog, hence the name “froghopper”). Larvae live in bubble shelters on plant stems.
- Planthoppers often have angled or pointed heads. The antennae are attached below the eyes, on the sides of the head (“cheeks”). The two basal segments of each antenna are thick or bulbous (comparatively large) beneath the outer segment that is a thin bristle. The wings may be large, or they may be barely long enough to cover the first few segments of the abdomen.
- Treehoppers have an enlarged pronotum (shieldlike part just behind the head) that extends backward to cover the abdomen; often it is shaped to resemble a thorn or twig-bark wart.