Treehoppers

More than 260 species in North America North of Mexico

two-marked_treehopper_2012.jpg

Two-marked treehopper clinging to a stem
Like many other members of the treehopper family, the two-marked treehopper looks like a thorn. The disguise fools potential predators.
Donna Brunet
Other Common Name
Thornbugs; Hoppers
Family

Membracidae (treehoppers) in order Hemiptera (true bugs)

Description

The treehopper family is grouped with the cicada and leafhopper families into superfamily Cicadoidea. All have short, bristle-like antennae, 3-segmented feet (tarsi), and other similarities in leg form and in wing venation.

Treehoppers are distinguished from their closely related families by their large pronotum (the shieldlike first segment of the thorax, which you could say is something like a neck or shoulders): in treehoppers, the pronotum extends backward to cover the abdomen and, in many species, forward to cover the head as well. Treehopper pronota are often humped or pointed to resemble a thorn, or have spikes, or take other odd shapes.

Most species are tan, brown, gray, or black, or leaf-green — camouflage colors. The patterns are usually cryptic blotches, though some species have bold patches or bands of contrasting colors. Some may have tiny raised bumps, hairs, or a jagged texture. Bristly hairs often appear on nymphs (immature life stages).

Similar species: Many groups of true bugs are "hoppers," including spittlebugs, froghoppers, leafhoppers, and many types of planthoppers.

Size

Length: ½ inch or less; some reach ¾ inch (varies with species).

Habitat and conservation

Treehoppers are a diverse, common group, and its members feed on, and are found on, many different types of plants — so they are found in many types of habitats. Each species is associated with its own types of food plants, and identifying the plant a treehopper is feeding on is usually a key to its identity.

Treehoppers augment their camouflage colors and shapes with their behavior: they typically rest motionless in places where one would expect to see a green, gray, or brown thorn or plant wart, such as in the crotches of branches or twigs. When several treehoppers cluster together in a group, their "plant thorn" camouflage can be especially convincing.

Some treehoppers are attracted to lights at night.

Foods

Treehoppers, like other true bugs, have their mouthparts formed into a pointy tube used for drinking fluids. In this case, like aphids, they insert their beak into a plant and drink sap.

Different species of treehoppers feed on different types of plants, but as the name "treehopper" suggests, woody plants (trees and shrubs) are more commonly the food plants in this group than nonwoody plants. Yet the larvae, and some the adults of some species, may feed on nonwoody plants.

Distribution in Missouri

Statewide. Different species may have different distributions within the state, based on the distribution patterns of their food plants.

Life cycle

Female treehoppers insert their eggs into the twigs of trees. The eggs overwinter, and tiny nymphs hatch in spring. As with other true bugs, the immature forms more or less resemble the adults (they are not radically different with separate grub or caterpillar stages). Some species of treehoppers feed together in groups. In some species, the females guard the eggs and young.

Human connections

Although treehoppers feed on plants like other sap-drinking bugs, they rarely cause real trouble for their food plants or the humans who care about the plants. The treehoppers' egg-laying process, however, can damage small twigs. Only a few species are considered pests.

Meanwhile, treehoppers provide food for multitudes of birds and insect-eating insects that people consider beneficial. Most plant-feeding insects are not devastating pests. Back in 1970, Joni Mitchell sang, "Give me spots on my apples / But leave me the birds and the bees / Please!"

Ecosystem connections

As with aphids and several other types of true bugs, many types of treehoppers have mutually beneficial relationships with ants, which drink the treehoppers' sugar-rich excretions and protect the hoppers from predators in return.

Douglas Tallamy has written that "a plant that has fed nothing has not done its job." Most birds, he points out, cannot survive and raise their young on plants but require plentiful insects for food. He reminds us that there must be a wide variety of insects (and their various native food plants) in order for there to be birds and other larger animals — and a functioning ecosystem.