How Do Treehoppers Communicate? Unveiling Nature’s Fascinating Secrets

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Treehoppers are fascinating insects with a unique method of communication. These tiny creatures use vibrations to interact with other members of their species, as well as with ants that may share their environment.

In order to communicate, treehoppers shake their bodies, producing a distinct vibrational pattern that travels through branches and leaves. This way, they can transmit messages up to a meter away. These vibrational songs are essential for activities like attracting a mate or warning of potential threats.

Some interesting aspects of treehopper communication include:

  • Species-specific vibrational patterns
  • Communication with ants for mutual benefits
  • Mother-offspring interaction through vibrations

As you can see, treehoppers have a remarkable ability to make themselves heard in an otherwise silent world. Their intricate communication techniques shed light on the fascinating complexities of the insect kingdom.

Treehoppers and Their World

Overview of Treehoppers (Membracidae)

Treehoppers, belonging to the Membracidae family, display an astonishing diversity in their shapes and behaviors. They can be found in different habitats like tropical rainforests, forests, and even urban gardens. Examples of treehopper families include Membracidae, Aetalionidae, and Melizoderidae1.

Some characteristics of treehoppers:

  • Humped or pointed pronota
  • Camouflage colors (tan, brown, gray, black, or leaf-green)
  • Cryptic blotches or contrasting patterns

Habitat and Distribution

Treehoppers inhabit various environments, with a stronger presence in tropical rainforests and forests. They are also distributed across the Neotropical regions, Europe, and can be found in urban gardens2. Their environment is often defined by their host species3.

Region Habitat
Tropical rainforests trees and plants
Europe forests, urban gardens
Neotropical forests, urban gardens

Anatomy and Physiology

Distinctive Features and Identification

Treehoppers are known for their unique appearance, which often resembles thorns, spikes, or other odd shapes. Their pronotum is a key characteristic, as it can be humped, pointed, or take on various bizarre forms. Example features include:

  • Thorn-like projections
  • Spiny or bristling textures
  • Camouflage colors and patterns

In addition to their striking pronotum, treehoppers typically have short, bristle-like antennae and wings, using them for limited flight or hopping.

Male Treehoppers vs Female Treehoppers

Male and female treehoppers differ in certain physiological traits. Here’s a comparison table to highlight these variations:

Feature Male Treehoppers Female Treehoppers
Size Smaller Larger
Shape Slender, less robust More robust
Length Shorter Longer
Wings Fully developed Partially developed

It is essential to consider these differences when observing treehoppers in the wild or studying their communication habits. This helps in accurately identifying members of the same species and understanding their roles within the ecosystem.

Communication in Treehoppers

Vibrational Songs

Treehoppers communicate through unique vibrational songs created by shaking their bodies. Each species produces a distinct pattern, allowing them to communicate with other members of the same species or even ants1. For instance, mother treehoppers use these vibrations to communicate with their offspring1.

In contrast, honeybees rely on a combination of tactile communication and “dance” languages for informing their nest mates about nearby nectar sources3.

The Science Behind Vibrational Communication

Vibrational communication in treehoppers is based on key factors for message transmission:

  • Frequency: The rate of vibration measured in cycles per second, or Hertz (Hz).
  • Amplitude: The size or magnitude of the vibrations, which usually dictate the intensity of the message.
  • Movement: Specific patterns of body movement generate distinct vibration frequencies and amplitudes2.

These factors create a complex language system that not only conveys information but also helps establish and maintain social bonds.

Here is a brief comparison of communication methods among treehoppers and honeybees:

Feature Treehoppers Honeybees
Type of Communication Vibrational Tactile + Dance Language
Method Shaking body Performing choreographed “dances”
Purpose Communicating with members of the same species or ants Informing nestmates about nectar sources

In summary, treehoppers use a fascinating vibrational communication system, employing specialized songs generated by shaking their bodies. This system is based on unique combinations of frequency, amplitude, and movement, making it an effective method for conveying information and maintaining social bonds within the species.

Ecology and Behavior

Diet and Feeding Habits

Treehoppers, like other true bugs, primarily feed on plant sap. They use their pointy mouthparts to pierce woody plants and drink the sap for nourishment. Different species of treehoppers prefer different types of plants, but they commonly target trees and shrubs (source).

  • Feeding habits: Sap-sucking insects
  • Typical host plants: Woody plants, shrubs, trees

Ant-Mutualism and Predation

Treehoppers have a unique relationship with ants. They communicate using vibrations and produce honeydew-like secretions as a byproduct of their sap consumption, which attracts ants as a food source. In turn, ants protect treehoppers from predators (source).

Treehoppers Ants
Offer honeydew Provide protection
Attract with vibration signals Respond to signals

Reproduction and Maternal Care

Treehoppers typically have one or more generations per year. They lay eggs either on the surface of or directly inside their host plants, and the females of some species protect their eggs by covering them with a frothy substance (source). These hoppers exhibit maternal care through the following:

  • Communication with offspring using vibrations
  • Guarding egg masses

An example of a species that provides maternal care is Enchenopa binotata. This species guards its egg masses to ensure the survival of its offspring.

By understanding the unique ecology and behavior of treehoppers, including their diet, ant-mutualism, and reproduction, we can better appreciate their role in the ecosystem and the complex relationships they share with other organisms.

Treehopper Species and Their Significance

Different Species of Treehoppers

There are more than 3,000 known species of treehoppers worldwide, with remarkable diversity in appearance and behavior1. Some notable examples include:

  • Buffalo treehopper: Characterized by a hump that resembles a buffalo’s back.
  • Brazilian treehopper: Known for its intricate and bizarre helmet-like structure.

Some species remain undescribed by scientists due to their vast diversity and distribution. Treehoppers display various forms of patterns and shapes, aiding in species identification. Some species even exhibit behaviors such as duets between males and females.

Treehoppers and Human Interaction

Treehoppers may adversely interact with humans due to their capability of spreading diseases2. These arthropods feed on plant sap and might spread diseases to their host plants. This can impact agriculture and ecosystems. On a positive note, treehoppers have caught the attention of visual artists, filmmakers, and biologists, inspiring biographic works on their lives and adaptations. Additionally, research on these insects contributes to the overall understanding of arthropod evolution and behavioral health.

References:

Footnotes

  1. Treehoppers: Metcalf Collection: NC State University Libraries 2 3 4

  2. Treehoppers Thornbugs; Hoppers | MDC Teacher Portal 2 3

  3. Treehoppers’ environments are defined by their host species 2

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Beetle Mimic Hoppers from Indonesia are in Hemisphaeriini Tribe

 

Location:  West Java, Indonesia
January 13, 2013 3:06 pm
Hi Daniel,
Thank you so much Daniel,
I only took 2 pic of the strange looking beetle at that time October 2010 it’s rainy season here in Indonesia, I took it around this coordinate -7.136685,107.391701, the local name of the place is Ranca Upas, Ciwidey, West Java, Indonesia;it’s a camping ground with mountain, tropical forest, and mountain swamp all around. even though the local people use it it for plantation and crop :(.
I don’t know about what does it eat and is it attracted to lights because I took the photo using flash in the afternoon, and yes it’s alone individual.
This is the other photo, it’s a little bit to the left from the top;

Hopper

But recently December 2013 rainy season here in Indonesia, I got 4 other species similar with the above from the other place but with different color pattern, around this coordinate -6.837636,107.751589 the nearest village in the south is Genteng Village, Tanjungsari, West Java, Indonesia. This place is a well preserved pine forest. I took the picture around 10 am in the morning. Same with the above it’s alone individual and for the size it’s relatively small;around 4-7 mm.

Hopper

Wow Mohamad,
This is much a much more detailed followup from your earlier submission than we expected.  Eric Eaton has already confirmed our suspicions that though they resemble beetles, these insects are more likely Hoppers in the order Hemiptera.  It is interesting that there are so many individuals with similar morphologies, but different colorations.  We suspect that they are most likely in the same family, and perhaps that family is only represented in the tropics.  They might be in the same genus as well.  We hope to hear more from the expert that Eric Eaton wrote that he would contact.

Hopper
Hopper

Thanks Daniel and Eric,
Hope to hear the news about the ID of this bug, because they have this strange looking eye and it’s somehow similar to hover fly face.
Recently Dec 2012 I started to make a blog indobugs.blogspot.com the aim is to give information to the people about what kind of bugs here in Indonesia, because I hardly see sites about it;maybe my info could be useful for them, and your identification is really helpful… thanks again Daniel.

Congratulations on your Blog Mohamad.  We applaud your ambition.

Hopper

Sorry Daniel a little of mistype the last 4 picture is from December 2012 not 2013 :D.

Karl provides a family, subfamily and tribe
Hi Daniel and Mohamad:
I believe most or all of these are Issid Planthoppers (Issidae) in the Subfamily Hemisphaeriinae and Tribe Hemisphaeriini. This includes 13 genera and numerous species, all restricted to east and southeast Asia. Most are very poorly documented online and photos are difficult to find, but similar bug photos can be found under species such as Hemisphaerius, Gergithus and Gergithoides. Regards.  Karl

Thanks a lot for the ID karl and Daniel, and also you gave me another wonderful sites to read.

Eric Eaton also responds January 15, 2013
Ok, Lois O’Brien got back to me late last night about the beetle-like hopper thing from Indonesia.  Apparently it is in the family Issidae, and tribe Hemisphaeriini.  Not much online about them.
Eric

 

Letter 2 – Brazilian Symbiosis!!!

 

Treehoppers nimphs and stingless Bees
Hello, Daniel
More Treehoppers nymphs (Aetalion) but mutualism with ….stingless Bees !!! Thank you
Danilo Rivas

Hi Again Danilo,
Sorry about the delay, but we found your letter when going through old mail. We don’t know what to make about this odd symbiosis, but Homopterans often exude honeydew, and that must be attracting the bee.

Letter 3 – Campylenchia latipes

 


I’ve just found your website and I maybe you can help me with the identification of this particular tree- or leafhopper (picture attached). This photo is to be included in the Encyclopedia, and the editor needs the species name . If you know it, please send a message ASAP – I would be MOST GRATEFUL!!!
Best regards,
Wawrzyniec Podrzucki
P.S. Thepicture was taken in Pennsylvania.

Hi there Wawrzyniec Podrzucki,
I’m guessing Thelia bimaculata, a female. Here is a website with images.Good luck on getting in that encyclopedia. Your photograph is beautiful.
Treehoppers belong to the Family Membracidae. They are called Treehoppers because most of the species live on trees and low bushes, hopping vigorously when disturbed. All of the species suck plant juices. Many of the young secrete honeydew like aphids.
Great thanks for answering so promptly. In the meantime I’ve also run the picture through yet another entomological site, and it seems that you are
correct. And you are wellcome to my website for a little more of good quality insect photos.
Thanks again,
Wawrzyniec Podrzucki

Update (01/06/2006)
Here is an excerpt from a letter by Julieta Brambila:
” I printed two images for Mark Rothschild, expert in Membracidae, and he gave me this information: Campylenchia latipes (SAy) is the identification for the message from 10/17/2003, from Wawrzyniec Podrzucki, of a membracid from Pennsylvannia. This image is filed in the section of What’s that bug: aphids, scale insects, leafhoppers, and tree hoppers.”

Letter 4 – Exotic Hopper from Pakistan

 

This is Weird
Nothing about it in insect book and a lot bug experts dont have clue about it i hope you can tell what is it Kind regards
Awais

Hi Awais,
You are correct. It is weird, and not knowing where it is from is sure not going to help any identification. It is an immature Hopper, one of the Homopterans. After that, we are clueless.

Thanks It was found in my garage walking on bricks. I live in Islamabad capital of Pakistan . i never saw it before.

Letter 5 – Green Faced Wattle Hopper: nymph and adult

 

Australian Eurybrachyidae (18th Feb)
Dear Bugman,
I noticed Colette’s photo of some wort of wattle or gum hopper. I can sympathise with her being flummoxed! I took a photo of a similar strange little bug last year and was very puzzled. Recently, nearby, I found an adult green-faced gum hopper, and worked backward to what I assume was its nymph form. The gum hopper is very small and its beautiful colours only become apparent when the photo is enlarged somewhat. I quite like the nymph – a person with Attitude!
Kind Regards,
Grev

Hi again Grev,
As always, we can count on you to send us awesome photographs.

Letter 6 – Gum Hopper or Wattle Hopper from Australia

 

Please will you help me identify this VERY strange-looking insect?
My friends and I lunch at a wooden table under some tall eucalyptus trees outside our chemistry building at the Australian National University in Canberra. Sometimes ladybird larvae and other little insects (and birds) commune with us.
Yesterday, we were visited by a very strange little insect. I have another photograph, in case it may prove useful). I have never seen an insect like this one. I tried to hold it, but it escaped me with a very powerful jump – like a grasshopper. After a couple of jumps, it was very successfully camouflaged on the pebbly ground. Kind regards,
David
Australian National University,
Canberra, ACT

Hi David,
This is an immature Eurybrachyid Planthopper, commonly called a Gum Hopper or Wattle Hopper. You can find a page devoted to this family on the Geocities website.

Letter 7 – Buffalo Treehopper

 

study in green
Hi, Daniel,
This beautiful little guy is about the size of, and just "feels" to me like, a leafhopper of some sort, despite the unusual shape. I don’t see him on your site anywhere, but could have missed it. Any idea what I’ve got here? BTW, this is the third picture I’ve sent you, and I’ve wondered since the first what image size you would prefer to receive that would minimize the work on your end. I know there’s a lot of work involved in being as responsive as you are, and we should lighten your load as much as we can. Do you want high resolution for detail in your archives, or small size for ease and speed?
Many thanks, David in Kentucky

Hi David,
You couldn’t locate your Buffalo Treehopper, Ceresa species, on our site because we haven’t had one until yours. There are many species and they are very difficult to distinguish from one another. Regarding image size, we used to prefer smaller images because our mailbox easily overloaded. Now we have a 100 megabyte box, and don’t have many problems. Because we have designs on both a calendar and a book, we like our best and most interesting images to be of the highest quality. Also, just upgrading to DSL helps with download time. We always need to reformat, crop and color correct anyways. Thanks for asking.

Letter 8 – Buffalo Treehopper Nymph

 

Subject: Green Bug Killing My Veggie Garden
Location: Virginia Beach, VA
July 13, 2017 5:57 pm
Hi, bug man.
I have had a pretty impressive backyard vegetable garden for a couple of years now, but something is killing my plants, one by one. I went on vacation and came back to a completely dead zucchini section, and three weeks later, my bush beans are dying in a similar way. Upon extra-close inspection, I noticed that most of the stems are covered in a colony of green bugs, exactly the same shade of green as the plant stems. I also noticed a heavy concentration of ants, and when I looked at the soil around the plant, it was crawling not only with ants, but also with brown versions of the same bug! If it helps, it’s the middle of July, and generally between 85-100 degrees with 40-80% humidity. What is this crazy chameleon bug, and how do I get it to leave my plants alone?!
Signature: Desperately, Katelyn

Buffalo Treehopper Nymph

Dear Katelyn,
This is a Buffalo Treehopper Nymph.  They have mouths designed to pierce the membranes of plants so that they can suck the nourishing fluids.  They exude honeydew, which is why they are being tended by Ants.  Here is a BugGuide image for verification.

Letter 9 – Buffalo Treehopper Nymph on Woody Plant

 

Subject:  Help identifying insect
Geographic location of the bug:  Ontario Canada
Date: 06/26/2019
Time: 05:59 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Found this insect on my marijuana plant and wondering if it’s harmful .
How you want your letter signed:  Email

Buffalo Treehopper nymph

This spiny guy is a Treehopper nymph, and based on this Jungle Dragon posting and this BugGuide posting, we believe it is a Buffalo Treehopper in the genus Stictocephala.  Treehoppers and Planthoppers have mouths designed to pierce and suck fluids, and they rob the plant upon which they are feeding of valuable fluids.  A single individual might not cause much damage, but when they are feeding in groups, significant damage might occur.  We would not consider this Buffalo Treehopper nymph to be a beneficial species on your marijuana plant.  According to the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee:  “In their adult and immature stages, buffalo treehoppers feed on plant sap that they get by puncturing the stems of woody and non-woody plants with their strong “beaks” (and they can do minor damage to both in the process). They may begin their lives on woody plants, where Mom uses her sharp ovipositor to make shallow slits in twigs and to deposit her eggs. When the eggs hatch, the nymphs find their way to more succulent, herbaceous vegetation.”

Letter 10 – Buffalo Treehopper Nymph on Tomato

 

Subject: Tiny green bristly larva
Location: NJ
May 29, 2016 3:03 pm
I live in NJ. This tiny green bristly larva of some kind was on a severely stressed tomato plant that had suffered tomato russet mite then aphid infestation when I decided to just plant it and let it survive or die.
I thought I should be able to recognize it, but am striking out with all my guesses. I would appreciate it very much if you could help.
I prefer to let the Garden Patrol take care of the pest issues, so I err on the side of the living — Not knowing what it was, I left it on the plant. (I found a ladybug larva on another plant)
Signature: Garden Patrol Squad Leader

Buffalo Treehopper Nymph
Buffalo Treehopper Nymph

Dear Garden Patrol Squad Leader,
This is the nymph of a Buffalo Treehopper in the genus
Ceresa which you can verify by comparing to this BugGuide image.  While they might not do too much damage to your plant, they do have mouths designed to pierce and suck fluids from the plant, which in the case of an already stressed tomato plant, does not seem like it will be doing the plant much good.

Yikes!  that being the case, I will have to deploy a proper member of the Garden Patrol to protect that plant.  Perhaps a treehopper nymph will be appreciated as a tasty assignment bonus.  ^_^
Thank you for a speedy response! Much appreciated.  :o)

Letter 11 – Buffalo Treehopper Nymph on “Woody Plant”

 

Subject: What is this?
Location: Midwest. Elevation 5200
July 5, 2017 8:16 pm
Found this crawling on the stems of woody plants in my garden. Denver, CO. No clue what it is.
Signature: Caitlin

Exuvia of a Buffalo Treehopper Nymph

Dear Caitlin,
We hope helping you identify these immature Treehopper nymphs will benefit your “woody plants”.  First, this does not look like a living insect, but rather it looks like the cast-off exoskeleton or exuvia that is left behind after metamorphosis.  We believe this is a Buffalo Treehopper nymph in the genus
Ceresa, which is pictured on BugGuide, or a closely related species.  Like other members of the order Hemiptera, Buffalo Treehoppers have mouths designed to pierce and suck fluids, and if they are present in large numbers, they may have a significant negative impact on the health of your “woody plant” by depriving the plant of necessary fluids and nutrients for optimal development.

Exuvia of a Buffalo Treehopper Nymph

An immediate Facebook comment from Michael
HAHAHAHA “woody plant.” If that’s not a marijuana plant I’m the Pope.

Daniel,
Thank you for your help identifying these! I’ll have to look into these buffalo tree hopper nymphs. They were very much still alive when I found them on my plants. I have a video of one crawling on the soil after knocking it off the plant to get a better look. Again, thank you for your help and your very fast response!

Letter 12 – Costa Rican Treehopper

 

Costa Rican Membracid
Hey Bugfolks!
Thought you might enjoy a photo of an unusual treehopper found in Monteverde, Costa Rica. I know that it’s from the genus Cladonota, but the species name I have yet to figure out. Enjoy!
P.S. As an avid entomology enthusiast it’s always a pleasure seeing people provide realistic rational explanations with how to deal with "bugs". Phrases like, "Just pick them up and put them outside." are truely a breath of fresh air. Kudos, and many many thanks on behalf of the unsung heroes of bio-diversity. Sincerely,
Eli S. Wyman (manager of the Monteverde Butterfly Gardens)

Hi Eli,
Thanks for sending in your wonderful image of a crazy looking Costa Rican Treehopper. We also appreciate your comment on our “solution” for removing crickets from the house. Over the years, we have had 1000s upon 1000s of letters appear on our homepage, and we are daily changing them, removing old letters and replacing with new ones, but we cannot bring ourselves to remove that concise answer to a query from 2003.

Letter 13 – Ant-Mimic Treehopper from Colombia

 

Subject: long horn ball bearer
Location: Guamal, Meta, Colombia, South America
January 7, 2014 12:33 pm
Greetings Bugman! im incredibly pleased to have found one of these again and this time with macro gear at hand. This critter was in the the eastern Llanos (plains) of Colombia in early January . It is about 1 cm in size. I had seen one of these in another part of Colombia a few years back but only had a normal lens with me. At the time i had no idea what i was looking at before it flew (or leapt) off! I can’t find any pictures of a similar specimen anywhere although it must be a close relative to Bocydium globulare. what are the odds of this being a new species? Thank you!
Signature: Nelson O Saarni

Treehopper
Ant-Mimic Treehopper

Hi Nelson,
This is an amazing looking Treehopper.  Many species of Treehoppers have projections that resemble thorns.  We will try to research the species tomorrow.

Treehopper
Ant-Mimic Treehopper

Update:  The more we look at these photos, the more we are struck by the resemblance to an Ant that the projections have.  Ants are symbiotic with many honeydew producing Hemipterans as evidenced by this FlickeR posting.  We pursued that idea in the web search and we discovered this Ant Mimic Treehopper, Cyphonia clavata, on FlickR.  We verified the name of the Insect Museum website as well as on the Fauna of Paraguay website.  Perhaps being able to mimic an unpalatable Ant helps to protect the more tasty Treehopper.

 

Authors

  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

    View all posts
  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

    View all posts
Tags: Treehoppers

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