Treehopper: All You Need to Know in a Nutshell

Treehoppers are a fascinating group of insects that belong to the family Membracidae, which are known for their unique and diverse appearance. These small insects are famous for their enlarged and modified pronotum, giving them various shapes and sizes, resembling thorns, leaves, or branches. This intricate camouflage helps them blend seamlessly into their surroundings, protecting them from predators.

As a nature enthusiast, you’re intrigued by the treehopper’s world. These insects feed on plant sap, using their specialized piercing mouthparts to extract their meals. Some treehopper species are considered pests in agriculture, like the three-cornered alfalfa hopper and the buffalo treehopper, affecting crops such as alfalfa, soybeans, and apple trees 1.

You might be curious about their life cycle, and you’ll discover that treehoppers go through three distinct stages in their development: egg, nymph, and adult 2. While they share similarities with leafhoppers, they generally have a larger size and unique thorax modifications. You’ll find that treehoppers exhibit a wide variety of colors and patterns, which is something to look out for while observing these creatures.

Understanding Treehoppers

Diversity and Species

Treehoppers are an incredibly diverse group of insects that belong to the family Membracidae. With more than 3,200 known species, they are characterized by their unique shapes and colors, often resembling thorns, leaves, or even other insects. These fascinating creatures can be found all around the world, particularly in forest or savanna habitats in the tropics, where they utilize a wide variety of tree species as host plants 1(https://leafhopper.inhs.illinois.edu/about-treehoppers/).

Some well-known examples of treehoppers include the buffalo treehopper, oak treehopper, and platycotis vittata. Treehoppers can be grouped into various subfamilies, tribes, and genera, showcasing an incredible level of diversity within the Membracidae family.

Treehopper Morphology

Treehoppers possess some distinct physical features that set them apart from other insects. One such characteristic is their enlarged pronotum, which often extends over their wings and abdomen. This helmet-like structure can take on various shapes and forms, often mimicking natural objects like plant parts or other insects 2(https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/treehoppers).

As they develop, treehoppers go through three main life stages: egg, nymph, and adult. Throughout the various instars, nymphs acquire wing pads, gradually metamorphosing into their adult forms. While some species have wings, others might appear wingless, exhibiting a wide range of morphological diversity.

In addition to their striking appearance, treehoppers’ unique biology includes:

  • Bristle-like, short antennae
  • Three-segmented feet (tarsi)
  • Specialized mouthparts for sucking tree sap
  • A scutellum, which is a small triangular plate on the back of the thorax

In summary, treehoppers are not only diverse in terms of the thousands of species that exist within the Membracidae family, but also in their fascinating morphology. From the extraordinary variations in their pronotum to the features adapted for their unique way of living, treehoppers are undoubtedly an enthralling group of insects worth learning more about.

Treehopper Life Cycle

Egg Laying and Nymph Stage

Treehoppers begin their life as eggs laid on the host plants by the females. After hatching, nymphs, which already resemble small adults without wings, start their development. During this stage, they go through several instars, typically five, and grow larger with each molt until they form wing pads 1.

Your treehopper friends might be found in different habitats like forests, savannas, or even herbaceous host plants. They use a diverse range of tree species as their hosts in these ecosystems 2.

Mating and Adult Stage

As the nymphs reach their final instar, they molt one more time and emerge as adults with fully developed wings. Mating in treehoppers involves the male attracting the female with courtship calls. After successfully mating, females lay eggs in the host plants, starting the life cycle all over again.

Some notable examples of treehoppers include the three-cornered alfalfa hopper, which can sometimes damage alfalfa and soybeans, and the buffalo treehopper, which is known to be harmful to apple trees 3.

Food and Survival

Treehoppers feed on plant sap, which provides them with the nutrients they need for their growth and development. In exchange for this nourishment, they produce a sweet substance called honeydew, which benefits other insects like ants and attracts natural predators like wasps and other insects 4.

To sum up, here are some key features of treehoppers:

  • Diverse habitat preferences, including forests, savannas, and herbaceous plants
  • Wide variety of host tree species
  • Lifecycle consisting of egg, nymph, and adult stages
  • Adults mate through courtship calls
  • Feed on plant sap and produce honeydew

So, the next time you spot a treehopper, you’ll be well-versed in their fascinating life cycle and the essential role they play in the ecosystem.

Treehopper Behaviour

Communication and Adaptations

Treehoppers are fascinating insects known for their unique communication methods and adaptive behaviors. They use vibrations to communicate with one another. As a treehopper, you can produce these vibrations by rapidly shaking your body, which then travel through plant stems, alerting your fellow treehoppers.

Not only are treehoppers great communicators, but they also have remarkable adaptations. For instance, some treehoppers can jump quickly to avoid predators. They are also known for their gregarious nature and excellent mimicry skills, which help them blend in with their surroundings.

  • Vibrational communication
  • Jumping abilities
  • Gregarious behavior
  • Mimicry adaptations

Treehopper and Ant Interactions

One of the most fascinating aspects of treehopper behavior is their mutualistic relationship with ants. In this mutualistic relationship, both the treehoppers and ants benefit from each other’s presence. Treehoppers produce honeydew, a sugary substance that ants love to consume. In return, ants protect treehoppers from predators and potential threats.

Here’s a brief comparison of the roles treehoppers and ants play in this mutualistic relationship:

Treehoppers Ants
Produce honeydew Consume honeydew
Benefit from ant protection Help protect treehoppers

Remember that treehoppers rely on this mutualistic relationship for their survival, and ants benefit from the honeydew produced by treehoppers. Overall, the collaboration between treehoppers and ants showcases the incredible harmony that can exist between different species in nature.

Treehoppers and Their Environment

Habitat and Range

Treehoppers are most abundant in forest or savanna habitats, especially in the tropics, where they use various tree species as host plants. You may also find these unique insects in regions like the United States, Europe, and India. They inhabit deciduous forests, gardens, and, sometimes, crop fields.

Host Trees and Crops

These insects feed on a wide variety of tree species. Some examples include oak and elm trees which are prevalent in both tropical and temperate environments. In some cases, treehoppers might also feed on apple trees, oak trees, or even crops.

Predators and Threats

Treehoppers have several predators in their environment, such as wasps. Here are some common predators that can threaten treehoppers:

  • Wasps
  • Spiders
  • Birds

Treehoppers as Pests

Although treehoppers are fascinating creatures, they can sometimes be considered pests. They feed on the sap of trees, which can result in damage to the host plants. These insects may also spread diseases to their host trees that can be deadly. In such cases, you might need to control treehoppers through methods like insecticides or biological controls. However, keep in mind the possible drawbacks to using insecticides, such as risks to non-target species and potential environmental damage.

When dealing with treehoppers as pests, here are some pros and cons of different control methods:

Method Pros Cons
Insecticide Effective in killing treehoppers Might harm non-target species
Potential for environmental damage
Biological Environmentally friendly Might not be as effective as insecticides
controls Targets specific pests Longer time to show effects

Classification and Identification

Taxonomy of Treehoppers

Treehoppers belong to the order Hemiptera, suborder Auchenorrhyncha, and infraorder Cicadomorpha. They are classified into three main families: Membracidae, Aetalionidae, and Melizoderidae. Membracidae, being the largest, is further divided into several subfamilies, including Centronodinae, Centrotinae, Darninae, Endoiastinae, Heteronotinae, Membracinae, and Nicomiinae.

When identifying treehoppers, you should consider the following features:

  • Short, bristle-like antennae
  • 3-segmented feet (tarsi)
  • Large pronotum (the shield-like first segment of the thorax)

Identifying Treehoppers

Treehopper adults can be easily recognized by their unique appearance, which varies between species. They are commonly brown to greenish, while some species have colorful markings. Their size is usually around 1/2 inch long or shorter. The most distinguishing characteristic of treehoppers is their expanded first segment (pronotum) behind the head that forms a hood-like covering over the front part of their body and may include a thorn-like projection.

To simplify the identification process, you can look at the following comparison table between two subfamilies:

Feature Membracinae Smiliinae
Size 1/4 inch – 1/2 inch long 1/4 inch – 1/2 inch long
Pronotum shape Rounded or humped Spined or branched

When it comes to identifying treehoppers, there are various identification keys and resources available that provide detailed information about the specific taxa, making it much easier to identify them accurately. In general, observing their size, color patterns, and pronotum shape is a good starting point for narrowing down the group they belong to. From there, you can use the identification keys to compare the features of your specimen with the known treehoppers in each subfamily.

Remember, when identifying treehoppers, it’s useful to keep in mind their specific characteristics, such as the short bristle-like antennae, 3-segmented feet, and the unique pronotum shape. With practice and the use of available resources, it will become easier to accurately identify these fascinating insects.

Treehoppers in Science and Literature

In the scientific world, treehoppers are fascinating insects that have caught the attention of researchers due to their unique features and ecological roles. For instance, the Dietrich Leafhopper Lab reveals their impressive diversity in forest and savanna habitats, especially in the tropics.

Treehoppers have also made their way into literature, where they serve as subjects of interest in various scientific articles and papers. Institutions like the NC State University Libraries have focused mainly on treehoppers, with collections dedicated to studying these insects.

Notable scientists like Lewis L. Deitz and Matthew S. Wallace have played significant roles in expanding our understanding of treehoppers. Their research and publications provide valuable insights into the taxonomy, distribution, and biology of these creatures.

Here are some key features of treehoppers:

  • Unique pronotum shape, often resembling thorns or plant structures
  • Short, bristle-like antennae
  • Sucking mouthparts to feed on plant sap
  • Ability to spread diseases, sometimes deadly, to their host plants

When exploring treehoppers, it’s crucial to approach the subject with a friendly and inquisitive attitude to appreciate their contributions to science and literature. So, enjoy your journey learning about these intriguing insects, and don’t forget to share your newfound knowledge with others.

Footnotes

  1. https://leafhopper.inhs.illinois.edu/about-treehoppers/treehopper-faq/ 2

  2. https://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/GARDEN/PLANTS/INVERT/treehopper.html 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 – Wax Tail Hopper from Costa Rica

 

Subject: What is this?
Location: Guapil, Costa Rica
February 18, 2013 1:11 am
Saw this in Costa Rica a few years and wanted to know what it is.
Thanks!
Signature: Mix

Wax Tail Hopper

Dear Mix,
Back in 2997, we posted an image of an unidentified Hemipteran from Costa Rica that we eventually identified as a Wax Tail Hopper,
Pterodictya reticularis, twelve years later.  Encyclopedia of Lifealso has an image of this unusual species.  The waxy tail is actually a secretion thought to protect the Hopper from predators.  Many members of the family Fulgoridae as well as other members of the order Hemiptera are capable of secreting similar waxy substances.  Fulgorid Planthoppers are sometimes called Lanternflies.

Wax Tail Hopper

As an aside, in 2003, the country of Nicaragua issued a stamp with an image of Pertodictya reticularis.

Wax Tail Hopper

 

Letter 2 – Unknown Hopper from Australia

 

What might this be
October 18, 2009
Hi guys,
Been a while, hope all is well your end. Any ideas on this one? The front legs look mantid like. Is it a nymph stage of a mantis of some sort?
Aussietrev
Queensland. Australia

Unknown Australian Hopper
Unknown Australian Hopper

Hi Trevor,
Welcome back.  This appears to be some species of immature hopper, possibly a Fulgoroid.  The front legs remind us of Cicadas, but the head is different.  We searched through many possibilities on the Geocities website of Australian Insects without luck.  We haven’t the time to research the species as we are running late this morning, but perhaps one of our readers will be able to provide an answer.

Letter 3 – Unknown Immature Hopper from Indonesia

 

Please identify this bug
January 17, 2010
I could not find out what kind of bug is this, I have been looking on the internet with no result.
THank you
No thanks
West Java, Indonesia

Unknown Hopper

This is some species of Free Living Hemipteran, probably a Fulgorid Planthopper, or possibly a Lanternfly in the superfamily Fulgoroidea.  Hopefully, one of our readers will be able to provide a more specific identification.  Often immature specimens can be difficult to identify.

Letter 4 – Wattle Hopper from Australia???? We're not sure since Nick never provided a location!!!

 

Hi I have a bug!
Hi
These bugs seem to be everywhere at certain times of the year around the backyeard of our garden. As you can see they have two horn-like things on their backs. They’re about 1cm long or less and when un-disturbed they lay their ‘horns’ out flat behind them. I’m starting to think they may use them to jump. And yes, they jump. This one jumped an easy 1.5m when i scared it, others have jumped from the ground up onto the table and they all do it with amazing accuracy. When they jump they make a little ‘click’ sound. Also, they spend a lot of time walking around slowly, and when disturbed they like to walk sideways like a crab, nervously edging along before jumping if you startle them. I don’t mind them but they do freak you out occasionally when they jump, but more importantly i’d like to know if they are good or bad for the garden. Thanks!
Nick

Hi Nick,
Your otherwise thorough letter did not provide us with a location, which would have been very helpful. We are guessing you are from Australia and that these are probably immature Wattle Hoppers in the family Eurybrachyidae. They have sucking mouthparts and suck the sap from wattle trees, as acacia are known in Australia.

Hey thanks! You ended almost a decade of mystery. The bugs are from Sydney, Australia, i had to rewrite the email because of a mis-click and forgot to include the location the second time. Thanks again,
Nick

Letter 5 – Treehoppers

 

Grotesque looking little spindly things attacking my Jalepeno Pepper plant-Please identify?
Are these black ugly things the larvae of this ugly critter? If so, is there anything I can do to kill them off besides waiting for my praying mantis’ to hatch? Are they destructive to my vegetable garden? Any help you can provide, I would be so grateful. I truly would rather depend on natural predators if possible but if I need to use pesticides, I would be alright with that option as well.
Thanks in advance.
The Kerbys

Hi Kerbys,
You have a photo of one mature and a colony of immature Keel-Backed Treehoppers. Many species look very similar. They are fond of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and other solanaceous plants. We handpick them from our plants or spray with soapy water.

Letter 6 – Treehoppers from Costa Rica

 

Subject: There are so many things happening here
Location: San Marco de los Santos, Costa Rica
January 31, 2016 9:55 pm
Hello! I was walking through the chilly mountain region of Los Santos, Costa Rica, and almost walked straight into this bug party happening on a branch of a tree in a city park.
I can identify the wasp, and up near the top there seems to a Blue Morpho cocoon, but what’s attacking the Morpho? And what are those robotic looking white guys? And the bright yellow guys?
The wasp wasn’t going anywhere, either. He looked almost as is he were chaperoning the bug party, and had no intention of flying off.
Signature: Abby

Treehoppers, Membracis mexicana, Adults and Nymphs
Treehoppers, Membracis mexicana, Adults and Nymphs

Dear Abby,
The insects in question, both the “robotic looking white guys” and the “bright yellow guys” are Treehoppers, and they are the same species.  The yellow individuals are the winged adults and the white individuals are the immature nymphs.  We identified the species as
 Membracis mexicana on FlickR.  We verified that ID on Arthropoda Mexicana where there are images of both nymphs and adults.  Encyclopedia of Life also has images of the adults.  We believe that you have mistaken a bud or pod on the plant for a Blue Morpho chrysalis, which is understandable because this image from pBase resembles what is on the plant.  The bud or pod is infested with Aphids.  We will also try to eventually provide a species of family identity of the wasp.

Treehoppers, Wasp and Aphids
Treehoppers, Wasp and Aphids

Thanks so much! 🙂
Looking again, a morpho cocoon wouldn’t hang like that, you’re right! I jumped to that since they’re so common here.
I’m going too look into the treehoppers a bit.
Thanks for the info!
Abby

Letter 7 – Treehoppers from Brazil

 

Cyclops!? Unicorn!?
Location: Google Maps: -23.436464,-46.746075, no Street View at this location
August 29, 2011 5:57 am
Hi, Bugman, it’s my first entry!
Hey, man I shot some little bugs with a single horn and a something that of course it’s not, but seems to be one single eye.
We can see the abdomen and the true eyes of the cute green immature ones, and they seem to be a cicada with a horn on the back. But the adults have the wings grown so we cannot see they’re body.
They’re brown and seem to be a protuberance in the plant. The ants seem to be atracted by them, but they can not or don’t want to do anything to them. They’re parasiting a bean-like plant we call it ”FEIJÃO ANDU”. They’re abble to jump-and-fly like a gunshot, but they prefer to be immoble all the time. Sorry for the bad english.
Signature: Cesar Crash (Brazil)

Treehoppers and Symbiotic Ants

Hi Cesar,
These are Treehoppers in the family Membracidae, and they are categorized with Cicadas in the superfamily Cicadoidea.  They exude a substance called honeydew that attracts the ants.  If Treehoppers are numerous, their feeding habit of sucking plant nutrients can be injurious to the host.  It is also possible that they might spread a viral disease to the plant host.

Treehoppers

 

Letter 8 – Treehoppers from Brazil

 

Subject: Aetalionid treehoppers
Location: Jaraguá, São Paulo, Brazil
September 3, 2012 10:49 am
I have lots of this bugs and I thought I could call them leafhoppers, but now I think I correct identified them as aetalionid treehoppers Aetalion reticulatum. The plant where they’re feeding is Cajanus cajan, the same as the membracid treehoppers you identified for me.
I registered a couple producing that substance. The picture where we can see lots of nymphs was taken four months later (that was not the time they hatch). I can say that this nymphs seem to be very very aggressive, it seems that they never leave the place where they was born but, if you hold the tip of the branch, they all come in the direction of your hand!
Signature: Cesar Crash

Aetalionid Treehoppers laying eggs and attracting an Ant

Hi Cesar,
Thank you for sending in your wonderful photos of
Aetalion reticulatum.  We believe the first image with two individuals and an ant represents two females laying eggs.  We believe the frothy substance is a mass of eggs with some protective secretion.  We also believe the Treehoppers must release honeydew which attracts the ants.  We verified our second theory thanks to the American Insects page on the species where it states:  “Aetalion reticulatum is often tended by ants (see photo below) or stingless bees.  The specific epithet refers to the net-like pattern of veins on the forewing.”  Beetles in the Bush has this comment on a similar photo:  “The individual pictured here is a female and she is guarding her egg mass. Females lay clutches of up to 100 eggs, which are covered in a viscous secretion.”

Aetalionid Treehopper nymphs and Ants

Letter 9 – Unknown Treehopper

 

Unknown hunch-backed insect
Wed, Jul 8, 2009 at 6:02 AM
This picture was taken on 7/7/09 on a pontoon rail while boating on Medicine Lake in Minnesota (near Minneapolis). My niece is visiting from Belgium (she’s 7) and she would like to know what kind of bug this is.
Doug
Near Minneapolis, MN

Unknown Treehopper
Unknown Treehopper

Dear Doug,
We sifted through hundreds of images on BugGuide, but we had no luck identifying what species of Treehopper in the family Membracidae you have submitted.  We could find no matches with both the body contour and the coloration of your specimen.  The contour seems closest to the genus Smilia, but the coloration does seem different.  Perhaps one of our readers will have better luck with a more definitive identification.

Letter 10 – Unknown Treehopper from Australia

 

Some kind of Cicada?
Location: Carlingford (western sydney), Australia
March 18, 2012 8:49 pm
While out photographing some bugs in my backyard, i stumbled onto this guy sitting on one of my window sills, i have no idea what he is. Looks a little bit like a cicada, but quite a bit smaller (probably 1/3 the size?). I didnt get many photos of him before he jumped, and i didnt see where he went after that.
Signature: Paul J R

Treehopper

Dear Paul,
The reason this Leafhopper reminds you of a Cicada is that they are in the same insect order, Hemiptera.  We have not been able to find a matching image for your individual, however, it reminds us of the Gum Tree Hoppers in the subfamily Eurymelinae that are pictured on the Brisbane Insect website.

Letter 11 – Unknown Treehopper from Brazil

 

Treehopper from Brazil
Location: Brazil, Northern Pantanal (MT)
July 16, 2011 11:23 am
Hello, I have photographed this Treehopper in Brazil, Northern Pantanal.
Shearching the Internet, I have found 2011/02/06/treehopper-from-peru/ this page and thought mine was very similar.
I liked the site and decided to register to try to ID this…
Signature: www.lgphotography.fr

Unknown Treehopper from Brazil

Dear www.lgphotography.fr,
We still do not know the identity of this spectacular Treehopper, and perhaps this additional posting will lead to a proper species identification.

Authors

    by
  • 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.

  • 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.

12 thoughts on “Treehopper: All You Need to Know in a Nutshell”

  1. Wow, man! You’re really good in your job, huh? When I grow up, I just wanna be just like you!
    I’m happy to see how I was able to figure out they’re related to cicadas!
    Searchin in google for membracidae, now I know it’s common name here in Brazil is “soldadinho”, wich means “little soldier”. It says that Nature Magazine published about them that these things on their back is a third pair of wings!
    Thanx a lot, Dan Buggyman!

    Reply
  2. Hi, I live in Campbelltown NSW. I found the same species of Treehopper you once found. I thought it was a Small Cicada too. I will try to post some pics soon.

    Reply
  3. Thanks for the identification! I also photographed this treehopper in Brazil and have been trying to find out exactly what it was.

    Reply

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