Author’s note: This is the latest post in the Wonderful Things series. You can read more about this series here.
Planthoppers are insects that live all around us but whom few people ever see. The planthoppers that live in the tropics, though, are hard to miss, at least if this clip from the Smithsonian Channel's program “Wild Burma” is any indication.
Those little planthopper nymphs appear to be the offspring of an ent and a tribble, or perhaps shaggy sheep having bad hair days. Sheep that leap. You can practically hear them go “wheeeeee!!!” as they spring away.
I wrote about leafhoppers a few years ago here, because these little overlooked guys are really irresistible.
Planthoppers are bugs that suck juices from plants. Usually, these juices are the sugary fluids found in the phloem (FLOW-em), the collection of plant pipes that transport food up and down a plant. Sitting on a plant sucking juices all day makes you a pretty easy target, so planthoppers often mimic leaves, similar to the way their close relatives the treehoppers mimic thorns and other plant bits.
The group of bugs that planthoppers belong to – colloquially called “plant bugs” and including treehoppers, planthoppers, leafhoppers, scale insects, and mealybugs -- are known for a tendency to hold their two pairs of wings over their abdomen tent-style, for having hind legs made for hopping (hence the abundance of “hoppers”), and for the waxy secretions often exuded from glands on their bodies, by which many of these insects armor or adorn themselves. Just what these little planthopper nymphs get out of their extravagent body art isn't clear, although as the host suggests, parasite or predator defense is a strong possibility. They do not look like they would be fun to swallow whole.
However, they do make a tasty ... er, secretion. As I wrote,
...[Planthoppers], like many plant-sucking bugs, also poop out a sweet sugar solution called honeydew that ants go crazy for. This stuff can also land on plants where it feeds black plant fungal pathogens called sooty molds. And if you pay attention on warm, sunny summer days as you bicycle under big, shady, arching trees, you can often feel tiny drops of this honeydew misting your face. I'm not kidding.
Keep in mind that while these bugs are cute beyond belief, they are also more or less the plant equivalent of mosquitoes. If plants could whack them, no doubt they would.