More than you ever thought you wanted to know about a wee insect, Oak Tree Hoppers -- Platycotis vitiate
Insects! -- what a fascinating world that we’ve have overlooked most of our lives. Of course we enjoyed the colors of butterflies, admired the aerial maneuvers of dragonflies, attacked ants in the kitchen, and treated bees and wasps with due respect; but we never really looked for insects. The digital camera changed all that. With the camera we get to ‘see’ way more about what goes on in their world. It is as if we have a magnifying glass in hand and the insects let us get really close. Actually, most of them don’t, but when we pop our photos onto the computer screen we can see the gleam in their eye and the whiskers on their forehead.
Oak Tree Hoppers are a good example of our newly discovered world. I found the first colony because I now spend some of my time carefully looking along twigs, under leaves, deep in the grass, and even under out house eves. On Aug 18, 2013 I noticed an alder branch that looked lumpy.
When I looked closely, I could hardly believe my eyes. This peculiar little bug looked back with bulging eyes and a whole clan of what looked to be bright red-black-and-white go carts. We soon realized the go carts where nymphs and the adult, probably the female, was protecting them. She looks rather like a thorn on the branch and is only about a third of an inch long.
About thirty nymphs were spread out along the branch feeding. They cut through the thin bark and sip sap …. And frequently poop little droplets of sugary fluid rather like aphids. A lot of this liquid poop was hitting a leaf about four inches beneath the hopper family --- and there sat an ant licking up the sugary bonanza.
Three hoppers nymphs grow by shedding their skin when it gets too tight. When one first emerges it is the prettiest little white replica of its brothers and sisters, and then gradually colors up until it looks just like the other nymphs – bold red, black, and white.
We returned to the alder 17 days later. They were still on the same branch in approximately the same spot. My, how they had grown! Most now had wings and were white with red and black stripes. They were hump-backed and a few had started to grow a protrusion like their Mama. None of them were dark green like the adult.
While we watched a predacious stink bug came along and later a yellow jacket. Both times the adult leaf hopper whirred her wings like mad. The blur of wings was enough to convince both intruders to leave.
Once home it took me awhile to identify these insects (Platycotis vittata). One of my favorite books, Kaufman’s “Field Guide to Insects of North America” only shows white adults and says they feed on birches. The wonderful internet guide, www.bugguide.net, shows mostly white Oak Tree Hoppers, but does have a couple photos of green ones. They expect to find these tree hoppers on oaks and feels in other sightings they were probably ‘just resting.’
This last comment piqued our curiosity. We’re quite sure there isn’t an oak tree within 10 miles of where we took our photographs. The following year we went back to the same site, wondering if we’d find more Oak Tree Hoppers or if our sighting was just an anomaly. We couldn’t find any and so we chalked it up to an anomaly.
BUT this year we looked again. We’ve already found seven families. We’re getting better at looking for those lumpy branches. Also, amongst our little library of insect books, I found another reference to them. “Insects of the Pacific Northwest” by Haggard and Haggard says the female Oak Tree Hopper is dark green and the males are the white ones. Also they report these tree hoppers feed on alder, oak and many other broadleaf trees.
Our photo of youngsters that are nearly full grown shows all the young, winged insects are white. I suspect all young tree hoppers are white and turn color with age. Possibly the males stay white and only the females darken.
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