Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Oak Tree Hoppers

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,, 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.

*     *     *

I‘ve gone into fairly lengthy detail on these little critters hoping what we’ve learned may be of help to some entomologist ….. and I’m hoping to learn more.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


How Life has Changed
A friend sent me her newspaper column about raccoons recently.  It brought back good memories of Heidi, the dear sweet raccoon Dale and I adopted when we were first married.  Heidi was born in the chimney of a summer cabin.  The owners came to their cabin on Memorial weekend and lit a fire in the fireplace.  Bad idea!  Down came the babies into the fire. 

We were asked if we’d take one.  Yes! 

Back then, fifty years ago, we didn’t have a debate about keeping wild animals wild versus keeping one as a pet. Laws were much more relaxed and rights of the animal were given less consideration.   I still like the idea of keeping some wild animals as pets.  We learn how to better care for them when they need care; and, more importantly, I think wild pets help us connect to wild animals in a way one never does in the wild or in a zoo.  I’m sure some of my closeness to nature now is connected to Jasper, our crow; Minerva, my great horned owl; Zapidie, my jumping mouse; and, of course, Heidi, our raccoon.  Some of my favorite books are written about living with a wild animal:  “Born Free: by Joy Adamson, or “Ring of Bright Water” by Gavin Maxwell.

There was no need to debate whether Heidi should be kept wild.  Her front toenails and part of her ears were burned off. She could no longer cope in the wild, but could have a decent life as part of our household. 

 I still chuckle at arriving at a family reunion with a pink blanket and a bottle full of milk.  The aunties (Dale had lots of them) were all sure a little bundle of sweetness was wrapped in the blanket.  My little raccoon hadn't quit healed yet and wasn’t quite what they had in mind.  They were just beginning to get to know me.
Heidi healed beautifully and soon was exploring everything.  Her little paws felt like soft leather, warm soft leather.  She liked to explore our pockets, ears, nose, and toes – such a pleasant feeling. 

She had the run of the house and politely pooped in the same place, maybe not the place of our choice, but an OK. place.   She followed us everywhere.  We lived on 25 acres at the time and often went for walks with our little family.  There was a definite order to the procession:  Dale first; then I came; followed by Keyair, the Chesapeake dog; Romulus, the malamute; Heidi; and finally Jasper, the crow.  Jasper was always lagging behind to inspect things, and then squawked when it was time to catch up.  

One of my fondest memories of Heidi was taking her to the local bar.  We lived out in the country and a mile or two away was a rural bar.  Life was so different then!  The bar was a homey, local gathering place.  Heidi loved it and so did all the patrons.  We’d pop her on a tall bar stool, order beer for us, and corn curls for Heidi – probably not the best diet for her but mostly she ate good stuff at home and definitely enjoyed the corn curls as a treat.

Unfortunately Heidi’s end was quick and sad.  In the fall we built a large pen so she could hibernate outside in proper raccoon style.  One warm day she somehow escaped and wandered onto the highway.  I like to think the few months she lived were good ones for her.  They certainly were for us.