Nymphs on cherry tree – some sort of treehopper?

2010 November 6

We were invited to a picnic on July 3, and our hosts mentioned that their cherry tree had an infestation of something that looked like tiny spiders. So, I went and looked at it, and saw that practically every leaf was covered with these tiny bugs:

It was a pretty decent-sized tree (about 15 feet tall), so we are talking about probably hundreds of thousands of these little guys. Although, looking closer, I think that not all of them are live insects. The white ones look kind of empty and deflated, and I think they are shed skins. Which would mean that only around a quarter of them were actual insects, dropping the number to maybe tens of thousands. Still a lot, though. Here’s one I think is a skin:

And here’s one that is clearly alive. It has dark patches, and a much fuller abdomen.

They were pretty clearly nymphs, since they were present at multiple sizes, and some of the bigger ones had the beginnings of wing buds.

The hind legs on that bigger one also look like they could be useful for jumping. These are new to me, and I couldn’t decide whether they were some type of barklouse, or one of the hundreds of species of planthoppers. So, I posted these up on BugGuide, but nobody wanted to venture much of an opinion beyond Charley Eiseman suggesting that they could be treehoppers. BugGuide in general is kind of lean on pictures of nymphs (probably because they tend to be smaller, not very striking, and generally lack the distinguishing features that they will develop as adults, making them hard to identify). But, poking around on the site under the treehoppers (family Membracidae), I did find this picture showing some similar nymphs being tended by ants.

So, anyway, while they were present in disturbing numbers, they didn’t seem to be overly traumatizing the tree. In general, treehoppers evidently aren’t considered pests, they don’t seem to form the kind of dense aggregations that other plant parasites (like aphids, mealybugs, and scale insects) form. Once they reach adulthood, they have two pretty good defenses against being eaten: they are well-camouflaged (frequently disguised as thorns), and they can jump phenomenal distances. So, they don’t need to reproduce like crazy the way that the more immobile plant-juice-sucking insects have to.

8 Responses
  1. November 7, 2010

    “We were invited to a picnic on July 3, and our hosts mentioned that their cherry tree had an infestation of something that looked like tiny spiders.” Good Lord, you’ve become like the doctor that goes to parties only to have the other guests ask him to diagnose their symptoms!


    Awesome post as always, Tim.

  2. November 8, 2010

    Heh. Yes, there is some of that. People I work with, or that I meet socially, have taken to asking me about, showing me pictures of, or even giving me specimens of, the bugs that get into their houses.

    All I can say is, this is very different from the response I get when somebody asks what I do for a living and I say “Extractive metallurgy”. That just generally makes their eyes glaze over.

  3. November 11, 2010

    Perhaps it would help if you told them you make shiny things. 🙂

  4. November 20, 2010

    Hmmm – we’ve had something that looks just like this on the underside of the leaves of our Evans Cherry – ghosts of suckers past. Our were very small and I think they were more likely to be leafhoppers than treehoppers (although buffalo treehopper is reported from cherry – but I haven’t seen any in our yard and they are 4 or 5 mm long as adults).

    I have seen small, quick, pale green cicadellids on the cherries – and especially the close-up picture of yours at the bottom elft has a head shape and long aristate antenna that looks very much like a leafhopper. The Privet Leafhopper has a spiny cuticle and feeds on cherry, so this is a possibility – check out BugGuide:


    and see what you think.

  5. December 12, 2010

    Dave: It’s possible, and the adults look plausible, but the nymphs shown for the Privet Leafhopper on Bug Guide are the wrong color (green) and a different shape. I’d go along with it being a relative, but not being the same species.

  6. Della3 permalink
    January 23, 2011

    I’m skeptical about the shed skin theory. The smaller, white versions may just be immature, newly hatched babies. Newborn aphids also look like very thin, white ghosts before they suck up enough juice to gain the plump green or black appearance of the mature adults. It took a few years for me to realize that those tiny, harmless, white specks on my roses were the beginnings of an aphid explosion each year. Also, the arms, legs, etc. of the “skins” seem to be arrayed too neatly to be the result of shedding. If ants like to farm them, they may produce a nectar from eating the cherry leaves.

    And…….. hold on, I would never have suspected that you were a metallurgist. That explains the chemical diagrams. Having some interest in geology myself (o.k., I’m interested in LOTS of things), I think it’s a hoot that you’re also fascinated with bugs. Then again, maybe they’re related. In both cases your dealing with things that usually come from the ground. Just don’t tell us that Sam is an astrophysicist!

  7. Della3 permalink
    January 23, 2011

    I was so interested in this funny little bug that I did some net-surfing of my own. It appears the leafhopper or treehopper diagnosis is probably correct. Your pictures are definitely the best I found. It’s interesting that no one else’s pictures show the shed skins. Also, none of the other sites showed nymphs in such early stages. The nymphs apparently can secrete nectar for ants, and sometimes deliberately try to attract ants to prolong the nymphs’ lifespans, since the ants will protect them from predators. I’m curious if you followed up with your hosts and if they observed the adults at any time, and have they taken steps to protect the tree or do they hope natural predators will emerge when the tree will likely continue to be reinfested each year?

  8. January 25, 2011

    Della3: Thanks for checking further. When they were collected, the weather had been calm and rainless for some time, and the tree was in a very protected location, so I think there was just nothing to knock the skins loose. I expect that wind and rain would have removed the shed skins from the leaves pretty quickly. If that is, in fact, what they were. It didn’t occur to me that they might be skins until long after the fact, when I was processing the pictures, and didn’t have the actual specimens in hand any more. Sadly, I didn’t have a chance for a followup visit to the tree they were on until after they had disappeared again. At any rate, they didn’t appear to be significantly stressing the tree, so the owners aren’t too concerned about them.

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