Friday, May 24, 2013

My Latest Progression Obsession: Keeled Treehoppers

I figure if aliens ever invade, this is what they will look like (click on any of the pictures to enlarge):

Sooo...maybe they're already here. Cool. Well, not entirely cool--they did decimate the biggest, baddest volunteer tomato plant I've managed to accidentally grow yet, but if that's the extent of the damage they plan on doing, I suppose we can all live with that, right?

What, exactly, are these things? At first I though they were aphids because I noticed a bunch of little black things crawling around on my tomato. But then they kept getting bigger. And bigger. And spikier. And more tank-like. And I thought, Hmmm...what the hell kind of aphids ARE these?? So, I brought them in for a photo shoot (that's a peppercorn for scale).

and then proceeded to check my favorite on-line source for bug identification, What's That Bug?. And it turns out I have treehopper nymphs, or baby/adolescent treehoppers. Cool. Except, not really. I kept reading about how much damage they do, and I could find no information about natural predators. At this point though, my tomato plant was still thriving, and I was intrigued. So I let them live, and I became their personal paparazzi. Also, I kind of liked their personalities. When I went outside to put these guys back on my tomato plant, one of them walked right off, but the other one was sort of in play dead/paralysis mode. The one on the move walked over, tapped the other one on the back with one of its legs, and kept on moving. As soon as it got tapped on the back, the act-like-a-rock one was like, What? Oh, OK, I'm coming, and moseyed off. It was kind of endearing. shoot!

Some of them were shy.
"Nope. I do NOT want my face splashed all across the pages of your blog!"

While others took advantage of some photobomb opportunities.

"Photobomb, yo!"

But all of them were spikey. No wonder they don't have any natural predators!

Ants farm treehoppers like they do aphids. They sort of round them up and protect them and gather the honeydew that the treehoppers secrete. Treehoppers are like cows, but for ants. In this picture you can see a good representation of the different sizes they come in and you can see a little droplet of honeydew being secreted (halfway down, on the left-hand side of the stem, there's a little droplet on the pointy end of...a butt). You can even see a few little farmer ants in the picture.

One day, I caught one of these guys molting, so I brought it inside and documented the process while I watched TV. This is probably highly inappropriate behaviour (as if taking pictures of their honey-dew secreting butts wasn't), but I was curious. I hope our new alien overlords can forgive me. The pictures below show a little tank turning into a bigger tank. The photos are of two different bugs because the first half of the pictures I took with the first bug didn't come out very well, so the next day I found me another bug at the same stage and began documenting again, but, I can assure you, the process was very similar. As the critters grow bigger, they have to molt because their exoskeletons don't grow with them, so they bust out of their old, colorful skins, and they come out looking like this:

"Hang on, I gotta put on my face."
Not terribly exciting at this stage, are they? 

A mere 90 minutes later, though, and they look like this:

"OK, I'm ready to go!"

And since you all know I am obsessed with how things progress, here's the progression:

Cool, huh? Next I'll show you what an adult looks like when it comes out of that spikey little shell--it looks like a green tornado-chasing vehicle, and its transformation is just as cool, maybe even cooler. Join me then, won't you?


Mike Frighetto said...

Cool? Yes. Creepy YES! :)

They are very weird looking. Hope they don't hurt your plants.

Ali said...

I love this post! I'd never heard of these insects before. The photos are fabulous, and the fact that ants have little treehopper ranches is pretty darned amazing, isn't it?

Dreamybee said...

MIke-With the exception of my tomato plant, they don't seem to be doing any damage. This is the first time in 12 years that I've ever seen them, so I'm not sure if they've finally reached critical mass and now they'll be around all the time, or if they are cyclical, like cicadas, or what.

Ali-Thanks! I hadn't heard of them either. They totally move like cows in a herd too--if you go outside and poke around at the edges of their "herd" they all sort of move in another direction. I find ant societies endlessly fascinating; unfortunately, I also find them endlessly irritating when they're in my house or on my plants. :(

Malar said...

Never realize analyze any insect in my garden! I must be so ignorant! ;)

Dreamybee said...

Malar-It's OK, we all start out that way! :)