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Master Gardener Journal  


The Plant Vampires

by Ellen Wait,
Master Gardener


What better time than Halloween to talk about...THE PLANT VAMPIRES!

These insects belong to the order Homoptera (homo- meaning same, and ptera- meaning wing). The order includes about 42,000 species. With the exception of the cicadas and some fulgorids, most specie members are small. Common names include plant hoppers, treehoppers, lantern bugs, aphids, whiteflies, scale, and the dreaded leafhopper.

These insects have earned the "vampire" label because they pierce tiny holes in plant tissue and suck out the sap. They produce honeydew, and often cause chlorosis and leaf curl in the host plant. They are exclusively terrestrial feeders and perhaps the most damaging order of insects to agronomic crops. In addition to direct feeding damage, many carry plant viruses.

LEAFHOPPERS
Belonging to the family Cicadellidae, leafhoppers are small (rarely growing larger than 13mm) yet destructive.

They are distinguished from other families by the presence of one or more rows of spines extending the full length of the hind tibia. Some are marked with bright colors. Immature leafhoppers can't fly, but the mature ones have wings. They hop around erratically when disturbed.

Leafhoppers may feed on almost any type of plant, and have strong habitat affinities. They particularly like beans, beets, potatoes, and fruit trees. Cell growth is often inhibited on the underside of leaves where they feed.

They bring a special kind of misery to tomatoes in the form of "curly top" virus, which stunts the plant and causes hard, leathery leaves. Branches become stiff and erect, and the veins turn purple. Fruit, if any is produced, is deformed. Curly top will eventually kill the plant. The virus cannot be communicated from plant to plant; the leafhopper must carry the virus and inject it into the plant with its vampire bite. There is no treatment for curly top; affected plants must be removed and disposed of. But NOT in your compost pile!

WHEN LEAFHOPPERS VISIT:
  • Make a sticky trap with honey or molasses on a piece of stiff cardboard and wave it over the plants. Disturbed and disoriented leafhoppers will stick to the boards, which can then be destroyed.
  • Invite predators into your garden. Assassin bugs like sunflowers; lacewings enjoy citrus; and hover flies flock to cosmos, dwarf morning glories, marigolds and spearmint.
  • Try a Garlic-Pepper spray: (Wear gloves for this task). Liquefy three bulbs of garlic and five cayenne peppers in a blender with two cups of water. Strain off all the solids and add enough water to make one gallon. This is your concentrate. Use only 1/4 cup of concentrate to make a gallon of solution. Add a tablespoon of vegetable oil to each gallon of solution in your sprayer.
  • Be grateful you are not dealing with the leafhopper's cousin, the sharpshooter, who shares many of the charming qualities of the leafhopper AND practices "projectile defecation." It's not pretty!


Maricopa County Master Gardener Volunteer Information
Last Updated October 4, 2003
Author: Lucy K. Bradley, Extension Agent Urban Horticulture, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County
© 1997 The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County
Comments to Maricopa-hort@ag.arizona.edu 4341 E. Broadway Road, Phoenix, AZ 85040,
Voice: (602) 470-8086 ext. 301, Fax (602) 470-8092