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November 2020

Lend me some sugar

I've been watching these bugs on small gum trees near home for a while. Can you please identify them? There is one which seems to be different from the others and what is the white one?

Answer

 
Why so pale? Newly emerged leaf hopper adult. Image supplied by Veronica Cuskelly.

Your gorgeous images tell a number of stories.

Most of the insects in the images are leaf hoppers from the family Cicadellidae, sub family Eurymelinae, in various stages of development. The juveniles or nymphs are more brightly coloured or patterned and lack the wings of the adults. The nymphs go through several growth stages (instars). These true bugs moult between these stages and emerge as a slightly different version of their former selves with slightly longer wing buds, until finally emerging as an adult with fully developed wings.

 
Spot the odd one out? Newly moulted leaf hopper juvenile. Image supplied by Veronica Cuskelly.

The pale insects photographed amongst the others are newly moulted individuals. The winged one is a teneral adult (newly moulted and not yet coloured) while the other is a teneral juvenile. When an insect emerges from its moult it is often pale, soft and vulnerable. As the exoskeleton is exposed to the oxygen it hardens and darkens revealing its new colour and pattern, often taking a few hours.

The other note of interest in these images is the collection of ants ‘loitering’ around the leaf hoppers. The ants attend all growth stages of the leaf hoppers in a symbiotic relationship. This is a relationship where two species have a close affiliation that benefits at least one of the species. In this particular case, the symbiotic relationship is mutually beneficial to both insects (a form of symbiosis called ‘mutualism’). The ants feed off the sugary secretions or 'honeydew' produced by the leaf hoppers as they suck the sap from plants and the leaf hoppers receive the ants protection from any predators.

 
Symbiosis. Leaf Hopper juvenile attended by ants. Image supplied by Veronica Cuskelly.

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