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Bug of the Month: Candy-striped leafhopper

side view of a candy-striped leafhopperCommon name: Candy-striped leafhopper (also, Red-banded leafhopper)

Latin name: Graphocephala coccinea

Kingdom Animalia
   Phylum Arthropoda
      Class Insecta
         Order Hemiptera
            Family Cicadellidae

Leafhoppers in general

Leafhoppers, the common name for the family Cicadellidae, are in the order Hemiptera, which also includes the “true bugs.” Like true bugs, leafhoppers have segmented, tube-like mouthparts which they use to spit saliva into their food (to help digest it), and to suck out the plant sap. However, unlike the beak of true bugs which arises from the front of the head, the beak of leafhoppers arises from the back of the head (on the ventral side) so that it looks like it originates between the front legs. Also, the wings of leafhoppers are uniform in texture, unlike the half-leathery wings of true bugs.

underside of candy-striped leafhopper, showing mouth

candy-streiped leafhopper headLeafhoppers are very closely related to cicadas, spittle bugs, and treehoppers—all common insects in vegetation. In fact, like cicadas, leafhoppers can make sounds which they produce with vibrating organs at the base of the abdomen. These sounds are used to communicate with other leafhoppers, but they are too faint for humans to hear.

Leafhoppers are generally colorful, active (they often run sideways when disturbed), and abundant in many types of plants, from grasses to woody shrubs, and even conifers.  Some species suck plant sap from stems, and others suck juices from the leaves. The saliva which the leafhopper spits into a plant can discolor or even kill it. Additionally, viruses and bacteria can be passed between plants with a “dirty beak” and thus some leafhopper species are considered pests.

This diverse family has about 2,500 species known in North America, and about 20,000 species known world-wide (with many, many more species that have not yet been described).

How to identify the candy-striped leafhopper

This is truly a stunning insect (but it helps to have a magnifying lens)! Alternating bands of red and blue (or green) cover the wings and thorax. Body length is about 5.7-7.5 mm; the females are slightly longer than the males. The head and underside of the insect are mostly yellow, with a thick black band going around the front of the head between the eyes. There are similar-looking red and green species which might be found on the islands (see for comparison), but the candy-striped leafhopper is distinctive in that it generally has more red than green/blue on the wings, while the other species have more green than red.

overhead view of candy-striped leafhopper

Where to find candy-striped leafhoppers on the Boston Harbor Islands

We have documented this species on many of the islands and they likely occur anywhere there are host plants.  Candy-striped leafhoppers feed on the sap of many species of plants, but are particularly fond of the leaves of raspberries and blackberries (Rubus spp.), and other ornamental shrubs (like Forsythia).

How candy-striped leafhoppers make a living

Candy-striped leafhoppers spend the winter as eggs in plant leaves. They hatch in the spring, and the first nymphs feed on sap from new juicy leaves, perhaps on another species of plant nearby. There are five nymphal instars between the egg and the adult form. By summer the adults are present. Depending on the climate, there may be one or two full generations per year for many leafhopper species. The adults will be around until the first killing frosts of the fall. Leafhopper eggs may be parasitized by various insects, or any stage may be fed on directly by invertebrate and vertebrate predators (e.g., spiders, predaceous true bugs, birds).

It is thought that candy-striped leafhoppers may be one of several leafhopper species that transmit the bacteria which cause Pierce’s disease between plants as they are feeding. This disease can kill grape vines and other woody plants.

Where in the world candy-striped leafhoppers occur

This species is native to eastern North America.  On the Boston Harbor Islands, we find the coastal subspecies, Graphocephala coccinea coccinea, but this is replaced further inland by a slightly larger subspecies, Graphocephala coccinea quadrivittata.

To learn more about candy-striped leafhoppers (and leafhoppers in general)

On the web:

In print:

    Beirne, B.P. 1956. Leafhoppers (Homoptera: Cicadellidae) of Canada and Alaska. The Canadian Entomologist 88(2):1-180.

    DeLong, D.M. 1948. The leafhoppers, or Cicadellidae, of Illinois (Eurymenlinae—Balcluthinae). Bulletin of the Illinois Natural History Survey: 24(2):97-376.

    Hamilton, K.G.A. 1985. Leafhoppers of ornamental and fruit trees in Canada. Agriculture Canada Publ. 1779/E.

    Oman, P.W. 1949. The Nearctic leafhoppers (Homoptera: Cicadellidae), a generic classification and checklist. Memoirs of the Entomological Society of Washington 3:1-253.