Sunday, March 30, 2014

Spotlight on… Broad-headed Sharpshooter

North America has a tremendous number and variety of leafhoppers; more than 2500 of them hop (and munch) their way across the continent’s plants. One of the most widespread in our area – and one of the first to make an appearance in the spring – is the Broad-headed Sharpshooter. For a leafhopper, this one’s a monster, measuring nearly a half-inch in length. It’s so big that when it was first described, back in the late 1700s, the entomologist who named it thought it was a cicada!

The sharpshooters (more than a dozen of them in total, found mostly in the American west) get their name from the way they expel their watery waste: with such force that it makes an audible pop and spurts some distance.

Broad-headed Leafhopper, photographed by Will Kerling

Female sharpshooters sometimes show large white oval patches on their forewings. These marks are piles of brochosomes – large protein molecules made by their excretory systems. When they’ve laid their eggs (in a slit made in a plant stem, or some other plant tissue), the females use their back legs to scrape some of the brochosomes off their wings and onto the egg slit. The waxy white powder helps to keep the eggs from drying out, and may help to protect them parasites.

Like all leafhoppers, Broad-headed Sharpshooters suck sap from the plants they feed on. They eat herbaceous plants in fields and meadows during the spring and summer, then move to more sheltered areas in fall, changing their diet to include trees and shrubs. Their plant-sucking habits can cause problems, as they are the primary vectors of the bacteria species that causes phony peach disease, which severely stunts and impairs fruit production in peach trees.

Although they’re most common in our region in June and July, some adult Broad-headed Sharpshooters emerge early in the year and can be seen on some of the first warm days of spring. Keep your eyes open while you’re out and about, and see if you can find one!