BugBytes: Sometimes, life imitates Pokémon


Marian Lyman Kirst

Treehoppers are tiny, with most able to fit on a fingernail, but the insects’ strange and endearing beauty becomes clear when viewed in macro.

A couple of weeks ago, I made a grave mistake. A friend posted this message on Facebook: “I just helped my 56-year-old boss catch a Charmander in our shop…” My idiot response: “What the hell is a Charmander?”

At first, for a shiny, short-lived second, I assumed my friend was simply using an obscure common name to refer to a wayward snake or lizard. Thus, I was nearly out the door to aid in what I imagined to be an exciting, around-the-office reptile rescue.

Fortunately, I quickly remembered the friend with whom I was dealing: an outdoorsman only in the sense that he is a male human who isn’t inside, sometimes.

PrintMy mistake, then, came in asking questions first (on a group message thread, no less) and Googling later. Thus, my friends’ response: “Marian, get out from the rock you live under. Jeesh. Even [my boss] is in the loop on this one.”

And: “Marian, Google Pokémon Go.”

The conversation quickly devolved, with me posting uncomfortably earnest justifications for my ignorance (“I’m too busy livin’, man!” kind of stuff) and my friends slinging back snark, as well as a few good points:

“At least it gets people moving,” one suggested. True enough. Though I’d argue that stumbling through the Wal-Mart parking lot in search of Squirtles is a far cry from a good, old-fashioned, net-in-hand field trip.

To his credit, though, this same friend eventually settled the debate with the perfect verbal mic drop:

“Everybody enjoy catching whatever you want, be it real or virtual… just stop blowing up my phone.”

But despite the general silliness of this discourse, there are some interesting questions at its heart.

Is Pokémon Go simply another screen-based distraction, a virtual diversion from a world of real, fantastical mini-creatures? Or, does the game have the potential to bridge the gap, making it easier for people—especially nature-deficient kids—to see the value in outdoor exploration and natural history?

The creation of the larger Pokémon universe by Satoshi Tajiri in the early ’90s was, after all, inspired by Japan’s popular hobby of insect collecting. In fact, nearly all “bug” type Pokémon boast invertebrate-inspired abilities, such as those of the (clearly cicada-based) Nincada (#290 in the Pokémon Pokédex).

In honor, then, of the Pokémon Go phenomenon, BugBytes’ featured creatures this month are the western thornhopper and the buffalo treehopper, a pair of Hemipterans that, with their whimsical, big-eyed charm, seem to have been pulled directly from the Pokémon pantheon.

Treehoppers (family Membracidae) are small to itty-bitty insects known for their incredible jumping ability and bizarre shapes and constructions. Their odd physical modifications often resemble seedpods, plant thorns or leaf scraps; camouflage that can help the insects escape the notice of predators and humans alike.

Buffalo treehoppers (genus Ceresa) are some of the most commonly encountered Membracids in our area (sweep a net through most any field or meadow in and around Billings and you’re almost sure to catch a few of the wasabi-green bugs).


Danielle McCraken

Artist Danielle McCraken’s marvelous interpretation of a gregarious feeding cluster of Western thornhoppers (and a few rogue aphids) being “farmed” by honeydew-hungry ants.

Like most herbivorous Hemipterans, treehoppers feed on the phloem or “sap” of specific host plants and trees. But treehoppers are distinct from related families in the ornate shapes and structures of their pronotum, the hard, plate-like structure that covers all or part of the thorax of many insects.

In treehoppers, this plate is super-sized and often keeled or humped, giving the insects the appearance of tiny, upturned boats. In other cases, the pronotum is pointed in the corners or extended, like a horn or “nose,” well beyond or above the insect’s head.

These bizarre projections may, depending on the treehopper’s host plant, provide protection via mimicry (of seeds, thorns, etc.) or—if the modifications are particularly long or spikey—by discouraging attack and ingestion by predators (imagine having to swallow a boomerang or whole sea urchin).

What’s more, treehoppers have a tendency to feed in groups, with both juveniles (nymphs) and adults clustered vertically along a stem or branch. This unusually social behavior (for non-hymenopteran insects, anyway) not only amplifies the treehoppers’ resemblance to plant thorns, but also expedites bug-to-bug communication, which treehoppers accomplish by “drumming” vibration-based messages to each other through the stems and leaves on which they are standing. Finally, group feeding may also confer a protective, safety-in-numbers, advantage to the relatively defenseless insects.

I was thrilled, a couple of weeks ago, to witness such a feeding cluster on a stem of spotted knapweed near Chico Hot Springs. The gregarious little band was composed of Western thornhoppers (Campylechnia rugosa); common, chestnut-colored treehoppers that resemble gladiator helmets come to life.


Marian Lyman Kirst

With their peculiar abilities and oddball looks, treehoppers are the living, breathing Pokémon of the undergrowth.

The knapweed’s convincingly thorn-like bug cluster nearly fooled me—until I remembered that spotted knapweed doesn’t have thorns. So what the heck? Interestingly, recent theory suggests the treehoppers’ strange shapes may—in cases where botanical mimicry doesn’t make sense—serve a thermoregulatory function instead, by increasing the bugs’ overall surface area, which allows for faster evaporative cooling.

This makes sense, as treehoppers tend to feed during the heat of the day when many predators are inactive. However, upon closer inspection of that knapweed cluster, I realized the thornhoppers weren’t alone.

Indeed, a troop of shiny black ants was running feverish circuits between them and a sprinkling of small green aphids. But the ants weren’t aggressors. Rather, they were “farming” the hoppers and aphids for the glistening drops of honeydew that many Hemipterans secrete as liquid by-products of their sap sucking.

In return for this energy-rich sweet treat, the ants will fiercely defend the bugs from day-active predators and parasites. This is a wonderful example of mutualism, a biological barter system in which two completely different species both benefit from their relationship with the other.

And although treehoppers may not be able to steal spirits, freeze breath or hurl fire, their bank of abilities—to mimic plant parts, poo sweet dew and talk percussively—is pretty damn neat.

So, when out catching creatures, be they real or virtual, keep your eyes peeled for these charming Membracids, helpfully described by BugByte illustrator Danielle McCracken—for all you Pokémon Go addicts out there—as a combination of Shedinja (#292) and Axew (#610).

The Nitty Gritty:

Common Names: Buffalo treehopper and Western thornhopper

Order: Hemiptera

Family: Membracidae

Where to find: Look for Western thornhoppers on the stems of plants in the family (Asteraceae), particularly on knapweed, thistle and asters. You can find buffalo treehoppers on tree and bush leaves, grasses and plant stems, and they may hop onto your person if you find yourself walking through a grassy meadow.

When to find: Late spring through late summer during the day.

Marian Lyman KirstM.L. Kirst is a Billings-based, bug-obsessed freelance writer and photographer with a background in environmental studies and science journalism, and she is currently working on a degree in entomology. Her work tends to focus on natural history and wildlife conservation. But her prime directive is to blend art, science and writing in a way that inspires others to celebrate the beauty, ingenuity, and diversity of insects, spiders and their kin.






Our Photos of the Month are of the 10-lined June beetle (Polyphylla decemlineata). They were contributed by our friends at the Montana Audubon Center, Laura Woodward (lead naturalist and volunteer coordinator) and Trinity Pierce (land stewardship coordinator).
Augst_Bug of the Month_Collage
Ten-lined June beetles  are one of Montana’s largest (up to 28 mm long) scarab beetles and are characterized by strongly striped bodies; the loud, hissing noise they can make (by forcing air through their spiracles) when disturbed; and the clubbed, multi-plated antennae that the beetles can fan out and close up. The pictured beetles are almost certainly males as their antennae are much larger than those of the females, a modification that helps the males detect female-emitted pheromones.

These gentle giants are common around lights at night. Look for them throughout July and August.

Lastly, as a bonus, here is Danielle McCracken’s rendition of a treehopper as a Pokémon:

Treehopper Pokemon

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