by Daisy

The other day I was hanging out in my potato patch, just watching lady beetle larvae crawl all over the place.  I turned over a leaf and saw this:


The photo isn’t very good, and it’s hard to describe what’s going on in it, but it seemed like there were ants crawling all over a couple of small, brownish, strangely-shaped crusty things.  When I went to touch one of the crusty things, it moved away from me.  It scooted sideways around the stem like a squirrel around a tree trunk.  I grabbed it and pulled it off and the ants acted more frantic than usual, which is saying something.  They kept scurrying around the spot where the thing had been, like they were looking for it.

The brownish crusty things are leafhopper nymphs.  While the nymphs scurry instead of hop, the adult leafhoppers live up to their name.  When disturbed, they spring up and away and are hard to catch.

The problem with leafhoppers is they pierce the plant with their mouthparts, injecting saliva, which plugs up the vascular tissue causing damage.  The tip of the leaves begin to turn yellow and curl.  This appearance is called “hopperburn.”  It can stunt growth, cause shortened internodes (the space between leaves on a stem) and cause fewer blossoms.  At its worst, it can kill a plant.

What about the ants?  The ants, it seems, are “farming” the leafhopper nymphs.  They protect them from predators, move them around when they feel the need, all to feed off a sweet substance exuded by the nymphs, called honeydew.

What to do?  As an organic gardener, my first step is to watch and wait.  A few leafhoppers won’t kill my entire potato crop.  I’m picking off nymphs I find and will keep a lookout for signs of hopperburn.  Kaolin clay sprays (like Surround) and diatomaceous earth have been suggested for control, but I won’t spray unless I think it’s getting out of hand.  Those controls can also harm beneficial insects, so I don’t want to meddle unless I think it’s absolutely necessary.

Anyone have experience with leafhoppers on their vegetable or fruit crops?

On a positive note, aren’t potato blossoms pretty?  And they smell so good, too.  (I keep expecting the flowers to smell like potatoes so they smell extra nice to me when they don’t).


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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Cinnamon Vogue May 15, 2013 at 11:48 am

Wow the potato blossoms look really pretty. Damn those creatures look like a nuisance. I don’t know about this creature, but I do know Ceylon Cinnamon leaf oil works to get rid of ants. Since this is I guess a subspecies of ant, I am convinced it will work. Cinnamon oil is no toxic so you can safely spray it on plants and eat it too. Like I have offered before, we would love to send you a free bottle to try it out.

Another alternative I think is to regularly hand wash your plants leaves. Seems absurd, but plants are like people, they get dirty and unless you give them a good wash and a hand scrub of the leaves, they are going to get sick. Washing removes quite bit of mold, honeydew, dust and soot and prevents it from taking hold in the first place.

Heather May 15, 2013 at 5:52 pm

I use D.E. for some things, but I don’t have too many issues with leaf hoppers around me. Oh, they’re here, but they don’t get to bothersome levels in my garden that I’ve noticed.

This year, however, I’ve been having issues with the ants eating my radishes. That’s something new to me. I wouldn’t have known it was them if I hadn’t caught them in the act. So strange.

guesthouse dweller May 16, 2013 at 7:38 am

Hey Daisy – please take Cinnamon Vogue up on her offer of the Ceylon Cinnamon leaf oil – we can both try it out since I have a huge crop growing in my garden thanks to you! Mine arent blooming yet 🙁 but I hope they will soon!

Debbie May 18, 2013 at 6:01 am

Another cheap, plentiful, and easy ant deterrent is mint! They won’t even build a mound where it’s planted. This year I’m making a slurry to spray for ants. They do this on the peas and beans with aphids in my area (NW Florida). When I go picking my pods, those ants sting the heck out of my hands. One year I had to let the whole harvest go because I didn’t have a good organic solution to the ant problem.

Good to know about the cinnamon. It’ll certainly make things smell good, too. Oh, cinnamon and black pepper are also great for deterring cats from using your flower beds and yards for their potty areas.


Sunshine May 18, 2013 at 11:56 am

Ants farm aphids too, and ladybugs eat the aphids, so maybe you have a good balance. I don’t know if ladybugs eat leafhopper larvae, but they might.

Leafhoppers also vector plant diseases. So depending on what kind of leafhopper and what plants you have, the leafhoppers may be an issue for perennials too. If you have fruit trees or grapevines, you might call your local ag extension office and see if there are any concerning diseases going around your county. Sharpshooters in particular are vectors for Leaf Scorch (almond, oleander) and Pierce’s Disease (grapes). Plenty of things eat sharpshooter larvae, such as wasp larvae.

Leafhoppers are Cicadellidae, and not related to ants.

Kathy May 19, 2013 at 9:04 am

It took me awhile to find the site which helped me last year. Basically insecticidal soap + alcohol. This site also recommend DE for preventative – on e you get rid of them. I tried a number of things but evidently their secretion make them water repellant …..
“Tip: To improve the effectiveness of insecticidal soap, mix 1 tablespoon of isopropyl alcohol to 1 quart of the spray. It helps the soap penetrate the insects’ outer shell.”


Daisy May 19, 2013 at 10:39 am

Kathy–Good article, good to know, thank you!

Anubis Bard July 21, 2013 at 7:42 am

I came across your post trying to figure out what was going on upon this potato plant. Looks like these ants also have a treehopper ranch going:


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