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Leafhoppers on sage

Posted: Wednesday 26 September 2012
by Richard Jones

Sage is one of my favourite herbs, and I have also discovered, rather belatedly it seems, that this herb is host to an incredibly pretty leafhopper.

A close-up of a sage leaf-hopper, Eupteryx decemnotata

Sage is one of my favourite herbs, not just because it’s very tasty and goes with almost anything, but because it grows so vigorously, even when squashed into a pot outside my kitchen door. I have also discovered, rather belatedly it seems, that this herb is host to an incredibly pretty leafhopper.

At just two-and-a-bit millimetres long and half a millimetre wide, Eupteryx decemnotata has no English name I’m afraid, as it’s much too small. But this didn’t stop it being spotted as a species new to Britain 10 years ago. Although very similar to another leafhopper, Eupteryx melissae (which is equally dainty, equally pretty and also feeds on sage leaves), under the microscope its distinctive head markings make it obvious enough. I’m still moderately impressed with the photo I took on my phone down the barrel of a small microscope, but it looks even prettier in a proper photograph.

Since Eupteryx decemnotata turned up in London in 2002, its spread has been monitored across many of the Home Counties, and it is now found as far afield as Leicester and Dorset.

Even though they are very small, leafhoppers can often be spotted because they are sometimes brightly pale against the greenery and they flit easily from leaf to leaf. Their feeding habits also produce quite distinctive signs: mottling of the leaves caused by a series of pale pinpricks. Each microscopic dot is where the bug has inserted its needle-sharp proboscis and sucked out the green contents of a single plant cell. This leaves behind an air-filled void, which appears white or straw-coloured, in contrast to the chlorophyll-thick cells around it.

Some leafhoppers are regarded as horticultural or agricultural pests because of this leaf discoloration – the rose leafhopper, Edwardsiana rosae, for instance. I can’t regard Eupteryx decemnotata with anything other than wonder at the moment. Some of the older sage leaves are looking a bit speckled, but they taste as good as ever. In my book it’s not a pest unless it reaches pest proportions.

Sage leaves, with mottling caused by the leaf-hopper Eupteryx decemnotata

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