Monday, 30 June 2008

BROWNIES OF THE INSECT WORLD

By A. Hyatt Verrill

Vol. XXIV.—July 1898. page 777 St. Nicholas magazine, from a copy courtesy Linda Young 2007, digital capture by Doug Frizzle 2007

WHAT are they? This is doubtless the question which will arise in the minds of the readers of St. Nicholas when they see the picture at the top of this page. Are any of Mr. Cox's Brownies quainter or more droll than these queer, spectacled creatures with their outlandish head-gear? Nor are these little elfin-like beings inventions of the imagination. From the time when the first green leaves burst forth in spring until the keen, frosty air of autumn ends their strange existence, they live and thrive under our very eyes.

The little people created in Palmer Cox's brain[1] never wore a greater variety of dress than do the Leaf-Hoppers; for these droll little faces are nothing more nor less than the heads of the common insects called Leaf-Hoppers as they appear when viewed through a magnifying-glass. There are more than one hundred species of these little insects found in the eastern United States alone, no two of which are alike. Some are brown, others green, blue, white, or mottled in various colors and patterns; while one patriotic little fellow goes so far as to wear our national colors in stripes of red, white, and blue upon his roof-shaped back.

The Leaf-Hoppers are as erratic in their movements as the Brownies themselves, and could easily give hints to those favorites of the children in regard to traveling through space; for although these insect-Brownies possess wings and moderate powers of flight, yet their usual method of traveling is by sudden, elastic leaps, often covering as much as six feet, or over five hundred times their own length, in a single bound. If man could move in this manner, there would be little need of express trains, for in two jumps a person could travel a mile!

A favorite resort for these insects is among the stems and leaves of the grape-vine and Virginia creeper. If you look in these places on any warm summer's day, you will find them with their bodies lying close to the surface on which they may be resting, while their pointed caps look like small protuberances of the bark.

These queer-shaped humps are not alone for ornament, but, like everything else in nature, have their use. The little fellow with the tall, peaked cap on the extreme left of the picture lives on rose-bushes, and his cap, of a dull olive color, appears so much like one of the thorns that you will have to look sharp to find him.

After you find your Leaf-Hopper, approach with great care; for no matter how cautiously you move, he will see you with those sharp goggle-eyes, and if you are approaching him from the side or rear, will wheel quickly about until he faces you, and slightly raising the forward portion of his body, will watch your every move. Now make a quick motion or extend your hand as though to touch him. Quick as a flash, he will take a short backward step and be up and away with a lightning-like spring, as though hurled from a miniature catapult, and the chances arc you will never see him again. The Leaf-Hoppers, like their cousins the common plant-lice, or aphides, are sap-eaters (or more properly sap-suckers), and, like them, many species secrete a sweetish substance called "honey-dew." This secretion is considered a great delicacy by the ants, and if you look carefully you may often see a procession of small ants passing up and down a plant on which the little hoppers are feeding. At first sight the ants seem to be eating the little creatures, but if you examine them with a lens it will be seen that they are merely feeding on the honey-dew. In fact, the Leaf-Hoppers and aphides are utilized as cows by the ants. They take excellent care of their cattle, too, watching over and guarding them constantly. In the autumn the ants take the eggs of the aphides or Leaf-Hoppers into their own nests, where they keep them through the winter.

In the spring, when the eggs hatch, they carry the young and nearly helpless brood to some plant where they can feed; and if the plant dries up or dies, they carry the little sap-suckers to better feeding-grounds. In some cases the ants even build tiny sheds over their herds to protect them from the weather. When they desire the honey-dew, the ants gently stroke the backs of the insects with their antennae, when the little creatures immediately expel a drop of the coveted fluid.

The Leaf-Hoppers belong to the order of insects known as Hemiptera, and, like the other members of their order, do not pass through a grub or caterpillar state as do the butterflies and many other insects. The young, when first hatched, look much like their parents, with the exception of the wings, which do not appear until the first change of skin. With each successive molt the wings increase in size until fully formed. Although the existence of the most of the Leaf-Hoppers ends with the falling leaves, yet quite a number live over winter, passing the long, cold months in a sort of sleep beneath dead leaves, straw, or any other rubbish that will keep out the cold.



[1] Refers to a series of ‘Brownie Books' a series circula 1897; still in publication today.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.