Passionvine hopper a pretty pest
Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
THIS LITTLE NATIVE Australian insect has made quite a name for itself as a formidable pest over here, while its honey-poisoning ways have made it positively notorious in its adopted home, New Zealand.
As nymphs, passionvine hoppers (Scolypopa australis) look a bit like wingless cicadas, holding their fluffy, almost iridescent posteriors up over their heads like tiny peacocks. It’s not clear what these fine tufts of waxy filament actually do, but they’re likely to ensure that any predator looking to get a bite out of a nymph will end up with a mouth full of sticky wax too.
As adults, the nymphs morph into miniature moth-like creatures with brown and transparent patterns on their wings. They rarely grow any larger than 7mm long, and they have a sweet, dainty way of walking around, like they’re up on tiptoes the whole time.
Passionvine hoppers a sweet pest
Passionvine hoppers are found on a number of fruit tree varieties including kiwi and passion fruit vines, citrus trees and tomato plants – plus sunflowers, ferns and jasmine – pretty much anything with a soft stem that can be eaten away to get at the sap inside.
A common pest in Australia, they arrived in New Zealand almost 150 years ago along with a handful of other native Australian hopper species, and they’ve since become widespread and common there too.
When feeding on sap, passionvine hoppers produce a substance known as honeydew secretion, which is a sticky, sugary liquid that’s picked up by bees.
In New Zealand, if this honeydew secretion is produced from the sap of the poisonous tutu shrub (Coriaria), and then picked up by bees, it can lead to highly toxic honey. While the last recorded death in New Zealand from tutin-poisoned honey was over a century ago, occasional outbreaks of honey poisoning have occurred since, complete with some healthy doses of terrifying delirium.