Like herds of tiny bison wandering across a floating plain, thousands of slow moving creatures shuffle their way across the nearly continuous surface of Spatterdock leaves. From their perspective among the lily leaves the towering flower heads loom like multiple Seattle Space Needles. Perhaps one of the most common critters of Dollar Lake, Water Lily Plant Hoppers make up in numbers what they lack in size or visual appeal. This is not to say that they are boring, but let’s just say they are easily overlooked. There are some 17 species of this type of insect but we’ll have to be generic about this beast – they are Lily leaf Plant Hoppers.
Their existence is confined to the upper surface of the floating leaves and at times they number in the hundreds per Spatterdock and White Water Lily leaf. Like their giant cousins the Cicadas, these insects treat their host plants as giant box drinks – piercing and siphoning off the fluids with a needle-like mouth. Unlike cicadas they are soft-skinned, flightless, and colonial. I would take it a step further and say that they are silent as well, but since scientists have recorded some land-dwelling hoppers making micro “love” calls I can’t attest to the muteness of these aquatic hoppers. Living on a crowded space as they do, their communication probably consists of “hey you, watch where you’re going” or frequently exchanged barbs such as “oh yeah, your mother is nothing but a plant-sucking Hemipteran.” “Yeah, same goes for you…you short-winged son of a Spatterdock!”
Life in a Lily Hopper colony is a pretty tame affair. Since they live on top of their next meal there is no need to actually seek nutrients. They eat, grow, shuffle and then eat some more. Oh, they shed on occasion also, but do not do so all at the same time since the members of the group are in a different phases of the growth cycle. Small windrows of variously sized skin casings accumulate on the leaf between rain showers and at times it appears as if there are twice as many hoppers as there really are (all are standing beside their former selves).
A buffering layer of lily pads extending out into the deeper water shields the dockside colonies from the daily effect of mild wind and waves. Higher winds and pelting rains often flip the leaves over and dump the top-side hoppers into the drink. Light airy critters that they are, they can walk across the water surface to seek a tighter shelter. A regular army of visitors land among them – Flower Flies, dusted with Spatterdock pollen (or is it spattered with spatterdock pollen?), leaf-eating beetles, and aquatic China-mark caterpillars that crawl over the dry surface on occasion. Water Striders are probably the biggest threat to hopper life.
As the Plant hoppers treat their leaves, so too the Water Striders treat soft juicy creatures such as plant hoppers. Fortunately, they seem to prefer other prey such as small flies or the random air insect that falls to the water surface, but the ever-present hoppers serve as the liver in the fridge (there when nothing else is available).
Striders glide around the pads and often pull up on the surface to rest. For them, as it is for the hoppers, the leaf and water form one continual surface. They are aquatic but would drown if trapped beneath the meniscus layer. This time of year many of the striders are adorned with fat red mite larvae. The mites cluster around the head end and give the poor water striders the appearance of someone driving after all the air bags have gone off. Scientists classify them as ectoparasites because they mooch off their host without harming them or entering their innards. The pesky mites will drop off when mature and finish their life cycle under the water and the striders will rejoice in shedding their acne.
As for the Hoppers, they will continue their pad existence throughout the summer into fall (overwintering, I suspect, as eggs). It is a good life punctuated only by occasional strider grief or the discomfort of wind and waves. The Spatterdock Plains are a micro world of plenty and small drama.