I Photographed Maternal Behavior in Insects

The Magic of Maternal Care in Insects

While exploring my local arboretum last summer, I discovered a colony of two-marked treehoppers and, in an effort to identify the nymphs through Google image search, I came upon photos of oak treehoppers. I knew right away that these beautiful creatures were my next bucket list bug – I had to find them.

Months later, while chasing a wasp to an oak leaf to photograph, I found a colony of oak treehoppers in the arboretum. I was ecstatic! I photographed the dozens of treehopper nymphs and soon discovered one single adult standing guard. While the treehopper nymphs were black and red with small spikes (most likely a defense mechanism), the adult was darker green with orange spots.

I photographed the colony and excitedly hurried home to upload my images. Upon further research, I learned that oak treehoppers display maternal care. Mama treehopper lays her eggs and watches over her offspring as they develop through several nymphal stages and finally emerge as adults. Research from the 1920s suggests that there are four unique forms of oak treehoppers – horned and hornless, striped and mottled. Some research also speculates that the new adults emerge as the striped form and darken over time to more closely resemble their mother. I visited the arboretum as often as I could to photograph the nymphs as they developed. I was curious to see whether the offspring would be mottled like their mother or striped like the colorful images I saw online.

After several weeks of observing the colonies, the nymphs finally emerged as adults. Much to my surprise, the newly emerged adults were the striped form and they were BEAUTIFUL! The new adults were a rainbow of light blues, reds, and oranges. I could barely contain my excitement (sorry to the young mothers attempting to enjoy a picnic near the oak tree where my new friends made their home).

Throughout the few weeks I spent photographing the oak treehoppers, I made a habit of posting developmental updates and photos in an entomology group on Facebook. As people followed along in my journey, they expressed excitement in learning whether the new adults would darken like their mother.

When I visited the arboretum for my final time photographing this amazing colony of insects, I was heartbroken to discover that every last newly emerged adult had fled the single twig on which they were raised. That is, all but one. One single newly emerged adult whose wings never fully developed remained.

And mama treehopper was right next her last offspring. As hoped, the last adult darkened to look like its faithful mother. I photographed this individual throughout the few weeks I spent observing the colony. I was pleased to have been afforded the opportunity to witness (and photograph) evidence of the darkening of the insect’s exoskeleton over time. I was also a bit sad to see my little adventure in photographing these beautiful bugs come to end.

I’ve been photographing insects and spiders for a long time and, while I LOVE bugs, I never experienced the depth of emotion toward bugs as I did when photographing this colony of treehoppers. As a new(er) mother myself, I found it riveting to watch this mama treehopper fiercely protect her young throughout their development.

We are firmly into bug-hunting season for 2018, and I’m still visiting the arboretum as often as possible, hoping to find similarly endearing stories to share about the awesomeness of bugs.


I used my Canon 70D and reversed Canon EF 40mm ƒ2.8 pancake lens with the Vello Macrofier Reverse Mount Adaptor and Graslon Spark flash diffuser with my onboard flash. This setup yields a 1.2:1 magnification ratio. Check out my piece on reverse pancake lens macro photography for more information.

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