What Are Leafhoppers and How Do I Get Rid of Them?

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The leafhopper. Never has an insect been so copiously prevalent yet rudely ignored by lawn enthusiasts. Here's why they require attention.

There are about 20,000 leafhopper species worldwide, suggesting they adapted well to most climates and growing conditions. They feed on agricultural crops like alfalfa and potatoes, ornamental plants, flowers and garden vegetables.

Leafhoppers can be more troublesome for shrubs, ornamental plants and gardens than lawns. But in some cases, there’s a chance they can damage your lawn.

What Are Leafhoppers?

Leafhoppers are tiny insects, typically about 1/8- to 1/4-inch long — about the size of a grain of rice. These tiny wedge-shaped flyers are light green, yellow or brown with piercing-sucking mouth parts. They feed on plants by sucking sap from leaves while simultaneously injecting toxins into the grass. Most times they’re harmless, and the damage they cause inconsequential.

Leafhoppers are prolific reproducers, generating up to three generations during a single growing season. All three stages (egg, nymph and winged adult) may be present in your lawn at the same time.

Female adults lay up to six eggs daily. These eggs hatch in six to nine days, emerging into leaf-hopping nymphs and eventually flying adults. This all happens within about three weeks. Then the cycle begins again. They’re most plentiful in late summer into early fall, when all these coexisting generations assemble in mass.

What Impact Do Leafhoppers Have on Lawns?

You can find leafhoppers in almost any Northern lawn consisting of bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and fescues, and in bermudagrass lawns in Southern regions. Typically, they’re a nuisance and shouldn’t cause much concern.

However, they have an insatiable appetite and aren’t picky eaters. If left unchecked they can weaken your lawn, creating a gateway for other harmful insects, weeds and lawn diseases to gain a foothold.

What Are the Signs of a Leafhopper Infestation?

  • It takes a keen eye to see evidence of leafhopper damage in lawn grasses. If leafhoppers are present, you’ll probably see them spring to action as you mow or simply walk across your lawn. Adults fly but aren’t very good at it, landing only a few feet away. The younger, immature nymphs are flightless and will jump short distances. Hence, the name leafhopper.
  • You may also see an abundance of ladybugs, ants, spiders and other parasitic insects that feed on them. This form of biological control helps keep insect populations in balance. Let them eat! This is a good example of how Mother Nature keeps things in balance.
  • Even if you don’t see leafhoppers, you may see evidence of their presence. Looking closely, you may see small whitish spots on grass leaf blades creating a mottled appearance. This is a notable trademark leafhoppers leave behind once they pierce leaf blades and suck the sap from them.
  • Evidence of more advanced leafhopper damage may show up in sunny, dry areas of your lawn, especially during the hotter days of summer. Lawns with a high leafhopper population can take on a drought-stricken appearance that can ultimately lead to general thinning of the turf stand and subsequent lawn health issues.

How To Keep Leafhoppers from Coming Back

It’s almost impossible to keep leafhoppers out of your lawn. Although they aren’t good flyers, they’re extremely mobile invading your lawn from all sides. In the springtime they can ride storm fronts for hundreds of miles, advancing northward. And they can fly in from your neighbor’s lawn or garden and roost in yours.

The best way to fend off leafhoppers is to keep your lawn healthy and growing. Proper watering, fertilizing and cultural practices will give your lawn the upper hand. Your lawn can grow itself out of trouble.

Keep your mowing height higher, too. Although taller grass can provide more leafy goodness for the leafhoppers to eat, it also provides a better habitat for beneficial pests that eat them. Any damage done by leafhoppers will be easily masked by a taller grass canopy.

How to Get Rid of Leafhoppers

If you can’t outwit these insects, it may be time to adopt an integrated pest management approach, carefully combining plant health care with cultural and chemical control.

Although chemical treatment is seldom recommended, many conventional insecticides are effective against leafhoppers. Those containing pyrethrins like Bonide Pyrethrin Garden Insect Spray Mix, or bifenthrin, such as Ortho BugClear Insect Killer, are good options.

If you’d rather use your lawn spreader than a hand sprayer, a granular combination of bifenthrin and carbaryl like The Andersons DuoCide Professional Grade Lawn Insect Control provides a great one-two punch. All these broad-spectrum insecticides will control other surface-feeding insects, too, like sod webworms, ants and chinch bugs.

Of course, always proceed with caution and avoid spraying insecticides when lawn weeds like clover and dandelions are flowering. These flowering weeds attract bees, butterflies and other delicate pollinators that may end up as unintended casualties. Consider using pollinator-friendly insecticides like Acelepryn SC. It’s safe for pollinators, people and pets.

An organic approach to insect control is also safe for pollinators and the environment. Neem oil, like Captain Jack’s Neem Oil Concentrate, or insecticidal soap, like Safer Brand Insect Killing Soap Concentrate will avert many of the safety concerns yet still provide reasonable control.

All these insecticides are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Read labels completely to ensure safe, proper and timely application while reducing environmental risks and exposure.

Joe Churchill
Joe Churchill is a Senior Turf Specialist for Reinders, Inc. in Plymouth, MN with a passion to promote realistic and environmentally-sound turfgrass maintenance practices through responsible use of water, fertilizers, pesticides and other inputs. Joe's client base includes professional turf managers serving the lawn care, sports turf and golf course industries. His lawn is the envy of the neighborhood and, in his free time, he enjoys kicking back on the Northshore of Lake Superior.