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Bug-Bitten Tea

The bugs seek out purity.

Bug-Bitten Tea

There’s a bug called the leafhopper that loves nothing more than to thrust its sharp beak- like mouth into tender baby-shoot tea leaves. Though this bug is small, its effect on the final tea is profound. It’s famous for creating the muscat aroma that can be found in second flush Darjeelings. It also creates a very beautiful and enjoyable honey-like aroma in Formosa Oolongs, also known by many other names (Oriental or Eastern Beauty, Bai Hao Oolong, Silver Tipped Oolong, Dong Fang Mei Ren and Gui Fui Mei Ren). In fact, these qualities that the leafhopper induces in tea have steered tea farmers away from using pesticides. Instead, the farmers seek to create an environment in which the leafhoppers thrive. The bugs seek out purity.

Miao Li Eastern Beauty tea farm shows mixed use of tea and citrus.

 

Commonly known as the small green leafhopper, tea green leafhopper, and jassid, its formal name is the Jacobiasca formosana. This bug is small - 3 mm at full size. I've been telling this story at the teahouse for years, and the other day, I realized that part of this story might or might not be true, but it comes from a tea magazine that was published by a Chinese publisher. And part of the reason I still tell this story today, is because it was difficult to translate and I feel invested. This bug is considered a pest, but something amazing happens when tea plants are bitten. The leaf undergoes a metabolic chain reaction that is part of the plants’ survival plan. This metabolic change is considered enticing. Through several hundred if not thousands of years of evolution, the fresh tea leaf has developed a self-defense mechanism. The threat caused by the leaf hopper resulted in abnormal metabolic rhythms being produced by the plant which in turn caused some sort of chemical reaction that results in “multiple tea polyphenols” (the powerful antioxidant found in oolong tea) and tea tannins. These polyphenols and tannins in turn attracted the leukoplakia wax spider, a natural predator of the leaf hopper.

The leafhoppers became a welcome pest, adding flavor to the tea throughout the island of Taiwan. There is much controversy as to whether or not you can see evidence of bug bite marks, but it is my understanding the leafhopper can bite the stem and that will also influence the leaf. Just because it might not have any marks, it doesn't mean it is fake. Fake or real, you have to train your palate to know the difference.

We have several bug bitten teas from Taiwan. Check out our Formosa Oolong section.

Posted by Josh Chamberlain

3 Comments - Bug-Bitten Tea

Geoff (not verified) October 16, 2015

Reply
Great write-up. I'm quite partial to bug-bitten teas, and - having observed the open, wet leaf- post-brew, I can say that you CAN see the bug-bites on the leaves . . . and taste the inherent sweetness.

Josh Chamberlain November 05, 2015

Reply
Thanks for reading Geoff!

Eric Scott (not verified) November 30, 2015

Reply
I tracked down that bit about the spiders being attracted to plants damaged by the leafhoppers to a PhD dissertation written in chinese, behind a paywall, but with a (very poorly) translated abstract: www.dissertationtopic.net/doc/1542347 I'm pretty sure "leukoplakia" is a bad translation, and it sounds like the bit about tannins and polyphenols being attractive isn't correct. I THINK what they did is let the leaf hoppers feed on tea plant plaques (clumps of tea plant cells growing in a test tube, I think) and then tested to see if a jumping spider, Evarcha albaria, prefered those plaques over unattacked ones. They spent more time waiting on the plaques that had been attacked by the leaf hopper. It wasn't the tannins or polyphenols that the spiders sensed (those are in the plant leaves, and the spider would have to taste them) but other volatile chemicals--chemicals that the spider could smell from the plant leaves. Even though this is a poorly translated thesis that might not have made it through the peer review process (I haven't found it published in an actual journal anywhere), it's totally reasonable. There are MANY examples of plants fighting pest insects by producing chemicals that attract predators or parasites of those pests.

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