Benefits and barriers to the spread of bug-bitten tea

Jan 21, 2021

Bug-bitten teas, such as Eastern Beauty oolong, are only produced from tea plants that have been attacked by the tea green leafhopper (Empoasca onukii). Bug-bitten tea quality improves due to changes in tea plant chemistry induced by leafhopper feeding. Leafhoppers are most abundant in the late summer, when tea quality is otherwise low, so bug-bitten tea is an opportunity for farmers to increase income while reducing insecticide inputs. This agro-ecological phenomenon has led to many captivating stories about the origins of bug-bitten tea and how leafhoppers improve tea quality. Despite the gaining popularity of bug-bitten tea, this strategy has not been widely adopted outside of Taiwan. Since leafhopper attack reduces tea yield, bug-bitten tea can be a risky strategy. Another potential barrier is that, to my knowledge, there are no formal guidelines for the amount of damage or leafhopper density that maximizes quality and yield. The relationship between the degree of leafhopper damage and tea quality is not well described, although recent metabolomic studies are laying the ground work for developing these recommendations. Furthermore, the effects of cultivar choice and tea processing on bug-bitten tea are largely undescribed. A better understanding of the molecular mechanisms involved in the production of bug-bitten tea from field to cup could result in innovation and potentially new varieties of tea. In addition to research-based guidelines, regional tea farmer organizations can play an important role in the adoption of bug-bitten tea strategies world-wide.

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