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Have you ever noticed a curious phenomenon in your garden—a frothy, white substance resembling saliva on plants?
Before you jump to conclusions, rest assured that it’s not someone’s misbehavior. Instead, it’s the handiwork of an intriguing insect known as the spittlebug, or more commonly, the froghopper. Join us as we unravel the mysteries of these fascinating creatures and the unique substance they produce.
What is Spittle & What is it Produced by?
You’ll sometimes hear spittle being referred to as cuckoo spit, although there is no connection to the birds other than the spittle and cuckoo calls occur at the same time of the year; in spring.
Spittle or cuckoo spit is a frothy white liquid that can be found on the stems and leaves of various plants during the spring and summer when the froghopper is in its nymph stage. The term spittlebug refers to the nymph stage, while froghopper is the common name for the adult stage of the same insect.
While it might look gross, this spittle is essential for the survival of these bugs during this stage of life and serves as protection from predators. But we’ll look at this in more detail later on.
For now, let’s examine how these froghopper nymphs produce the spittle. They face down on the plant as they feed and excrete a sap-like substance from their anus. This is essentially any excess sap not digested mixed with a special secretion which, when pushed out of the body, mixes with air and produces a foamy liquid.
The liquid doesn’t do any harm to the plant, although gardeners are warned that if the nymph is feeding at the end of a shoot, this may distort its growth slightly. However, these bugs are not considered to be a pest.
What is the Purpose of Spittle?
Scientists would call cuckoo spit bio-foam and this is used as a form of protection for the vulnerable, soft-bodied juvenile spittlebug. During the nymph stage, these bugs are susceptible to attacks from predators and so produce this lathery substance as something of a shield.
If you ever try to remove the liquid and uncover the nymph inside, you’ll notice that it quickly tries to escape behind a nearby leaf as a second method of protection.
It’s also suggested that young froghoppers produce this substance as a way of controlling their temperature and moisture levels, to avoid becoming dehydrated.
What are Froghoppers?
The froghopper is a hemipteran insect belonging to the family Cercopoidea, which contains around 2,500 different species. These insects are common in many places around the world, and there are around 60 known species in North America and Mexico.
As adults, they can often be found among vegetation although they’re pretty shy and will avoid contact with humans, often jumping away and traveling several times their own body length in one jump. This is thanks to their large hind legs.
The adults have a distinct appearance with a dark black, brown, or gray body and orange to yellow striped markings. Many people confuse them with the leafhopper, but froghoppers are considerably fatter.
Before they reach adulthood, froghoppers go through an interesting life cycle. As with all insects, spittlebugs start life as an egg which is usually laid among the leaf litter, where it remains over winter. It isn’t until April when the nymphs start to appear.
They will start feeding at the base of plants and gradually make their way up the stems in search of flowers and leaves. During this stage of life, the nymphs may grow up to a quarter of an inch in length but are often not seen as they are concealed within their spittle shield.
At birth, the young start off with an orange-to-yellow coloration but they steadily change to green as they get older.
Is Spittle Harmful to Plants?
When you notice spittle on your plants, one of the first things you’re going to worry about is whether it’ll harm your beloved blooms. However, there is some good news; this bio-foam doesn’t pose much of a risk to the plant. It’s true that the spittlebug nymphs will feed on the sap from the plants, but what they take is minimal, so it has very little to no effect on the plant.
That said, if there is a serious infestation of spittlebug nymphs then there is a greater risk of damage to the plants as collectively, they will take a significant amount of sap. Again, there’s good news; these bugs don’t usually gather in large numbers.
With that in mind, it is worth noting that the froghopper is known for its ability to transfer Xylella fastidiosa which is a type of bacteria that can cause things like wilt, leaf scorch, and ultimately the death of a plant. Unfortunately, there isn’t any cure for the disease and it is easily passed on from plant to plant as the insect pierces the stems to extract sap.
Is Spittle Harmful to Humans?
If you have spittlebugs in your garden then there’s no need to worry about how they may affect your health, as they’re completely harmless to humans. In fact, some scientists say you could even eat them, and they’d cause no harm, although I wouldn’t recommend it as they probably don’t taste too good.
The spittle you find on plants is also perfectly safe for humans as it’s made entirely from biological materials produced by the insect and air.
Managing Spittle & Spittlebugs in the Garden
While spittlebugs pose no threat to humans and do very little harm to plants, you may simply not want them in your garden, and that’s OK. It’s always best not to use pesticides as these are harmful to other, beneficial insects, other wildlife, and the environment.
Where possible, it is best to allow the froghoppers to go through their natural life cycle. While the spittle may not look attractive on your plants, it will disappear after summer when the nymphs have fully developed and have moved on.
That said, if you are still keen to get rid of your froghopper visitors, then you might employ some of the following methods.
- At the beginning of spring, it can be helpful to cut back any weeds that are infested with spittlebugs, as this will prevent them from spreading any further.
- Note that these insects are mainly attracted to woody plants, so if you’re trying to avoid them, it’s best to also avoid having woody plants in your yard.
- If there are spittlebugs on your plants, then you can use a stream of water to wash them away. This is much better than using a pesticide as it’s completely natural.
- It is also possible to remove the spittle and the bugs within by hand. Simply wipe the foam away and expose the bug, which you can either manually remove or wait for a passing bird to spot it.
- Birds often prey on exposed spittlebugs, so attracting wild birds to your garden could act as a natural form of pest control.