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Unraveling the Mystery of Frothy “Frog Spit” on Plants

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Have you ever noticed those strange, frothy blobs clinging to the stems and leaves of plants in your garden or local park during the warmer months?

As a kid playing outdoors, you may have encountered these bubbly masses and heard them called “frog spit,” “snake spit,” or even “cuckoo spit.” While the names vary, the true source of these foamy clusters remains unknown to many.

Contrary to their whimsical names, these foam-like accumulations are not the work of frogs, snakes, or birds. Instead, they are created by a tiny insect known as the froghopper, more commonly referred to as the spittlebug. Interestingly, this “spit” does not actually come from the bug’s mouth.

If you’ve spotted these peculiar foam patches on your plants, you may be wondering what impact, if any, they have on your garden. It’s natural for gardeners to be curious about whether these newly discovered insects will harm their plants or perhaps even help by preying on other garden pests.

So, what exactly causes that white foam to appear on plants? The culprit is the spittlebug. Although you may not have heard of them before, you’re certainly not alone.

With around 23,000 species within the Cercopidae family, it’s surprising how few gardeners have actually encountered these creatures. Most have likely seen their protective frothy homes and mistaken them for something else, washing them away with a hose without a second thought.

Let’s take a closer look at the fascinating life of this intriguing little bug.

The Life of the Spittlebug

As spring arrives, you might notice curious clusters of frothy, sticky substance adorning the foliage in your garden or yard. These white, foamy patches are the handiwork of spittlebug nymphs—tiny insects related to aphids and part of the Hemiptera order.

Among the 30 or so species found in North America, the meadow spittlebug, scientifically known as Philaenus spumarius, is particularly prevalent in the Midwest.

This foam, often called “Cuckoo Spit,” is produced by the nymphs of froghoppers, small, brown insects that extract sap from plants. The resultant frothy secretion clings to stems, leaves, and flower buds. Upon closer inspection, you can often spot these diminutive creatures nestled within their bubbly shield.

This foamy barrier not only hides them from predators but also provides protection, maintaining a moist environment that safeguards them from dehydration.

Spittlebug
Credit: Gardening Know How

Despite its misleading name, Cuckoo Spit has no connection to the cuckoo bird. Its appearance coincides with the spring season, marked by the distinctive calls of cuckoo birds. You’re likely to find it from May through July, gracing gardens, meadows, and a variety of plants including roses, lavender, and rosemary.

Spittlebugs are masters of concealment. The foam they produce, which looks much like soap suds, forms at the junctions where leaves meet stems or at the confluence of branches. These bugs create their protective foam not from their mouths but from a mix of sap and a secretion from their epidermal glands.

Spittlebugs
Credit: oaklandcountyblog

This mix is expelled under pressure from their back ends, forming bubbles. The nymphs then manipulate these bubbles to cover themselves, providing insulation against temperature extremes and protection from predators.

These insects overwinter as eggs on old plant debris, emerging in early spring. The nymphs then attach to a host plant, feeding and growing through several stages before maturing in late spring or early summer.

Though they possess wings, adult spittlebugs, also called froghoppers, are more likely to hop than fly. They are inconspicuous during the summer, feeding discreetly and moving to new hosts as necessary.

Spittlebugs primarily draw their sustenance from the xylem of plants, which, unlike the nutrient-rich phloem, requires them to process large quantities of sap to meet their nutritional needs. They thrive particularly well on legumes and other nitrogen-rich plants, which are abundant in amino acids.

While the meadow spittlebug has a diverse diet, including alfalfa, clover, strawberries, and many common garden plants, the pine spittlebug, Aphrophora parallella, tends to favor conifers like Scotch and Austrian pines.

Each of these details highlights the intriguing, albeit hidden, life of spittlebugs in our gardens, illustrating a remarkable example of nature’s ingenuity in adaptation and survival.

Friend or Foe? Understanding the Impact of Spittlebugs

Froghoppers, from the Cercopoidea family, truly live up to their name with their impressive jumping abilities. Believe it or not, some can leap up to a hundred times their own body length.

To put this into perspective, imagine the long jump world record holder, Mike Powell, who leaps a massive 29 feet. Yet at 6′ 2”, Mike’s leap is less than five times his body length.

Impressive for a tiny bug, right?

In North America alone, there are over thirty species of spittlebugs, with the meadow spittlebug, or Philaenus spumarius, being the most familiar.

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Spittlebugs
Credit: Susan’s in the Garden

These creatures bear a resemblance to leafhoppers—another garden visitor known for its hopping antics. And although leafhoppers might wreak havoc on plants, spittlebugs, encased in their frothy bubbles, are generally harmless.

Encountering these frothy masses in your garden is no cause for alarm. In fact, the spittlebug nymphs inside these bubbles are almost whimsical in appearance, looking like characters from a children’s cartoon rather than pests.

So, you can skip the pesticides. These bugs are sap-suckers like their cousins, the aphids and leafhoppers, but they drink the less nutritious xylem sap, not the nutrient-rich phloem.

This xylem intake is essential for them to produce their protective foam homes. As they consume the sap, they excrete the excess, and their leg movements whip it into the protective froth we see.

While spittlebugs don’t pose a significant threat to most ornamental plants, their bubbly nests can be a nuisance, especially when they dampen your spirits (and hands) during a berry-picking session. A strong jet of water can clear the foam away, although this is more a temporary fix as the spittlebugs quickly rebuild their frothy covers.

On strawberries, however, where their feeding can stunt growth and reduce yield, more active measures like insecticides might be necessary, particularly in dry conditions. Your local Extension office can advise on the best approach if you’re facing a spittlebug surge.

The pine spittlebug also may require management if it becomes too abundant, as their feeding can lead to resinous build-ups that block sap flow and introduce pathogens.

Despite their daunting “sap-sucking” label, spittlebugs—and their spit—are harmless in modest numbers to both plants and humans. They’re just another fascinating part of nature’s tapestry.

Why do spittlebugs create these nests? It’s not for laying eggs, as you might think. The froth serves as a bitter-tasting deterrent to predators, a moist refuge to prevent the soft-bodied nymphs from drying out, and an insulating blanket against cool temperatures.

spittlebugs
Credit: BugGuide

As for the spittlebug lifecycle, those frothy nests you spot in spring and early summer belong to developing nymphs. They’ll molt several times before maturing into the less conspicuous adults, which are usually tan, brown, or gray and blend seamlessly into the garden backdrop.

Come fall, the females lay eggs on plant stems and undersides of leaves, setting the stage for the next generation to froth up your garden come spring.

How to Manage Spittlebugs in Your Garden

Dealing with spittlebugs in your garden is usually not a major issue since they rarely cause significant damage to plants. Most of the time, you can simply leave them be.

However, if the sight of those foamy spittle masses on your prized roses bothers you, or if the idea of touching their secretions while picking flowers makes you uneasy, there’s an easy solution.

A quick spray from your garden hose can rinse away the frothy nests, but keep in mind, this is just a temporary fix. The spittlebugs will likely relocate and rebuild their foamy homes elsewhere.

Organic Control Methods for Spittlebugs

If you’re facing a large spittlebug population on your plants, or if you simply can’t stand the look of their spittle, here are a couple of gentle, effective tactics:

  • Blast them off: Use a hose to wash away both the froth and the bugs themselves.
  • Prune affected areas: Cutting off infested stems and leaves can remove the bugs and prevent further damage.

Spittlebugs do suck some plant sap, but it’s rare for them to significantly harm the plant unless their numbers are overwhelming. A robust spray from a hose-end sprayer should dislodge the bugs and clean up your plants. However, if a large infestation appears to be stunting growth or weakening the plant, consider a more targeted approach.

Homemade Organic Spittlebug Repellent Recipe

For an organic solution to deter spittlebugs, try making your own insecticidal repellent spray. Here’s a simple recipe that many gardeners find effective:

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup diced hot peppers
  • 6 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 teaspoons liquid soap (choose a bleach-free variety)

Instructions:

  1. Blend the peppers, garlic, and water until smooth.
  2. Let the mixture sit for 24 hours to infuse.
  3. Strain the mixture and stir in the liquid soap.
  4. Clean plant foams off and thoroughly spray all parts of the plant.

This spray works well on a variety of plants that spittlebugs favor like pines and junipers, but it’s also safe for roses and other common garden plants.

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Preventative Measures for Next Season

To help manage spittlebug populations in the future, do a thorough garden cleanup each fall. Removing as much old plant debris as possible will significantly reduce the number of spittlebugs that hatch the following spring.

Now you’re equipped with the knowledge to easily handle those mysterious white foams on your plants and keep your garden looking its best!

Keeping an Eye on Spittlebugs in the UK

For gardeners in the UK, it’s wise to pay attention to spittlebug nests in your area. These nests might harbor more than just nuisance insects; they could potentially carry the Xylella fastidiosa bacteria. This bacteria has devastated olive orchards across Italy, and while it hasn’t reached the UK yet, local scientists are eager to prevent its introduction.

You can play a crucial role in these preventive efforts. If you come across spittlebug foams in your garden or on walks, take a moment to snap a picture. These images can be uploaded to a dedicated website run by the University of Sussex, contributing to a growing database that helps track and study these insects.

Researchers are using this citizen science data to monitor spittlebug movements and understand their plant preferences, all in hopes of stopping the spread of this destructive bacteria.

Remember, the goal isn’t to destroy these nests – scientists simply want reports of sightings. By keeping a watchful eye on these little creatures, we can help ensure they remain harmless garden visitors and prevent them from becoming a major threat. Working together, we can safeguard our plants and the spittlebug’s place in nature.

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