Does your yard or garden look like someone went around hocking loogies or spitting on everything? Mine sure does! Before you go yelling at the neighborhood kids though, you may want to consider a much, much, smaller culprit. Unless of course you were going to shout at the local hooligans anyway – then who am I to stop you? Holler away, lol. Just keep in mind these particular gloopy globs currently all over the yard are actually made by an insect!
These bubbly, spit-like masses are produced by the Spittlebug. Spittlebugs are a type of “true bug” (aka part of the order Hemiptera) and the name Spittlebug can be applied to all critters in superfamily (taxonomic level below order) Cercopoidea. There are about 30 different species of Spittlebug in North America and about 2,600 species worldwide. Crazy!
As you might have guessed, the name “spittle” bug comes from the uncanny resemblance of their gloopy masses to human saliva, or spit. This gross looking foamy mass is produced by the Spittlebug nymph (= juveniles or adults) and is not an egg mass as one might think. The Spittlebug nymph creates this bubbly mass to help regulate its temperature, moisture, and protect itself from potential predators - because who would want to eat a big gob of spit? I sure wouldn’t. Oh yeah. And the foamy substance is not from the Spittlebug’s mouth either, it comes from the other end…
This extra bubbly protection is important for the Spittlebug nymph because it doesn’t have the ability to thermoregulate, and it hasn’t finished developing its wings yet to be able to fly away from predators or to properly regulate its body’s moisture. That being said, even once they have developed their wings, the adult Spittlebugs usually prefer to hop, or jump, instead of flying. This is why the adults are often called Froghoppers instead of Spittlebugs (the adults don’t produce bubbly masses like their mischief-making youngsters). I’m guessing the adults prefer hopping because they are exceptionally good at it – they can jump as much as 100 times their body length if they need to! Even though they are small, that still means they can spring distances up to 26 inches (70cm)! That’s further than even fleas can jump!
Now as tiny and speciose as these critters are, and not being an expert in Spittlebug/Froghopper taxonomy, I can only guess at the particular species I have in my yard. However, based on the coloration, time of year, and suggestions from the AI on iNaturalist (a free identification app I’ve really gotten to like), it is possible that the Spittlebugs hocking loogies all over my yard and garden may be the very common Meadow Spittlebug, Philaenus spumarius (family= Aphrophoridae). The name Philaenus spumarius roughly translates from Greek to ‘foam lover’. I think we can guess the reasoning behind this name. If my critters are the Meadow Spittlebug, then the adults are also highly variable in color patterning. There are at least 30 different color variations that can be found in the Meadow Spittlebug species (check out this illustration of different patterns on BugGuide).
The Meadow Spittlebug is an introduced species originally from somewhere in the Palearctic area (Europe/Russia/Asia/Northern Africa), but it doesn’t appear we really know an exact location where it originated. Just, you know, somewhere over thereabouts… Currently however, the Meadow Spittlebug can be found in most temperate climates around the world. The ability of Meadow Spittlebug to spread and establish in so many places is made easier since they are generalist herbivores (=eat a wide variety of plants). They feed on many plants in the Asteraceae (daisy family), Fabaceae (legume family), and Poaceae (grasses family). That may not sound like a lot of host plants, but there are thousands and thousands of different species within those plant families. I know on my property the spittle blobs are on practically everything. My strawberry plants, goldenrods, thistles, mints, Queen Anne’s Lace, in the grass, and on other assorted weeds and wild plants… Granted I may have more than one Spittlebug species here, but just this one species would be plenty I think, since they can eat so many things. Not that the Spittlebugs care about my opinion on how my yard is used…
Usually Spittlebugs don’t cause too much damage, although in large numbers the nymphs can stunt and deform leaves or fruits they’re feeding on. So far I haven’t noticed any real damage on my plants, usually only one wad per plant every 1-3 feet, but I will definitely keep a close watch. There are sometimes multiple spit wads per plant. Spittlebugs can also carry and spread bad bacteria, such as Xylella fastidiosa, which can be very harmful to crops such as grapes, alfalfa, citrus, olives, and coffee. Even though I don’t need to worry about those crops personally in my backyard garden, if you are a serious or professional grower of crops and your plants and have Spittlebugs, you may want to look into removal options to avoid potential disease spread.
To read more about Spittlebugs, check out:
Now if this story sounded kind of familiar, you are right! I wrote a brief story about these phlegmy critters exactly one year ago… My very first blog article! Crazy how fast time flies. Happy anniversary me/Bug News! I thought it would be fun to rewrite it a bit for the occasion. Here’s hoping for many more years of fun bug and nature stories :)
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