Out My Backdoor: The Scoop on Spittlebugs

Spittlebug/Terry W. Johnson


By Terry W. Johnson

I don't know about you, but as I mature, I come across things that transport me back in time. Spotting, of all things, a spittlebug lair prompted my most recent trip down memory lane.

Spittlebugs will never be accused of being among the most attractive of Mother Nature's creations. Adult spittlebugs are called froghoppers. These insects are so named for their amazing ability to hop. Entomologists tell us froghoppers are capable of leaping 100 times their body length. I'm not sure Wonder Woman can jump that far.

But the nymphs of frog hoppers cannot jump. Instead, they are called spittlebugs and spend their lives hanging out in what appears to be a glob of saliva clumped on grass or other vegetation. As such, it is not surprising their frothy homes are called snake spit, cuckoo spit and even frog spit.

One of the species we are most likely to see in our backyards is the two-lined spittlebug. Adults are roughly 3/6 of an inch long and dark brown in color, with two orange bands surround the forewings.

Back in the days of my youth, kids were not distracted by television, video games or smart phones. We spent most our spare time of time outside, fishing, playing baseball, football or basketball or simply just roaming the fields, woods and waters near our homes.

During these treks afield, we discovered all sorts of animals. None were small enough to escape our sharp eyes. One of these critters was the spittlebug.

I can still remember when I saw my first spittlebug home. I had no idea what it was. In fact, I did not even realize it harbored an insect. However, boys being boys, one of the guys picked up a small stick and began probing the foamy glob. Much to our surprise, he uncovered an odd-looking greenish-yellow spittlebug nymph. That prompted us to check other masses of tiny bubbles. Our investigations revealed each contained a small, seemingly helpless insect.

Soon the sticks were discarded and we were digging through the bubbly masses with our fingers!

The foamy home of the spittlebug serves many purposes. Obviously, it hides the insect from birds and other predators. It also serves as a very effective barrier against fluctuations in temperature and moisture. In addition, since the spittle is bitter to the taste, biologists believe it might also help repel predators that try to pluck spittlebugs out of their unusual homes.

The list of known spittlebug predators includes birds such as the eastern meadowlark, various beetles and even fire ants.

As you might imagine, spittlebugs are quite defenseless. However, when they are surprised by would be predators, their feet emit a yellowish liquid that is thought to deter predators.

Recently, researchers discovered that the foam also aids in the insects’ breathing. Normally, spittlebugs breathe by projecting a snorkel-like structure through the surface of the white, frothy mass surrounding it. Researchers now know spittlebugs are also able to extract oxygen by piercing the bubbles in the foam. The insect employs this form of breathing only in extreme situations.

Each spittlebug manufactures its own foam. Although the name suggests it is composed of saliva, nothing could be farther from the truth. The foamy mass is actually a combination of the insect's urine and air emitted from its abdomen, which the nymph combines with a sticky chemical that helps it adhere to plants.

The urine is produced by digesting the sap the spittlebug sucks out of plants. The amount of urine passed by a spittlebug is enormous. Remarkably, the fluid amounts to as much as 280 times the insect’s body weight. To put this in perspective, that is the equivalent of a human voiding about 2,700 gallons of urine each day.

It might seem that a spittlebug would cause a lot of damage to the plant on which it is feasting. In truth, spittlebugs rarely cause significant damage to ornamental plants in backyards settings. However, the two-lined spittlebug can damage turf grasses, particularly centipede grass.

In retrospect, I wish I had known as much about spittlebugs when I was younger. If I did, I definitely would not have probed cuckoo spit with my finger.

Then again, at that tender age, maybe I would have.

Terry W. Johnson is a retired Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division and executive director of The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, friends group of the division’s Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column.) Learn more about TERN, see previous “Out My Backdoor” columns, read Terry’s Backyard Wildlife Connection blog and check out his latest book, A Journey of Discovery: Monroe County Outdoors.”