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Hidden in the Spittle

By Amy Renfranz (dearnaturalist@gmail.com)



Article Published: Aug. 8, 2013 | Modified: Aug. 8, 2013
Hidden in the Spittle

The spittlebug creates its own safe haven away from predators and summer’s heat.

Photo submitted



In the past few weeks, I have answered dozens of emails written by readers. I have helped to identify scat, discussed the possibilities of mountain lions in the High Country and debunked a myth about bats having the tendency to get stuck in women’s hair.

Thank you, dear readers, for keeping things interesting.

This week’s selected question was written by a young reader with a keen eye.

My favorite thing to do is to go outside and explore. One mystery to me is the spit that some plants have on their stems. What causes this, and how long does it take for it to dry up? — Ben W., age 8, Boone

The spittle on the plants is caused by a bug called the “froghopper.” There are 25 species of froghoppers that live in North America, and they all spit.

This little bug, which is not much more than 6 millimeters long, has big eyes and is a very good jumper. The adult females lay their eggs in hidden parts of a plant, usually on the sheath between the leaves and the stems.

When the little froghopper hatches from its egg, it is in its “nymph” stage of life and will have to shed its skin and grow several times before becoming an adult.

While it is in its nymph phase, it is often called a “spittlebug.”

The spittlebug nymph feeds on the juices of the plants. Many gardeners think of the spittlebug as a pest, because an infestation of the bugs can kill their host plants.

To protect itself from predators and to keep its exoskeleton moist, even in the harsh summer heat, the bug covers itself in frothy spittle. The spittle is a mixture of watery waste, air and glandular secretions.

The bug will squirt the spit from an abdominal opening to create the bubbly stuff that you see stuck on some plants. The spittle is quite sticky and will only wash off the plant with a very strong spout of water.

As for how long it will last before drying up, I am not sure. Keep your eye on the next little mound you find, and please report your findings to me.

If you use a twig to probe into the spittle, you will find the nymph hidden quite happily in its own bodily goop. In a few weeks, it will crawl from the spittle, shed its nymph skin and hop away.



Amy Renfranz is a North Carolina-certified environmental educator, certified interpretive guide and a Yellowstone Association Institute-certified naturalist. Have a question? Email Amy at (dearnaturalist@gmail.com)

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