The aptly named Spittlebug (Cercopidae) is a garden pest that looks worse than it is. There are some 23,000 species of spittlebugs, yet most gardeners have never seen one. That’s because spittlebugs are very good at hiding. That mass of froth you see on your plant isn’t there to do your plant harm. It’s a very clever cover for the spittlebug. You don’t think so? Just try and find him.
While spittlebugs are very good at hiding, it's hard to miss their presence in the garden. The white spittle remains frothy and visible for weeks. It can be puzzling trying to figure out whether it was caused by a disease or a feeding insect. After all, what kind of creature would spit on your plants? And if they dislike your plant enough to spit it out, why are they still feeding on it?
Why Spittlebugs Create Spittle
The froth is actually a secretion. Spittlebug nymphs turn the liquid secretion into bubbles by moving or pumping their bodies. Once the frothy bubbles have formed, spittlebugs use their hind legs to cover themselves with the froth. The ‘spittle’ serves multiple purposes.
- It shields the spittlebugs from predators.
- It insulates them from temperature extremes.
- It prevents the spittlebugs from dehydrating.
Spittlebug eggs are laid in late summer and are left to overwinter on plant debris. The eggs will hatch in early spring and go through five instars, or stages, before becoming adults. When the nymphs originally hatch in early spring, they will attach themselves to a plant and begin feeding. They are a wingless, green creature at this point and are almost invisible inside the spittle.
Although the names are used interchangeably, spittlebugs and leafhoppers are not the same insect. Spittlebugs are related to leafhoppers but have a broader body. The adults are dull-colored tan, brown or black and about 1/8 to 1/4-inch long, with wings. They also have faces that resemble frogs and are sometimes call froghoppers.
Spittlebug Damage and Control
Although spittlebug nymphs do feed on plant sap, the damage is minimal, and populations are usually small, so no pesticide is necessary. A strong blast with a hose should be enough to dislodge a spittlebug nymph. They’ll be gone in a few weeks anyway.
Junipers and pine trees are spittlebug favorites, but you’ll see them on a wide variety of plants including strawberries, legumes, and various flowers, like the goldenrod, shown here.
One last thought. It’s not really spittle. The liquid is actually secreted from the other end.
In extreme cases, spittlebugs can cause stunting and weaken plants or reduce yields. If you should have a severe infestation, remove plant debris in the fall and till the soil to reduce egg population.