Spittlebugs are common finds in the spring garden | TribLIVE.com
Jessica Walliser, Columnist

Spittlebugs are common finds in the spring garden

Jessica Walliser
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Jessica Walliser | for the Tribune-Review
A spittlebug nymph has made a home on the stem of a weed. The layer of bubbly foam formed by the insect helps protect it from predators.

Have you ever come across what looks like a blob of spit clinging to a plant in your garden? If so, then you’ve had the “pleasure” of meeting a spittlebug.

While finding the white, bubbly blobs of spittlebugs clinging to the stems of your precious plants is pretty disgusting, there are worse problems a gardener can have. In fact, once you learn a little more about these critters, you’ll discover how fascinating they actually are.

There are several dozen species of spittlebugs in North America, but the most common species discovered by gardeners is the meadow spittlebug, Philaenus spumarius. It’s considered to be a pest of a wide diversity of herbaceous plants, including perennials, shrubs and herbs. They overwinter as eggs laid on host plants and hatch out as tiny orange nymphs in the spring. The nymph protects itself from predators by forming a protective coating of foamy froth. The spittle also keeps the soft-bodied nymphs from drying out.

Spittlebug nymphs form their bubbly coating in an interesting way. The insect sucks plant sap for sustenance. Excess sap is then expelled as a waste product. This excrement is mixed with a fluid produced by glands on the insect’s abdomen as air bubbles are simultaneously pumped out of the insect via abdominal contractions. Yes, that “spit” is made from insect excrement, but it’s pretty cool to think about how this amazing insect evolved the ability to pump bubbles from its body.

Inside its layer of protective bubbles, the spittlebug nymph pierces the plant stem with a needle-like mouthpart and sucks out plant sap. Yes, this feeding can cause a temporary distortion of plant growth, but the damage they cause is minimal. And, once the spittlebug matures and moves on, the plant outgrows the distortion or the gardener prunes it out.

Adult spittlebugs are wedge-shaped and about a quarter of an inch long. They’re often brown to cream in color and can hop quite far. In fact, another common name for this insect is the froghopper. The clumps of spittle are spied only in the spring, because once the insect matures into its adult stage, it no longer needs this protective coating. There is only one generation per year.

While alfalfa and hay farmers can see significant damage from spittlebugs, home gardeners need not worry about them.

When you spy a clump of spit-like froth in your garden, seek out the nymph living inside it. You’ll be amazed that such a tiny insect can produce so much “spit.”

The orange nymphs have large red eyes and mature to yellow and then green before morphing into their adult stage.

If you have a lot of spittlebugs in your garden, you can dislodge the nymphs from plants using a sharp stream of water from the hose. Once dislodged and exposed, the nymphs are quickly found by predators. Pesticide sprays are largely ineffective against this insect due to the protective layer of foam surrounding them.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.

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