By Linda Weiford, WSU News
A tiny lime-green insect with red eyes that ejects bubbles from its rear end is hiding in your backyard.
And when it reaches adulthood, it will become the jumping champion of the world.
Meet the spittlebug, Philaenus spumarius.
“This is the best time to see spittlebugs, and I’d say it’s a good year for them,” said entomologist Richard Zack of Washington State University. “Go on a walk and you’ll see them – provided you know what you’re looking for,” he said.
Everywhere, but nowhere
Across the U.S., more than 30 species of spittlebugs inhabit flower stalks, tree branches, blades of grass, tall weeds and certain crops. Amazingly, few people ever see the bugs or realize what they are.
Instead, we see the concoction of white bubbles that the insect hides itself within. Resembling a spit-wad, it is produced by the young spittlebug, or nymph, to hide from predators, insulate it from extreme temperatures and keep its soft body from drying out, Zack explained.
Nymphs generate spittle by excreting plant sap mixed with air created by abdominal contractions. As bubbles form, they use their legs to pull the frothy substance over their bodies, he said
“Every year, I get inquiries from people wanting to know about these masses of ‘spit’ clinging to some of their plants and pine trees. When I explain that it is an elaborate protective mechanism of a tiny insect that lives inside, they’re surprised. Spittlebugs are highly successful at hiding in plain sight,” he said.
Spittlebugs cause little harm to firm plants such as lavender and daisies but they can damage softer plants like strawberries. Puckered flesh isn’t always caused by slugs. Look for a glob of spittle.
Fortunately, the insects are easy to control. “Just hose them off with a strong spray of water,” Zack advises.
After a nymph feeds 5-8 weeks, it emerges from its protective bubble bath to become the high-jumping champion of the planet. A 2003 study published in the journal Nature found that an adult spittlebug – also called a froghopper – employs a unique catapult mechanism to exert a force 414 times its body weight. At less than a quarter-inch long, it can launch itself more than two feet into the air. (Go to : https://www.nature.com/articles).
They use these stunning leaps to avoid predators and spring from plant to plant in search of food, Zack explained.
“While many insects are interesting, the spittlebug should be at the top of the list. It lives in its own ‘poop,’ creating a fantastic home that keeps it safe and comfortable. It can also leap high weeds in a single bound. The spittlebug is a superhero among insects,” he said.