Spittlebug with black thorax and reddish abdomen

2011 February 19

If I remember right, Sam found this in the garden on her parsley patch in June of 2010. It was hiding in a mass of bubbles on the plant stem.

It is definitely a spittlebug, family Cercopidae. They suck plant juices for food, and as nymphs they defend themselves by secreting a mucilaginous liquid from glands near their anus.

They then blow bubbles in the liquid to whip it into a froth, and hide in the froth. This both keeps them from drying out, and makes it harder for predators to find them. For that matter, I expect that small insect predators could easily end up suffocating in this froth, so it is also a defensive shield and not just a hiding place. The froth mass can be several inches across, and if more than one spittlebug is on a plant they will tend to migrate and merge their spittle masses, so you may find anywhere from a couple to a dozen spittlebug nymphs in a single mass. And, since they are right there sucking juices out of a plant, they have a ready source of liquid to make the spittle from. Plant juices aren’t particularly nutrient-rich, so plant-sucking insects generally have to take in a lot of excess water in order to get the actual sugars and protein that they need to live. And making protective spittle is a good use for all this extra liquid.

They are fairly hard to identify to species as nymphs, they get more distinctive when they grow up. The majority of the spittlebugs we find around here are green, but this one is black-and-orange. It is most likely in the genus Aphrophora, which are commonly colored like this. It evidently has pink eyes, which may or may not be a diagnostic trait for identification.

Once they grow up, their lifestyle changes radically. The adults have powerful jumping legs, and are called “leafhoppers”. They will sit on plants sucking their juices, but when disturbed they will jump off with an audible “click”, shooting off so far and so fast that it is almost impossible to see where they went. I understand that leafhoppers are the insects that can jump the greatest distance relative to their size, and this makes them really hard to catch with anything other than a net. Of course, with a net they are likely to jump right into it, so running a sweep net through tall grass is a good way to turn up lots and lots of them.

7 Responses
  1. Gabe permalink
    February 19, 2011

    Have you looked into using Calibre (http://calibre-ebook.com/) as a way to publish for the Kindle (and other e-readers, for that matter)?

    Thanks again for all the bugs!

  2. February 19, 2011

    Hi Gabe, Andy Kaiser here, Tim’s current web and Kindle guy.

    I’ve used Calibre myself, and it’s excellent. But instead of a manual publication, the trick is to make something that can publish automatically and be auto-delivered, which is what Amazon did for us. In a perfect world, I don’t want to give Tim or me any extra work! 🙂

    We are still exploring options, though.

    Back to the original topic: This little bug has the right idea. The next time I’m threatened, I’m going to try making protective spittle and see what happens!


  3. February 19, 2011

    It is nice to finally have an explanation for the “suds” I sometimes find on the Missouri primroses in June!

  4. February 21, 2011

    Gabe: I just downloaded Calibre a couple of weeks ago, after we got a Kindle in January. Andy and I are still discussing the best way to go about making the blog into an ebook. I’m thinking that around the 5th anniversary of the blog would be a good time to put out a first edition (that would be next year), as by then I’ll have a full 250 species.

    Andy: Maybe the closest equivalent to defensive spittle would be carrying around a foam fire extinguisher. Or perhaps just a can of shaving cream.

    Anne: Yep, that’s them. The most noticeable ones around here are on the tansy, goldenrod, and queen-annes-lace plants in the spring, with a lot more on general low-growing plants.

  5. February 23, 2011

    It looks like a placid little creature.

  6. February 23, 2011

    Oh yes and great photos as always!

  7. jess lacher permalink
    June 25, 2013

    Thanks for posting such a great article! It exactly ideintifes some nymphs on my lavender here in San Diego.

    It was hard to find, so perhaps you could add tags of bubbles, foam and insect?

    Now I wonder if I can collect up this foam and use it as a defense against the ants. 🙂

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