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Spittlebugs

Welcome back to Ask a Naturalist: your own personal “Google” for information on all things natural on PEI! Over the past week, I’ve had tons of questions about the frothy, spit-like blobs appearing on plants across the Island. Like many Islanders, I grew up calling this “frog spit” but it’s really the protective covering of immature Spittlebugs.

Photo 1: Spittlebug sign, commonly called 'frog spit' here on PEI.

Spittlebugs are small insects related to Aphids, in the order Hemiptera. Also known as Froghoppers, Spittlebug adults are often overlooked, but the foamy masses covering their young are easy to spot (Photo 1). We don’t have good information about the diversity or distribution of Spittlebugs on PEI, but there are 10 species in five different genera that are likely to be found here. Poke apart the spit and you’ll find one or more immature Spittlebugs – called nymphs – inside (Photo 2). In this case, it’s a nymph of the Meadow Spittlebug (Philaenus spumarius, literally ‘foam lover’), one of the Eurasian species that’s made its way to North America.


Photo 2: Inside that foamy covering you'll find one or more Spittlebug nymphs. This is the nymph of a Meadow Spittlebug (Philaenus spumarius).

Meadow Spittlebugs overwinter as eggs and hatch in spring. Both adults and nymphs feed on plant sap but rarely do any damage to the host plant. Nymphs combine the sap with their own excretions and this mixture gets forced out of the hind end. (So, it’s not so much spit as sh*t !). As it hits the air, it forms bubbles that create a coating around the nymph, helping protect it from temperature changes, drying out, or being eaten.


Nymphs go through several stages inside their protective covering, morphing from orange through yellow to the pale green shown here. This is the final stage before they emerge as fully-grown adults, roughly five to seven millimetres long. Adults don’t fly but get around by making impressive jumps of up to 100 times their own length. For comparison, that would be like a six-foot-tall person being able to leap 600 feet!


Female Meadow Spittlebugs lay their eggs in late summer or early fall and die once cold weather sets in; there is only one generation each year.


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