Spittlebug – The hyper-hydrating, bubble blower

If you are someone who spends time outdoors around plants, you would have seen pictures like these. For a long time, I thought these were spider webs that caught dew but when I found out about the little bugs in them and their strategy, I was pleasantly surprised. I am sure you would be amazed too by the time you finish reading this post.

Inside the white mushy wet nest, there is a little bug that is hiding. It is called the Spittlebug or the Froghopper. Did you know the Cercopidae species, also commonly named spittlebugs, are the largest xylem-sap sucking insect group in the world? With over 400 species identified in the US alone, they are major feeders on grasses, flowering plants and sugarcane. Though they are not yet directly considered a major threat to plants, they do cause weakness in plants and make them susceptible to various other pests of diseases. While their nest is called Cuckoo Spit, it is not at all connected to the bird. The reason why it borrows the name from cuckoo is simply because of the time when froghoppers start appearing around the same time the cuckoo starts calling – springtime.

The nymphs of these little froghoppers are eternally thirsty and keep sucking at saplings all the time. As a result, they urinate a lot and form bubbles with the urine which form a layer around them. Philip G. D. Matthews, a researcher in the zoology department at the University of British Columbia, has done extensive research on these bugs and here are some facts that boggle our minds. Spittlebugs produce an extraordinary amount of urine every day. If you were to calculate how much urine they produce, that is about 150 to 280 times their body weight every day. To compare with a human that would be close to 10,000 litres (almost 2 water tankers) per day for someone weighing 75 kgs.

While the nymphs of froghoppers are busy passing the urine, they are busier drinking from the sap of the plant. Just imagine how much water they are sucking out of the plant to produce such high quantities of urine!

Is being a protective layer the only reason for the Cuckoo spit? Does it form an effective protective layer from birds and other insects that might snack on them? Scientists are in the affirmative for the spit tastes bitter? It is also very effective keeping the bugs hidden till they grow up and attain adulthood when they can hop away to safety. Or is it a way to store air in the bubbles for consumption later? How does the bug breathe under all this watery foam? While nature has its mysteries that amaze us, it is understood that the bug has to put its hind out of the foam to breathe most of the time but in case of emergencies, it can draw air from the bubbles.

Fun fact: Did you know that the froghopper is called so as they can jump to great distances for their size? By sporting bow like legs, they can catapult to over 100 times their body length easily. In some cases, they have been found to go much farther, sometimes close to 2-300 times their body length.

Aren’t they wonderful little bugs who keep drinking from the plant and jump away once they are grown up? If only, we could have such amazing jumping capacity! Tell us what would you do, if you had the superpower to jump that far.


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