- Published: 03 March 2009
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Benjamin Thomas, age 11, of Shreveport, Louisiana, for his question:
Is that foamy stuff on leaves really snake spit?
In early summer, these gobs of frothy foam appear on leafy twigs from coast to coast. Since most people are mystified by them, finding a suitable name became a guessing game. They are called frog spit or toad spit, spittlebug or snake spit. However, only one of these common names suits the facts. Those frothy gobs are not produced by frogs or toads and certainly snakes do not spit in the greenery.
The mysterious stuff is produced by an amazing insect called the spittlebug. You can prove this by separating the frothy mass. If it is still in use, it serves as a blanket of foamy bubbles around a spittlebug larva. The immature nymph looks some¬what like a pale green goblin with two big round black eyes. Until you disturbed his cozy bubble bath, both ends of his body were very busy.
His head end was busy feeding, his tail end was busy swishing up his foamy bubbles. The spittlebug dines on plant sap. Attached to the front of his head he has a jointed beak to suck and sip his liquid formula. His jointed tail end secretes a watery liquid. This stuff must be whipped with air to create the foamy bubbles. This is done by swishing the tail. The female may produce a similar gob of foam to protect her eggs.
The tiny hatchlings are nymphs, six legged midgets with jointed bodies and no wings. As the hungry creatures grow, they molt their tight skins several times, replacing them with larger ones. After the last molt, they emerge as winged adults, looking rather like dark brown shoe boxes, less than half an inch long. Some~people call them frog hoppers because, though their wings are capable of flight, they prefer to hop like frogs through the greenery.
Several spittlebug species belong in the genus Aphrophora. This term means water loving, because of their fondness for blowing watery bubbles. Entomologists refer to the most common spittlebug as Aphorphora quadrangulus. The species name, spelled with a small letter, gives a clue to the oblong, or quadrangular, shape of his body.
The spittlebug genus belongs in the insect Order Homoptera, meaning equal wings.
This group of small and medium sized insects includes families of aphids, leafhoppers and scale insects. Most of them have two pairs of matching wings, usually held at sloping angles along the sides. All of them have jointed beaks for sipping sap and all their young nymphs develop in easy stage by molting.
The slender leafhoppers are handsome insects, though their eating habits are very destructive to certain fruit and vegetable crops. Aphids are notorious pests in the flower garden and scale insects can ruin orchard trees. Some spittlebugs injure ornamental trees, especially conifers. But most species live among the wild weeds and do little or no harm to our cultivated plants.