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Thursday, July 16, 2015

This time of year when you are out frolicking through pastures and forests with your kids, you’ll often find yourself with wet hands or legs on even the driest days of the summer. A cursory look back at the weeds you walked through will find bubbly froth on their stems.

Not the bug juice you want. (BOB CONFER / CONTRIBUTOR)
Most people assume it’s sap.

It’s not.

Not to gross you out, but it’s bug secretions.

If you pushed aside those bubbles, you would find a rather non-descript little insect, a spittlebug nymph, thinking it’s cozy and safe. Spittlebugs secrete the substance to create a shelter that keeps them free of predation (and from drying out from the sun and the heat) while they suck the juices from plant stems and leaves.

Although it’s aptly called a spittlebug on appearance alone – after all, the froth looks like spittle – the spittlebug isn’t producing spit. The primary juice really comes from the bug’s anus. The runny solution then flows all over the bug’s body (spittlebugs eat upside down) and mixes with other liquids that come out of pits on the bug’s abdomen. Those substances mix with air, creating the long-lasting bubbles.

Spittlebugs can prove to be a real pest to alfalfa and clover, common crops and deer attractants, respectively, across the Niagara Frontier. Sometimes, spittlebugs can infest a whole field and make for bruised stems and unhealthy plants. The young bugs can also create other problems when their spittle wets down plants and jams older farm machinery (which shows you just how many can inhabit one field).

Spittlebugs are also a foe to gardeners as they consume a wide variety of ornamental plants. In a wild setting, I’ve found that they have an affinity for goldenrod and smartweed.

They are tough to control because one would have to physically collect through sweeping (which is usually the method suggested by agricultural agencies), rather than poison, the insects when they are crazy, bouncing adults in the late-summer. Adult spittlebugs are commonly called froghoppers. The 1/8” to ½” critters get that name because they hop from plant to plant like miniature frogs (unlike their young, they do not create the frothy cover).

Adding to their difficulty to control, they have been granted other special powers by Mother Nature: Their eggs are cold-resistant and remain entirely healthy all winter long.

Spittlebugs are really bothersome…and gross. When next you go walking outdoors please don’t ruin your hike and think about what that wet stuff is on your hands and legs. Don’t let a little bit of bug butt juices ruin your day.

Just be sure to wash yourself off when you are done hiking.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he thinks spittlebugs should use spittoons. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at bobconfer@juno.com.



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