The Q&A Archives: Spitball bugs

Question: My garden is suffering from an infestation of insects that live on the growing tips of my rosemary, lavender, and penstemon plants. They look like small (.25 to .5 inch diameter) globs of white saliva. What are these unwelcome critters and how do I get rid of them without harming the resident hummingbird, bumblebee and butterfly populations? Thanks!

Answer: What you describe sounds suspiciously like spittlebugs. That mass of froth you see on your plant isn?t there to do your plant harm. It?s a very clever cover for the spittlebug. You don?t think so? Just try and find him.

Spittlebug nymphs can turn a liquid secretion into bubbles by moving or pumping their bodies. Once the bubbles have formed, spittlebugs use their hind legs to cover themselves with the froth. The ?spittle? serves multiple purposes. It shields the spittlebugs from predators; It insulates them from temperature extremes; It prevents the spittlebugs from dehydrating.

Spittlebug eggs are laid in late summer and are left to over winter on plant debris. The eggs will hatch in early spring and go through five Instars, or stages, before becoming adults. When the nymphs originally hatch in early spring, they will attach themselves to a plant and begin feeding. They are a wingless, green creature at this point and are almost invisible inside the spittle.

Spittlebugs are related to leafhoppers, but have a broader body. The adults are dull colored tan, brown or black and about 1/8 - 1/4 inch long, with wings. They also have faces that resemble frogs and are sometimes call Froghoppers.

Although spittlebug nymphs do feed on plant sap, the damage is minimal and populations are usually small, so no pesticide is necessary. A strong blast with a hose should be enough to dislodge a spittlebug nymph. They?ll be gone in a few weeks anyway, as the weather cools. In extreme cases, they can cause stunting and weaken plants or reduce yields. If you should have a severe infestation, remove plant debris in the fall and till the soil to reduce egg population.

One last thought. It?s not really spittle. The liquid is actually secreted from the other end.

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