The Truth About Spittlebugs: Biting Myths vs. Facts

Spittlebugs are small insects known for the frothy spittle mass they produce while feeding on plants. They can be found on various plants such as ornamental grasses, roses, and strawberries, among others. Spittlebug nymphs pierce plant stems and suck plant juices, but typically do not cause significant damage to healthy plants.

Many people might wonder if spittlebugs can bite humans due to their feeding behavior on plants. The good news is that spittlebugs are harmless to people and do not bite or sting. They primarily feed on plants, making their impact on humans minimal.

To protect your garden from spittlebugs, monitor your plants for signs of their presence, like the characteristic frothy spittle. If you find them in your garden, you can remove them by hand or wash them off the plants with a strong jet of water. Overall, spittlebugs pose little threat to gardeners and are not a cause for concern when it comes to bites or stings.

What are Spittlebugs

Life Cycle

Spittlebugs, also known as froghoppers, belong to the insect order Hemiptera and the family Cercopidae. These small insects have a unique life cycle consisting of four stages: egg, nymph, and adult. After hatching from eggs, spittlebug nymphs go through several molts before becoming adults.

Nymphs and Adults

Nymphs are responsible for the characteristic frothy spittle mass found on plants. During this stage, they feed on plant juices by piercing stems and sucking out their sap. Some common plants nymphs feed on include ornamental grasses, roses, chrysanthemums, clover, strawberries, and herbs, among others1. Adults, on the other hand, are strong jumpers, earning them the name “froghoppers”. Adult spittlebugs are typically brown or black with a wedge shape, and they often have red or orange markings2.

Nymphs:

  • Produce frothy spittle masses on plants
  • Feed on a variety of plants

Adults:

  • Strong jumpers
  • Brown or black with a wedge shape

Common Species

There are over 30 species of spittlebugs in North America, with varying appearances and host plants3. Two of the most common species include the meadow spittlebug (Philaenus spumarius) and the two-lined spittlebug (Prosapia bicincta)4. Both species can cause damage to plants, but their impact is generally minimal and considered more of an aesthetic concern rather than a major threat to plant health.

Species Appearance Host Plants
Meadow Spittlebug Brownish-yellow with dark brown spots^2^ Various trees, shrubs, and herbaceous perennials2
Two-lined Spittlebug Dark brown or black with two distinct red or orange lines2 Various trees, shrubs, and herbaceous perennials2

Spittlebug Behavior and Impact on Plants

Feeding Habits

Spittlebugs are insects that feed on various plants by sucking their sap, this includes ornamental grasses, roses, clover, and other garden plants. The nymphs (young) pierce plant stems to access their juices. Adult spittlebugs, known as froghoppers, display similar feeding behavior.

Examples:

  • Commonly affected plants: Strawberries, lavender, rosemary, roses, chrysanthemums, and clover
  • Species: Pine spittlebug, two-lined spittlebug, and many others found worldwide

Damage to Plants

Spittlebugs can cause varying degrees of damage to plants, from mild to significant. In most cases, the damage caused to annuals and perennials is minimal. The two-lined spittlebug is one example that injects toxins into turfgrass, causing grass blades to turn yellow, brown, or purple.

Mild Damage Significant Damage
Examples Ornamental grasses Turfgrass species
Common Signs Slight distortion Yellowing or browning

Infestation Signs

The most noticeable sign of an infestation is the presence of spittlebugs’ characteristic “cuckoo spit” – a white frothy material. This foam serves as a protective mechanism and is secreted by the nymphs while they feed. They typically hide in plant debris or soil during unfavorable conditions like low humidity. In some cases, you might find multiple spittlebug nymphs sharing a single foam mass.

Key signs:

  • White frothy material (cuckoo spit)
  • Distorted plant leaves and stems
  • Yellowing, browning, or purple grass blades

Host plants:

  • Grasses, both ornamental and turfgrass species
  • Strawberry plants
  • Lavender, rosemary, roses, and chrysanthemums

Spittlebug Protection and Control Methods

Natural Predators

  • Birds: Many bird species feed on spittlebugs, helping to control their population.
  • Other insects: Some predatory insects, such as lady beetles and green lacewings, feed on spittlebug nymphs and can help to control their numbers.

Environmental Controls

  • Drying out: Spittlebugs thrive in moist environments where they produce protective bubbles. Reducing excess moisture in your garden by properly watering and allowing the soil to dry out in between can limit spittlebug activity.
  • Temperature: Spittlebugs are more active in warm temperatures. Implementing shady areas in your garden can help to keep the temperature cooler and reduce spittlebug activity.
  • Plant selection: Spittlebugs are particularly attracted to certain plants, such as junipers, pine trees, legumes, goldenrod, and some garden plants. Opting for less attractive plants can help in deterring spittlebugs from your garden.

Chemical Controls

  • Insecticides: Various insecticides can effectively control spittlebug populations. One common type is the pyrethroid class of insecticides, which includes substances like bifenthrin, permethrin, and others. Here are some pros and cons of using insecticides:

Pros

  • Effective in reducing spittlebug populations
  • Can protect garden plants from damage

Cons

  • Can be harmful to beneficial insects
  • May require multiple applications for complete control
Method Effectiveness Impact on Beneficial Insects Ease of Application
Natural Predators High Positive Easy
Environmental Controls Moderate Neutral Moderate
Chemical Controls High Negative Moderate

When dealing with spittlebugs, implementing a combination of these control methods can help protect your lawn and garden from damage while ensuring minimal impact on the surrounding environment and beneficial insects.

Interesting Spittlebug Facts

Foam Creation

Spittlebugs are known for the frothy spittle mass they produce while feeding on plants, such as strawberries, flowers, and various stems of plants. This foam serves as protection from temperature extremes and predators.

How foamy substance is formed:

  • Nymphs pierce plant stems and suck plant juices (phloem)
  • Excess sap containing amino acids is mixed with air to create the frothy bubbles
  • This foamy substance covers the nymphs as protection

Jumping Abilities

Adult spittlebugs, also known as froghoppers, are capable of impressive jumps due to their powerful hind legs. These jumping abilities likely inspired their nicknames, such as snake spit and frog spit.

Features of their jumping:

  • Orange-striped wings assist in flight
  • Adult froghoppers can jump up to 100 times their body length
  • Hind legs primarily responsible for their jumping capabilities

Folklore and Nicknames

Spittlebugs have been given various nicknames due to the appearance of their foam and their impressive jumping abilities. Some common nicknames include:

  • Snake spit
  • Frog spit
  • Cuckoo spit
  • Witch’s spit

These various names likely stem from folklore and the mysterious appearance of their foamy substance in gardens and pastures.

In conclusion, spittlebugs are fascinating creatures with unique abilities to both create protective foam and jump impressive distances. Their intriguing behaviors are what inspired their various nicknames and connections to folklore.

Footnotes

  1. https://extension.umn.edu/yard-and-garden-insects/spittlebugs
  2. https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/two-lined-spittlebug/ 2 3 4
  3. https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/spittlebugs/
  4. https://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/ORN/TURF/two_lined_spittlebug_Prosapia_bicincta.htm

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Two-Lined Spittlebugs

 

bugs that hitch on my lawn mower
Location:  East Tennessee (near Knoxville)
August 15, 2010 4:13 pm
Hi,
When I mow the lawn with an electric lawn mower, lots of these little dark bugs with red stripes like to ride along. The seem to be especially attracted to the cover of the battery compartment and can fly. I can’t find them on-line.
Thanks!
Carol

Two-Lined Spittlebugs

Hi Carol,
You have Two-Lined Spittlebugs,
Prosapia bicincta, and we would bet our last dollar that you probably have masses of what looks like spittle on your tall grasses and other plants.  These are the homes of the larva of the adult Two-Lined Spittlebugs that you have photographed.  Once they mature, the winged adults become more mobile.  BugGuide indicates:  “In the immature (nymph) stage (surrounded by the “spittle” foam which protects them, and which they produce from juices they suck from the plant) they feed on centipedegrass, bermudagrass and other grasses, including occasionally corn.  Adults feed on hollies – they feed on the underside of leaves, and damage shows up as pale mottling not usually visible from above.

Two-Lined Spittlebugs on Lawnmower

Letter 2 – Two-Lined Spittlebugs swarming in Florida

 

Subject: Swarms on front porch in Florida
Location: Jacksonville, FL
May 9, 2013 8:22 pm
Hi, I have these little critters swarming my front porch and coming in my front door in the evenings. A lot of them! My son says that he was stung by one. They are about the size of a house fly. It is early May here and the nights are starting to warm up. There is a light on the front porch and it appears they are attracted to that.
thanks for your input….
Signature: Jaxgnat

Two-Lined Spittlebug
Two-Lined Spittlebug

Dear Jaxgnat,
Thank you for reporting that the Two-Lined Spittlebugs,
Prosapia bicincta, are currently common in Florida.  Like other members of their order Hemiptera, Spittlebugs have mouths designed for piercing and sucking, and we imagine that thought they feed on plants, they are likely capable of biting a human.  According to BugGuide:  “In the immature (nymph) stage (surrounded by the “spittle” foam which protects them, and which they produce from juices they suck from the plant) they feed on centipedegrass, bermudagrass and other grasses, including occasionally corn.  Adults feed on hollies – they feed on the underside of leaves, and damage shows up as pale mottling not usually visible from above.”  In the future, if you want to control their numbers, you should probably cut the grass with the “spittle” before the winged adults have a chance to mature.

Letter 3 – Two-Lined Spittlebug

 

Subject: Meanest looking two-lined spittle bug
Location: Troy, VA
July 2, 2016 11:05 am
This bug looked so cute till I blew it up. Now it just looks dangerous, it’s still pretty though. Love the red face.
Signature: Grace Pedalino

Two-Lined Spittlebug
Two-Lined Spittlebug

Dear Grace,
Thanks for sending in your image of a Two-Lined Spittlebug,
Prosapia bicincta.  According to BugGuide:  “In the immature (nymph) stage (surrounded by the “spittle” foam which protects them, and which they produce from juices they suck from the plant) they feed on centipedegrass, bermudagrass and other grasses, including occasionally corn.
Adults feed on hollies – they feed on the underside of leaves, and damage shows up as pale mottling not usually visible from above.”

Letter 4 – Two-Lined Spittlebug

 

Subject: Black and red bug found in Louisiana grass
Location: Covington La in the garden
May 15, 2017 11:22 am
Can you tell me what this bug is and how to rid them?
Signature: electronic

Two-Lined Spittlebug

Dear electronic,
This is a Two-Lined Spittlebug,
Prosapia bicincta.  According to BugGuide:  “In the immature (nymph) stage (surrounded by the ‘spittle’ foam which protects them, and which they produce from juices they suck from the plant) they feed on centipedegrass, bermudagrass and other grasses, including occasionally corn.  Adults feed on hollies – they feed on the underside of leaves, and damage shows up as pale mottling not usually visible from above.”  We do not provide extermination advice.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

2 thoughts on “The Truth About Spittlebugs: Biting Myths vs. Facts”

  1. Umm…yeah… These little guys are completely harmless to humans. They do NOT bite. Ive been covered by hundreds of these cute things during long days of grass cutting season. About all they do is poop while jumping and you need a 10X zoom lens just to see that.

    Reply

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