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Spittlebug deposits

Spittlebug deposits can damage the plants they inhabit.

That ‘Snake Spit’ is Really Someone’s Home

Photo: Kevin McKeon

By Kevin McKeon, Maine Master Naturalist

We’ve probably all noticed the spit-like white foam clinging on herbaceous growth and among evergreen needles during our woods and trails walks — that stuff some people call “snake spit.” This stuff is actually a microhabitat: It’s the home of spittlebugs.

Plants move water and nutrients from their roots up to the leaves during the photosynthetic process of making food from the sun. The tubes that carry this nutrient-filled water are called xylem, and some bugs feed themselves by penetrating xylem using their tube-like mouths that have evolved into elongated, sucking beaks. These bugs — called leafhoppers, treehoppers, and froghoppers — can leap 100 times their body length. They’ve been hopping from leaf to leaf and plant to plant for almost 2 million years! It’s the froghoppers that create the spittlebugs that live within the “snake-spit” microhabitat.

Before becoming adult froghoppers, these bugs hatch in spring from eggs that overwintered in leaf litter or at the base of a meadow plant. After hatching, feeding, and “spitting” for six weeks or so, the final molt results in the adult emerging from its frothy shelter in early summer.

There are about 30 species of spittlebugs in North America, but only two species — the pine spittlebug and the Saratoga spittlebug — are considered minor pests in Maine, feeding on our famous pine trees and some hay and alfalfa. Heavy infestations cause needle browning, dead terminal growth, and stunted, distorted stems and branches. Rare heavy infestations can kill a tree in two to three years. But mostly, spittlebugs are not too damaging.

So where does the “spit” come from? And why is it made?

Spittlebugs suck up enormous amounts of sap relative to their size, and thus generate a lot of waste. In human equivalencies, it’d be 2,700 gallons a day! Also, a lot of air is released with it, generating all those bubbles. But as with everything in nature, there’s an evolutionary reason for the foam: Predators are kept a bay by the acrid taste of those bubbles, the bubbles conceal the nymph, and the insulation value of those air-filled bubbles helps protect the nymph from heat, freezing, or drying up. Several spittlebugs often congregate, building a spittlebug “hotel” where they all share the same frothy home. Here’s an informative video of these little creatures.

So, as you walk along our trails through fields or next to tall grasses, revel at the knowledge that there’s a spittlebug inside that “snake spit” you happen upon.

Editor’s note: Did you see something unusual last time you were out in the woods? Were you puzzled or surprised by something you saw? Ask our “Out in the Woods” columnist Kevin McKeon. He’ll be happy to investigate and try to answer your questions. Email him directly at: kpm@metrocast.net

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