Tiny lime-green insects with red eyes, called spittlebugs, or “frog hoppers,” are all over the Palouse this spring, relaxing on plants in their own bubble secretions.
Rich Zack, Washington State University professor of entomology, said spittlebugs, or what entomologists also call “piercing sucking insects,” use their needle-like mouthparts to suck plant fluids from the foliage they are sitting on.
The plant fluids are not very nutritious, so the spittlebugs pass much of the fluid through their body, Zack said.
“I like to say that it’s an insect that is virtually in a state of constant diarrhea,” he said.
Zack said spittlebugs developed a mechanism so, as the fluid is secreted, they essentially blow air into it, forming bubble-like secretions they cover themselves with.
He said the bubbles, or spit, is what makes the spittlebugs – which span about one-quarter inch and only live a few months – the most visible to passersby.
Zack said if people dig their fingers through the bubbles, they can locate the immature spittlebugs.
The adults are a little more difficult to see because they are green and brown and blend into the plants they sit on, he said. However, Zack said if people sweepnets through plants and weeds, they could find hundreds of spittlebugs in their nets.
He said the insects are most popular in the spring and can often be found on thistles, junipers and conifers.
Zack said he has personally seen several spittlebugs on recent walks, but he does not know if they are more prevalent this year than in years past.
The bubbles they produce keep the insects hydrated and prevent predators from attacking the bugs since they do not enjoy digging through the spit to get to the spittlebug, Zack said.
Zack said insects generally have issues with drying out so they are always trying to find or create moist environments.
But the spittlebugs aren’t all spit and secretions.
Zack said the insects develop strong muscles, especially in its hind legs, once it becomes an adult, allowing the bug to jump impressive heights.
A 2003 study published in the journal “Nature” says an adult spittlebug uses an innovative leaping action to launch itself more than 2 feet into the air.
Zack has described spittlebugs as “superheroes” among insects for their extraordinary leaping abilities.
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