While most of us know that it is not polite to spit, there are some who refuse to follow even this basic tenet of manners.
Spittlebugs, also known as froghoppers, dwell in their drool. They may perhaps lack etiquette, but they know that there is safety in spit. Lately, I have been noticing their frothy foam (with soft green spittlebug hidden inside) on plants in the garden and field. While their presence and taste for plant sap might make the gardener cringe, the naturalist is intrigued.
The insect’s discharge, called cuckoo spit, frog spit, or snake spit, comes not from their mouth, but from the other end. These larval stages or nymphs of spittlebugs emit a saliva-like material and air, then whips them together to form a protective froth.
This foam serves multiple functions. It hides them from their predators, insulates them from the cold and heat, and prevents moisture loss and desiccation. It is not the adult froghopper that makes this mess, only the nymph, or larval stage of the insect.
Spit is not the froghoppers’ only talent, even if it is its most obvious. The other outstanding skill possessed by spittlebugs is their exceptional jumping ability. The flea, long thought to be the gold medal winner in the long distance jumping category, should flee if challenged by the froghopper. As adults, froghoppers jump from plant to plant and can reach a vertical height of 28 inches. No wonder, then, they got the name they did: it seems they could leap right over all but the quickest and most alert frogs.
To reach this height, they use their body as a catapult. With two muscles in their rear legs (which account for 11 per cent of their body weight), they can accelerate at a rate of 13 feet per second with a force 400 times greater than gravity. Other insects don’t compare: a jumping flea overcomes gravity with a force only 135 times its body weight and a grasshopper eight times. Humans don’t even show, with our jumps at only two or three times our weight.
Even more impressive is the comparison of the force of a catapulting spittlebug and an astronaut going into orbit. An astronaut has to contend with a G-force of 5, while a froghopper happily exerts a G-force of 400 without a problem.
Don’t jump to conclusions about the detriment of these insects. The froghopper’s strength extends primarily to their leaping aptitude and not to their plant-damaging capabilities. While they can cause some plant damage, it is generally minimal and doesn’t kill their botanical host.
Perhaps the biggest inconvenience to folks is having to touch their spit. My advice is, don’t let it bug you.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.