What is this moss on my plants? Get to know spittlebugs

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Have you ever noticed a foamy patch of spit on one of your garden plants? I have! The other day I walked past my rosemary, and right on a leaf there was a patch of spit. It looked like someone had walked by and spat on my plant. But it’s not saliva. This is a sign of spittlebugs.

Most of the time, bedbugs aren’t much of a problem. Although stink bugs suck sap from various plants, they are tiny and unable to do much damage.

But sometimes large groups of spittlebugs gather together. When they do, expect to see noticeable damage to your ornamental plants, herbs, and vegetables. They can even spread disease. Here’s what to do:


Recognize spittlebugs in your garden

There was a time when I might have asked my kids if they spit on the weeds, but now I know better. After a bit of exploring and a lot of research, I know that those bubbly spitballs on my plants aren’t human saliva at all – they belong to the spittlebug.

The easiest way to find spittlebugs in your garden is to look for the telltale sign of those frothy bubbles on your plants. If you’ve ever tried to recreate the “spitting” of the spitting pin, you’ll find that it’s not at all easy to do. Human spit does not retain its shape on a leaf like spittlebug spit does.

When you see a small patch of bubbles spitting in your yard or garden, look again. It is most likely a bedbug secretion.

Bedbugs are also known as frogs. Adult frogs jump from plant to plant. Adult frogs are usually less than a quarter inch long. They often sport contrasting colors on their bodies. Adult frogs can jump far and high.

Despite all this, they are easy to miss in the garden. Unlike spitting masses of larvae, adults are well trained to sneak around unseen. You may spot one or two, but these little pests are hard to find.

The easiest way to recognize spittlebugs in the garden is in the telltale spit patches. These bundles of bubbles act to protect the nymphs while they feed. Spit Larvae are small and soft-bodied, so you’d be tempted to think of them as vulnerable creatures.

But the spit that sets these pests apart from other garden insects is also a powerful shield. Spittlebug spit protects these tiny larvae from predators, pesticides, and threatening weather conditions, such as sunlight.

Life cycle of a spitting bug

In late summer, adult frogs lay their eggs in plant debris like fallen leaves, wilted flowers, and other garden clutter. They overwinter as eggs, then hatch in the spring to begin feeding on stink bug larvae.

Usually the larvae begin feeding at the base of a nearby plant and slowly work their way upwards.

The spitting larvae go through five stages of larval life before turning into adult frogs. At each of these stages, the spittlebugs grow a little larger and their color changes slightly from pale green to brownish beige.

After a few weeks of growing through the larval stages, our near-adult bedbugs retreat into their saliva to complete the transition from larva to adult. When the adults emerge, they are tougher creatures with strong hind legs.

Adult stink bugs hop from plant to plant, feeding and mating for the last six months or so of their lives before dying when the weather turns cold.

What is White Spittle Stuff?

The moss that is the defining characteristic of spittlebug (or frog) larvae is actually excreted from the rear of the larvae. Sometimes called larval urine, saliva is created when spittlebug larvae feed, then foam and excrete the substance to provide an easy, handy hiding place for the young pest.

With so much exterior protection, spittlebugs needn’t worry too much. These little guys just spend their days wandering around, slowly climbing a plant, eating, and leaving a trail of spit as they go.

Bedbugs are usually at least partially protected by their mossy homes. When they feel threatened, such as when you walk past them, they may retreat completely into their saliva wads. They may even stop breathing for brief periods of time – or pop a few bubbles to breathe inside the spitting group until you leave.

When it’s time to grow into adult frogs, your little spittlebugs hide in an extra-large (for them) bubble and grow into adults. Once this happens, the frog no longer needs to spit up. Your plants will be free of unsightly bubbles until next spring.

Do spitting bugs harm plants?

Spittlebugs feed on our beautiful garden plants. They are especially fond of roses, junipers, strongly scented grasses and pines. But you can find them anywhere. I have seen spittlebugs on grasses and clovers as well as rosemary and birch.

Unless you have a huge infestation, however, spittlebugs are fairly harmless. They rarely even cause minor, visible damage. In a world full of garden pests, spittlebugs are the least of your worries.

Since chinch bugs only stay on plants for a few weeks in spring and early summer, they are a very minor pest. Adults also feed on plants, but tend to hop, feeding a little here and a little there. Neither adults nor larvae pose a threat to healthy plants.

They can cause tip dieback, which can be unsightly, but it won’t kill your plant.

Although the spittlebugs themselves do not cause much damage, they can spread plant diseases. For this reason, it is worth keeping them under control. That’s what we’ll talk about next.

Prevent spittlebugs

Even though spittlebugs aren’t usually a pest, you may still want to keep them away from your garden.

Little patches of frothy white bubbles on your plants aren’t exactly attractive. You may not be able to completely keep these little guys out of your garden, but you can make life difficult for them.

1. Clean up the garden

To prevent spittlebugs from hatching in the first place, clean up your garden in the fall. Pick up dead leaves, sticks and weeds. Keep some space between your plants to prevent eggs laid in last year’s grass from hatching under your precious rose bush.

Regular yard maintenance and a little cleanup to “put the garden to bed” in the fall can do wonders.

Spittlebug eggs will not hatch in your garden if they have been raked. These little guys are so slow and localized in the larval stages. They are only ready for very short trips – from last year’s leaf to the plant right next to it.

2. Water pressure

If you find a few patches of spittlebug spittle, the best way to get rid of them is to use a strong stream of water from the hose. Really, it’s as simple as that. Remember that these little larvae are not great travelers. Once you push them off the plant with a strong stream of water, they are practically helpless.

Direct a strong jet of water at the spitting area and send it into the dirt. Without the protective bubbles, the larvae will likely die quickly. They have a host of predators who will happily jump on helpless bug larvae.

Spiders, assassin bugs and wasps are just waiting to stumble upon an insect without spitting.

3. The unpleasant option

Of course, the easiest way to get rid of spittlebug larvae is to simply wipe them away. Grab a rag and wipe away all those bubbly residue stains and the tiny larvae inside. Ewww, right?

It’s not really as disgusting as it sounds. I promise you, you probably won’t even notice these tiny larvae. The spit is a little sticky, but it’s no worse than wiping off cobwebs. But, if you have access to a hose with a powerful spray nozzle, there’s really no reason to just wipe away the suds.

4. What about pesticides?

The jury is still out. Some sources say that pesticides cannot penetrate protective sputum. Many gardeners have found that most pesticides are not effective against stink bug larvae. Pesticides can help limit the number of adult grasshoppers, but it is not a powerful weapon against well-protected larvae.

In addition, conventional pesticides often harm beneficial insects as well. This can lead to a whole host of other problems in your garden. Since they are not a serious problem and are fairly easy to control, avoid using pesticides against spittlebugs.

5. A homemade solution

If you hope to hunt both spittlebug larvae and adults, try to make your garden unattractive to them. Spray them with a strong spray of a spicy mixture of water, garlic, onions and red pepper.

You can also mix in some liquid soap so that if any of the spray touches the larvae it will act like insecticidal soap.

This recipe calls for a cup of water, a tablespoon of dish soap, four peeled garlic cloves, and a diced jalapeno (with seeds). Puree the entire mixture and let sit overnight for at least eight hours.

Then strain the solid matter and put it in a spray bottle. Use this spray after removing spit from your plants. Spray the woody parts of the plant after each rain shower to continue to deter spittlebugs all summer long.

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