Although there are many different species of spittlebugs that often make them difficult to distinguish, these insects are best known for their unusual habit of forming masses of spittle. The spittlebug is from the Cercopidae family of insects in the order Homoptera which means same wing bugs. Of the four common species of this insect, two live in meadows while the other two live in pine trees.
The species Philaenus spumarius is one of the meadow spittlebugs whose juveniles or nymphs are a brown color with spots and known to feed mostly on alfalfa and clover. The species Lepyronia quadrangularis is the second this species of the meadow spittlebugs. It can be identified by the two oblique bands across its back and its preference for feeding on grass.
The pine feeding species of spittle bugs include the Saratoga spittle bug or Aphrophora saratogensis and the pine spittle bug or Aphrophora parallela. The Saratoga spittle bug us known to feed on pines during its adult stage and then lay its eggs in the dead twigs or wood of the tree. When the nymphs hatch in the spring they will move to the ground where they feed on shrubs such as sweet ferns, brambles, young willow and aspens.
Once they become mature adults they return to the pines to feed and lay their eggs. On the other hand, the pine spittlebug will spend its entire life on the trees. It is during the nymph stage of this insect’s life when it creates spittle. This is done as the insect stands head down on a plant stem, inserting its beak-like mouth into the plant. It sucks out the juice, excreteing the excess out its anus which then covers the insect and is frothed up as it passes over a projection that sticks out from its side.
It is believed that the spittle produced by the spittle bug may serve several functions. The substance provides a moist invironment that keeps this vunerable insect from drying out but it may also be used as a form of protection from predators providing a substance that is distasteful and unpleasant for the predator to seach through. Although these insects can be found in both the adult and nymphal stages they are more easily recognized in the nymph stage when they are creating spittle.
When the spittle is pushed away the juvenile will be about one-eighth inch long and a light green color. In the adult stage, these insects are best found in lush grasses. They tend to make very large hops and are brown oval insects with stout appearing bodies. During their life, the spittlebug will overwinter as eggs laid on plant stems. During the spring the young hatch and immediately begin forming spittle masses for the excess plant juice they feed on.
Before reaching the adult stage the juveniles will go though several molts in the protection of their spittle and with each molt they move to a new location to form a new spittle mass. When the final molt occurs they have reached the winged adult stage where they no longer create or living within the spittle. Depending on the species there can be up to three generations born each year.
This can also depend on the latitude in which the species live. The final batch of eggs that are laid is left to over winter until spring. Adult spittle bugs are often mistaken for leafhoppers but they tend to be stubbier and lack the row of spines on their backs.