Over two months have slipped by since strange frothy bubbles shimmered on plant stems in meadows, fallow farm fields and along weedy roadsides. The season of the mystery bubbles that seemingly appear overnight is over and won’t return until late next spring, but questions on these eye-catching bubble baths that kids like to poke their fingers into still come my way as I meander my home turf on the wilder side of Oakland County. And questions don’t just from little kids, I also received them from the hooks and bullets crowd of the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association, “Hey, nature guy; what’s this stuff on the stem?”
And so on those sultry summer days I share the adult version of how the bubbles are made. The fact of the matter is the bubbles have nothing to do with spit, even though they are created by a creature known with a degree of affection as the spittlebug. And as far as bugs go—they are rather cute.
Little kids and nature-curious adults often noticed those stem-clinging bubbles but I often held back on sharing all details of their creation to prevent young children from collapsing on the ground in fits of hysterical uncontrollable giggles that often accompany comments on bodily functions. Truth could do that, especially if I told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Truth might even stir little ones to scream such phrases as “Out their butts!” Science should be based on fact, not sharing of myth, and for that reason I am coming clean on the story of spittlebugs and their “bug-spit.” But all true tales of nature start with a beginning, so that’s where we start, with one word: Evolution.
Predation has spurred the evolution of all sorts of clever survival adaptations in the world of insects and bugs. Some tiny creatures have protective ‘armor plating,’ others are masters of camouflage or can flee at fantastic speeds, and some taste really, really bad. But if you are a very tiny, perhaps tasty creature that’s shorter than a mosquito, with no evasion and escape abilities, danger is rarely out of spitting distance. Concealment is the technique used by the crawling creatures that live within these frothy masses. They are created by “spittlebugs,” and they are the pale green nymphs of small jumping insects known as froghoppers. They stay hidden inside their bubble bath until they are big enough to jump about. They do so by covering themselves in what scientists refer to as spittle, thus the commonly used name of “spittlebug.”
Despite its most memorable name of spittlebug, the frothy “spit” isn’t spit at all—but by now you already know where this nature ramble is heading. But you can’t name a bug a “butt bug” (or something else along those lines that perhaps the editor would not let me write), so the name spittlebug has stuck. The fact of the matter is they form the spittle by mixing air with copious amounts of excess plant fluids that come in through the mouth parts and then through a serious of strange internal muscle contractions they quite literately blow bubbles out their butts. Yes they do.
Here’s the dry way it’s often described in scientific literature that doesn’t see the excitement of its creation. “As it voids the excess fluids from its anus, the spittlebug also secretes a sticky substance from abdominal glands. Using caudal appendages, it whips air into the mixture, giving it a foamy appearance.” I’ll add something here and emphasize those “caudal appendages” function a bit like tiny fan blades located inside the butt.
Another confession: There is no way I can tell a public gathering for a nature hike, “Today we are searching for a tiny green nymph with a miniature fan in its butt that blows bubbles. Let’s touch the bubbles.” But the hikes do happen, and we do poke and touch and admire the spittle.
I was hoping to capture a close up image of the actual creation of the bubbles but failed, and it took an hour just trying to get even a few clear images of the tiny nymphs for its not easy to get them to pose on a fingertip for close up. In the process of the photo shoot back in late June I was feasted on by squadrons of blood-thirsty mosquitoes, and several hours later, when I worked on the images on my laptop, I felt something on my ankle. A tick had found me to be a good source of nourishment while I was nearly motionless in the field of hidden spittlebugs viewing their behavior when disturbed; just another hazard of spontaneous scientific “research.”
I did however discover something else during my photo shoot. Spittlebugs are shy of sunlight. They would ‘walk’ as quickly as they could on their very tiny, but relatively tall legs to reach the shady side of my finger. I also suspect that in addition to the spittlebug’s foam insulating them from the heat, and perhaps protecting from the relative chill of the night cold, it serves as a natural moisturizer to protect their soft-bodies.
A literature search to fact check my tale mentioned each “dollop” of foam only houses one or two nymphs, however one of my finger-poking expeditions into a large foamy private residence to stir residents into motion for a photo revealed almost a dozen. Dollop was a new word for me. It’s defined as “a shapeless mass or blob of something;” a totally perfect description.
Autumn is not far off and soon the female froghoppers will lay clusters of eggs that will hatch next year assuring a new generation of bugs that remind us that evolution is full of surprise. I think blowing bubbles out their butts is one heck of survival surprise, thankfully not adopted by two-legged creatures.
Jonathan Schechter is a naturalist and outdoor writer in Oakland County. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org