Cuckoo spit (spittlebugs)

Cuckoo spit, begins to appear in late spring at a time when the familiar call of cuckoos can be heard, but otherwise has no connection with the bird.

Willow froghopper ( Aphrophora alni ) on willow ( Salix sp. ). Credit: RHS/Entomology.

Willow froghopper (Aphrophora alni) on willow (Salix sp.). Credit: RHS/Entomology.

Quick facts

Common name Cuckoo spit, caused by froghopper/spittlebug nymphs
Scientific names Various species but mainly common meadow spittlebug Philaenus spumarius
Plants affected Many plants, including chrysanthemum, dahlia, fuchsia, lavender, rosemary, rose and willow
Main symptoms Blobs of white frothy liquid form on plant stems. A small pale insect lives inside the froth
Most active May-July

What is cuckoo spit?

Cuckoo spit is a white frothy liquid secreted by the nymphs of a sap-sucking true bug known as a froghopper. They are also known as spittlebugs.

Symptoms

  • Blobs of white frothy liquid develop on young stems and leaves of a range of plants in late spring and summer
  • Each blob contains a creamy white insect nymph up to 4-6mm (¼in) long
  • Usually plant growth is unaffected, but, if the nymph has been feeding at the shoot tip, this may cause some distorted growth

Froghoppers and Xylella

Xylella fastidiosa is a bacterial disease of a wide range of plants and causes symptoms including leaf scorch, wilt, dieback and plant death. It is causing serious problems in Southern Europe but it has not been detected in Britain. The disease is spread by insects that feed on the xylem of plants. This includes froghoppers. 

Xylella is not in the UK but could be introduced through the importation of infected plants. The RHS is a partner in a collaborative project which aims to understand and prevent the introduction of vector-borne plant pathogens, especially Xyllela, to the UK and the challenges they pose to the UK flora. The BRIGIT project has been funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Scottish Government to reduce this risk and to increase our capability to respond to an outbreak. The project is being undertaken by scientists in ten UK research organisations led by the John Innes Centre.

Cuckoo spit (spittlebug) survey

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) is calling on gardeners, nature lovers and citizen scientists to help the UK respond to the threat of Xylella fastidiosa. Working with the University of Sussex and Forest Research, we need thousands of volunteers to help map the distribution of spittlebugs. The data will help inform strategies to deal with any outbreak of Xylella in the UK. 

Any sightings can be reported online here.  Alternatively, please visit www.xylem feeding insects.co.uk

Spittlebugs are not a pest, so please don't remove them, but they are an innocent carrier of Xylella outside of the UK. The survey helps us gather data to inform a response should Xylella reach the UK.

Control

  • Apart from producing the 'spit' these insects have little detrimental effect on plants and can be tolerated
  • If considered unsightly, they can be wiped off by hand or dislodged with a jet of water from a garden hose
  • There is no need to use an insecticide against froghoppers

Biology

  • This froth has no connection with cuckoos
  • It is secreted by the immature stages of sap-sucking insects known as froghoppers, presumably as a means of protecting themselves against predators
  • The adult insects are present during mid-late summer and live openly on  plants. They do not produce cuckoo spit or cause any noticeable damage
  • Overwintering eggs are deposited in plant stems in late summer


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