The Cuckoo Spit

February 1st, 2012 by Ray Burman Leave a reply »

All about the Cuckoo Spit

Well we couldn’t have the namesake of the site missing from our content could we?

The obvious question that people ask is ‘what is a Cuckoo spit?‘. This feature will attempt to explain that.

They do go by other names:-
spit bugs or spittle bugs but Cuckoo spit seems to be the most common in the UK anyway.

Cuckoo spit

Dont let this fool you...

If you are a gardener who wants to ensure that their plants are pest free, then you won’t want a Cuckoo spit in sight.

However if you are somebody that is simply interested in what these things actually are, you won’t need to see the Cuckoo spit as your enemy, but as an interesting part of our fauna in the UK.

Now how does this insect get its strange name? How can it possibly be related in anyway to a Cuckoo?

Ingenious protection mechanism

Now we won’t get onto the issue of evolution or creation, but it sometimes takes a large leap of faith (no pun intended) to imagine how the mechanism that the Cuckoo spit uses to protect themselves came into being…..

The Cuckoo spit actually blows bubbles to create a watery mass around itself. At first glance it looks like somebody has simply spat on a plant, and this will be enough to put most people off from ever investigating any further.

The Cuckoo spit have got a lot of us fooled. To me this makes it all the more interesting. We may have seen these white spits from time to time and not asked any questions and just forgotten all about them until the next year…

Now the creature that is actually inside this white frothy mass is in a juvenile state. And eventually it will leave its temporary home and become something else…..

If you were to go beyond your disgust and wipe your finger across the bubbles, and look carefully, you would see a little green bug. It won’t like the fact that you have found it, and will attempt to walk away (it cant run).

If you can go a step further and pick the bug up, you will start to see that it has a slight

Philaenus spumarius nymph

Philaenus spumarius nymph

resemblance to a tiny green frog. Now there is a clue here……

The bug survives by actually feeding on the sap of the plant.  As it drinks the sap, the by-product are bubbles which protect the creature in a couple of ways:

a) It is hidden in its frothy mass, so predators will not see it, unless they have learnt  there is something tasty to eat inside.

b) It stops the bug from drying out as it needs to stay damp to survive in its juvenile state.

Another possibility is that some plants have toxic sap, so they may also help to protect the creature, but I am currently unsure about this.

There are a number of other creatures that use a similar method to protect their young in this way. Frogs in some countries use this method to protect their tadpoles, where there is sometimes a lack of water. So nature has used this method for other species….

Another thought is this Cuckoo spit could in a sense be classed as a water creature, as it does spend a large part of its life-cycle in a liquid, similar to the nymph of a dragonfly or a damselfly.

I am unsure if it needs to come to the surface from time to time to get a gulp of air, or the bubbles are enough for it to breathe in.

Coming out

Eventually the Cuckoo spit  is old enough to venture out of the safety of its old home. It will have had to shed it skin one last time before it can become its final form…

It’s now a frog hopper!

Frog hopper

The frog hopper in all its glory

And nature hasn’t left the little hopper defenceless…

If you have ever seen one of these on a plant or wall, and tried to touch it or pick it up, it would be a case of, ‘now you see it, now you don’t’.

It now has the ability to jump at lightning speed away from any danger. If you look around after it has jumped (if it hasn’t got you in the eye, which is a possibility) you will notice it is quite a long way from its original location.

It also uses its wings to cover a longer distance as it jumps, in the same way a
grasshopper does.

For its size and weight the frog hopper can jump far further than a flea!  You will need some very specialist camera equipment to try and capture this extremely fast takeoff.

If your hearing is good, you will also hear a click as it makes its death defying leap to freedom. It does this with over 400 g of acceleration.  To put this into perspective jet pilots are trained to tolerate 9 g, anymore and they could black out. The average person would black out if you were to exceed only 5 g!

Advice for Gardeners – Article

The best solution for ridding yourself of the spits is simply to hose down the plants and this usually washes off the spit and insect altogether.

If you have washed the spits off a edible plant, it will still be safe to eat.

The main chance of there being damage to the plant is if any new buds have spits on them, as this could cause any new growth to grow deformed or be retarded.

Origins of the name Cuckoo Spit

Now that you have a little background on the Cuckoo spit, you will most probably have come to the conclusion that it has nothing to do with the Cuckoo bird, so sorry to dispel that illusion.

The name came about due to the spittle’s arrival on plants seemingly coinciding with the first call of the Cuckoo in spring.

However is it an interesting historic observation and therefore does have a bit of mystique about it..

Cuckoo Spit update

Since posting this article, I seem to be hearing stories of the Cuckoo spit everywhere I go…

It seems that everybody I talk to has either accidentally touched a cuckoo spit, or actually know what they are and find them really interesting.

The Cuckoo spit is one of those things that a large percentage people seem to know about, but don’t actually talk about all that often, almost as if taking about the Cuckoo spit has a bit of stigma attached to it, it probably because they may know of its existence but are really unsure of what it actually is.

Hopefully this article has gone some way towards explaining what the Cuckoo spit actually is and not taken to much of the mystery away?


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