It looks harmless—a small clump of frothy bubbles that cloaks the spittlebug while it eats—but the saliva of a young spittlebug can be lethal to a great number of plants, from grape vines in California to olive trees in Italy and oaks in the U.K. That’s because the spittlebug (aka froghopper) is a carrier for the bacteria Xylella fastidiosa, a deadly plant disease that essentially chokes a plant and desiccates it from the inside out; there’s no way to cure a plant once it’s been infected. Other leafhoppers and sharpshooters can also transmit the bacteria.
Even scarier: Because the spittlebug injects its drool (with bacteria) into a plant every time it sucks the sap, the disease can spread quickly, as wide-reaching as the spittlebug can fly. It’s like something out of a horror movie.
But really, it gets worse: Apparently, the bacteria is not too finicky about its host plant, and it can infect more than 300 varieties, including ordinary garden herbs, like rosemary and lavender, and common trees like oak, according to Dr. Rebekah Robinson, senior plant pathologist at the Royal Horticultural Society.
After learning of its effects on crops in California and other parts of Europe, scientists in the U.K. are launching a preemptive strike and sounding the alarm, calling for thousands of volunteers to report any sightings of spittlebugs and their distinctive saliva, also known as “cuckoo spit.” Once discovered, all potential host plants within 328 feet (or 100 metres) will have to be destroyed. That’s a lot of trees and plants!
Here in the States, the disease has been discovered in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas, though it’s most critical in California, where the massive farm and wine areas are particularly vulnerable. A variety of biological, chemical, and mechanical warfare is being used to control the spread of spittlebugs and other potential carriers.
So if you’re at a park and see the telltale clumps of bubbles, tell someone, like a ranger! Or if it’s your own garden, spray it off with a hose and contact your local pest control company, because it won’t just be your own garden that will be in jeopardy.