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Cuckoo spit spies - how you can help scientists track down spittlebugs

People are being asked to help search for spittlebugs (philaenus spumarius) Pic: Dr Claire Harkin

People are being asked to help search for spittlebugs (philaenus spumarius) Pic: Dr Claire Harkin

Dr Claire Harkin

Scientists are calling for people to record sightings of the frothy blobs of insects on plants across Norfolk and Suffolk.

People are being asked to help search for spittlebugs (philaenus spumarius) Pic: Dr Claire HarkinPeople are being asked to help search for spittlebugs (philaenus spumarius) Pic: Dr Claire Harkin

And that information could prove vital to halt the spread of an international disease which is harmful to plants.

Blobs of the substance, called cuckoo spit, usually appear on plants at this time of year, up to early June.

The cuckoo spit is a mucus produced by the nymphs of spittlebugs, also known as froghoppers. The nymphs use it to stop them from drying out and as protection from predators before they emerge as adults.

Scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich are particularly keen to find out where those nymphs are.

People are being asked to help search for spittlebugs (philaenus spumarius) Pic: Dr Claire HarkinPeople are being asked to help search for spittlebugs (philaenus spumarius) Pic: Dr Claire Harkin

While they are harmless to plants, there is concern over the role they play in spreading the bacterial pathogen Xylella fastidiosa.

That disease, which affects more than 550 plant species, is not in the UK, but has devastated olive trees in Italy and been found in France and Spain.

New, recently introduced, restrictions on import aim to keep it out of the UK.

But researchers on BRIGIT, a UK-wide consortium led by the John Innes Centre, want to find out where spittlebugs are, so if the disease does arrive, they can move quickly to try to combat it.

People are being asked to help search for spittlebugs (philaenus spumarius) Pic: Dr Claire HarkinPeople are being asked to help search for spittlebugs (philaenus spumarius) Pic: Dr Claire Harkin

People are being asked to keep an eye out in their garden for cuckoo spit - and to make a note of any they spot while out exercising safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr Gerard Clover, from the John Innes Centre, said: “Cuckoo spit is a mucus produced by the spittlebug nymph, which they make by blowing it out of their bottoms - a fact which chlldren love to hear.

“The reason we are so interested in them is because, if we understand the distribution of them, then it would help us if the Xylella disease does reach the UK.

“That’s why we are asking people to let us know where and when they find them.”

Dr Clover said it would be helpful if people can record the type of plant they are on, if possible. Plants they live on include goosegrass, nettles, roses, lavender and rosemary.

He stressed people should not harm any spittlebugs they discover.

People can report their sightings at www.spittlebugsurvey.co.uk


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