Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Spittlebug survey under lockdown

Cuckoo-spit on a Galium sp.
Image: A.J. Stewart
Last year we passed on info from colleagues at Forest Research, the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Royal Horticultural Society and the John Innes Centre who were working together to raise awareness about a potential threat to our trees and how you could help researchers understand more about this threat. The BRIGIT project aimed to find out more about the  Xylella fastidiosa bacterium and botanists were asked to record spittle or frog-hoppers on plants while out recording for Atlas 2020

Things are quite different this year: recording for Atlas 2020 has finished and we're all under lockdown so we are definitely not roaming around the countryside looking at plants! But, although fortunately there have not been any occurrences of Xylella recorded in Britain or Ireland yet, that doesn't mean that this potential threat has gone away. 

Over to Dr Alan Stewart from the University of Sussex to tell us more:

"Did you know that the ‘cuckoo-spit’ that you see in spring is produced by the immature stage (nymph) of a spittlebug or froghopper? It is thought that the spittle is produced to protect the nymphs from drying out and from their predators. Once the nymphs emerge as adults, usually in late June, they leave their spittle ‘nest’ behind and become free flying. The name froghopper reflects the fact that their face is rather bulbous and therefore froglike, and that they are one of the most powerful jumpers in the animal kingdom. 


Meadow Spittlebug Philaenus spumarius
Image: C. Harkin
"There are ten species of froghopper in Britain. The so-called Meadow Spittlebug, Philaenus spumarius, is one of our commonest insects and has possibly the broadest diet of any insect, being known to feed on more than 400 species of plant.

"Interest in these insects has recently been heightened by the fact that they all feed on the liquid contents of the plant xylem tissue and are therefore capable of transmitting various plant diseases that reside there. One of these, the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, has recently been responsible for the death of millions of olive trees in southern Italy. 

"Fortunately, the Xylella bacterium has NOT been found in the UK, but there is a danger that it could be accidentally introduced in imported plants (especially lavender, rosemary and olive trees).

"We need to collect good data on two aspects of these insects to understand better how the Xylella bacterium would spread if it were ever introduced into Britain: the geographical distribution of the different species of spittlebug and what plant species they feed on. Last year, we started to collect some of this information through a national survey, funded by the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and coordinated through the RHS, focused on gardeners recording spittle on their garden plants. 


Another reminder of what to
look out for in your garden
or during permitted daily exercise
Image: A. J. Stewart
"This year, the restrictions on movement due to Covid19 mean that we have to be careful about extending the survey into the wider countryside. Nevertheless, we hope that people will enjoy recording spittle in places that they visit as part of their daily permitted exercise. Of course, those people lucky enough to have a garden will still be able to record the presence of cuckoo-spit on the plants in their garden.

"Can you help? It would mean recording cuckoo-spit when you find it in your garden or elsewhere and especially the plant species on which you find it. Your plant identification skills will help us collect vital information. Please consider contributing to this important survey. Much more information and an online form for submitting your sightings can be found on our website at: www.Spittlebugsurvey.co.uk.

"We have developed an ‘exercise sheet’ for families to follow when confined to their gardens, that should appeal particularly to young children: https://www.jic.ac.uk/app/uploads/2020/05/Spittlebug-activity-sheet-v2.pdf

"We have also recently released a short video on how to find spittlebugs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anfH8DAC7p8&feature=youtu.be.

"Please be sure to follow the government’s instructions at the time about social distancing when walking in the countryside." 

So if you are in your garden recording as part of the BSBI Garden Wildflower Hunt, or if you're taking permitted exercise near your home, while of course following carefully the latest guidance for your country around social distancing, why not keep a look-out for cuckoo-spit and use the links above to record your finds? 

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