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Frothy mass visible on plant stem hides curious bug

The concept itself can be identified as far back as Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War,' although he didn't use the term. It purportedly stemmed from WWI aviators. But it was air crew members fighting in Korea and Vietnam who are mainly given credit for mainstreaming the short phrase. The idea has gained some spread, having been popularized by human factors scientists more than a decade ago.

Military folks everywhere refer to it simply as 'SA.' Aviators use it regularly as in, "watch your SA," or, "maintain your SA." What we are talking about is the simple-to-understand but hard-to-implement idea known as situational awareness. The best definition I've found comes from an industrial engineer named Mica Endsley. She calls it, "the perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future." More simply, it's the big picture.

In a way, folks who indulge in the outdoors - hunters, fishermen, farmers -maintain a certain level of SA. That is, most perceive "the elements in the environment," without even thinking about them. Others with a firm grasp of SA are evident. More often than not, successful businesses are run by folks with a keen sense of present and future elements within that competitive environment. Let's not forget winning sports teams. We marvel at the coaches who unfailingly make the right decisions during seemingly chaotic game situations. They maintain a high state of SA.

I'm not sure why I thought of situational awareness this last week when I happened upon a curious oddity, but I did. Perhaps because I believe most folks would have walked right by the little glob of foam attached to the goldenrod plant, missing completely one of our weirder but common insects. That bubbly mass adhering to the stem of the flower was the handiwork of one of the species of spittlebugs, likely the meadow spittlebug (Philaenus spumarius).

So named for the frothy mass the nymph produces, spittlebugs are represented by about 54 species in North America. Some are more common than others and almost any plant is a potential feeding site, from pine trees to strawberries. Generally the insect is not considered a big problem in the home landscape but some commercial ventures make efforts to control the sap-sucking bugs.

More alarming to the gardeners than the threat of plant destruction, is perhaps the appearance of the spit globs. These are produced by secretions from the nymph's abdomen, often at a prodigious rate. I've read where some species can put out as many as 80 bubbles per minute. It is thought the frothy mass serves the nymph by providing a barrier between it and potential predators and as insulation for regulating temperature and humidity.

As evident as the spit of the nymph can be, the opposite is true of the adult stage of this insect. Called "froghoppers" by most people, the adults are little blunt-nosed bulls capable of leaping tremendous distances. Adult spittlebugs also feed on sap but we don't seem to notice them nearly as often.

Oddly, spittlebugs feed on xylem. That is, the water-carrying portion of stems. This is in contrast to most sucking insects which target the nutrient rich phloem. I would guess this means spittlebugs must process much more matter than other insects in order to maintain its existence. It also makes them somewhat less harmful, like stealing pennies from the piggybank instead of five-dollar bills.

Given three elements - a refined skill level, a capable aircraft and a strong SA - a fighter pilot makes a formidable warrior. Similarly, a person can turn his or herself into a "big picture" outdoors person by adopting such a strategy. Simply by looking, listening, and even smelling on deeper levels, that person starts to gain a heightened situational awareness. They start to sense the larger meaning of the natural world, start to understand the intricacies found therein, and begin noticing the finer elements. Even things as small as spittlebugs.