Division of Plant Sciences
Springtails are tiny insects belonging to the order Collembola. About 700 species of springtails occur in North America, and more than 6,000 worldwide (Figure 1). They are wingless and have limited vision. These and other primitive features have convinced some scientists to exclude springtails from the class Insecta, placing them instead in a separate, exclusive class called Collembola.
Springtails are only about 1 to 2 mm long but can rapidly move 3 to 4 inches in a single motion. This represents a distance of about 100 times their body length. Springtails move rapidly because of a "springing" device on their abdomen called a furcula. The furcula is a hinged appendage that is bent forward and is held in place by a latch mechanism called a tenaculum (Figure 2). When the furcula is released, it springs down, sending the springtail through the air.
Three representative species of springtails.
Another interesting anatomical feature of springtails is a ventral tube called a collophore, which projects down under the first abdominal segment. The collophore is wet and sticky, and helps a springtail adhere to surfaces. It is also used for water uptake. Springtails are able to breathe through their thin body covering. Water is also able to pass through this covering. Because of the ease with which moisture can escape their bodies, springtails are extremely sensitive to drying out, and many species inhabit soil. It has been estimated that as many as 50,000 springtails can inhabit 1 cubic foot of organic topsoil.
The soil contains sufficient moisture and food for springtails to survive. Their food includes decaying vegetation, fungi, bacteria, pollen, algae, lichens and insect feces. The feeding activities of springtails enrich the soil by breaking down these forms of organic matter and releasing the nutrients they contain. Because of these activities, springtails are considered to be a good indicator of soil health.
“Snow fleas” are black springtails that feed on the surface of old snow banks.
Springtails occur in moist habitats almost everywhere except under water. Many species of springtails even live in the tidal zones of the seashore. They often attract attention when large numbers are seen floating on the surface of trapped tidal pools. Other species are called snow fleas (Figure 3) because large groups of them will occasionally congregate on old snow banks, where they feed on algae and fungal spores. Snow fleas are usually a velvety black color and stand out in vivid contrast to the snow.
Springtails invade structures in search of moisture when their usual habitat becomes dry. Their usual outdoor habitats include mulch, leaf litter, other decaying organic matter, firewood, logs and landscape timbers. They are attracted to light and are so small that they can enter houses through cracks and crevices around doors, utility pipes, window screens, etc. They can also be brought indoors in the soil of potted plants.
Indoors, they are most often found in high-moisture areas such as bathrooms, kitchens, crawlspaces and basements. Moldy furniture is also able to support large infestations.
Homeowners who see these tiny, grayish insects in and around houseplant containers are often concerned that they are likely to harm their plants; however, this is not the case. Springtail activity is an indication of healthy, moist, organically rich soil. If springtails remain confined to the soil of houseplants, it is not necessary to initiate control measures unless there are so many that they cause a nuisance.
When springtails are found in and around bathtubs and showers, these areas must be cleaned thoroughly and kept dry to correct the problem. For a temporary solution to indoor springtail problems, you can use a household aerosol spray; however, the problem will recur if the sources of moisture and organic matter are not removed.
Springtails may be found in wooden windowsills where moisture is causing the wood to decay. Removing the cause of the moisture and refinishing the wood surface will eliminate the attractiveness of these areas.
Occasionally, large numbers of springtails congregate on the surface of the soil in masses as large as a softball. Often, these masses appear on a sidewalk, patio or concrete porch. Usually there is no need to do anything, because the masses usually disappear in a day or two. However, if immediate removal is desired, just spray the mass with water to disperse or wash it away.
If control is necessary, treat the soil surface of potted plants with an insecticide dust or aerosol that lists springtails on the label. Several products containing pyrethroids (products with various names ending in -thrin) are labeled for use around the home.
Warning on the use of chemicals
Apply chemicals only where needed or justified. Before using any chemical, please read the label carefully for directions on application procedures, appropriate rate, first aid, storage and disposal. Make sure that the chemical is properly registered for use on the intended pest and follow all other label directions. Keep insecticides in original containers, complete with labels, and keep them out of the reach of children and pets. Do not allow children or pets near treated areas before these areas dry. Carefully and properly dispose of unused portions of diluted sprays and empty insecticide containers.
G7363, revised August 2007