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Extension > Local Extension Offices > Steele > County Agriculture Educator > Articles > What are springtails and what are they doing in your soil?

What are springtails and what are they doing in your soil?

Photo: Brenda Postels Springtail close-up (note the furcula at the tip of the abdomen)

Collembolans, commonly known as “springtails,” are extremely common and ubiquitous insects, but they are nearly microscopic and because of that, they are often overlooked. They range from 1/16th to 1/8th of an inch long, and their diminutive size may be the reason you think you’ve never encountered one of these little buggers, but it is estimated that there are tens of thousands of springtails in just one square meter of agricultural soil. 

As their name suggests, springtails can jump a great distance using their tails. Their tail is actually a specialized forked appendage called a furcula, located underneath the abdomen. When not in use, the furcula is tucked under the body, set like a mouse trap. When a springtail is threatened, fluid rushes into base of the furcula, and it extends down, hits a surface, and propels the critter as much as a yard forward. Their ability to jump incredible distances sometimes causes people to think they are fleas. Fleas can also jump impressive distances, but have hard round bodies compared to springtails’ soft elongate bodies.

Springtails are associated with damp conditions and organic debris and are found outdoors in soil, leaf litter, decaying plant matter, and rotting wood. They are found in diverse habitats from tundras to cornfields, and they feed on fungi, pollen, algae, or decaying organic matter. Springtails may also inhabit the soil of houseplants or other moist places inside the house. Springtails that infest houseplants are only found in soil that is exceedingly damp or in soil mixes containing high percentages of peat. They feed on decaying roots and fungi and do not harm living plants, but if you have a problem with springtails in houseplants, let the soil dry out and water less frequently. Moisture control is the most effective strategy to decrease springtail populations.

Typically, seeing springtails is a positive thing. Springtails are harmless to people; they do not bite or sting us, nor damage food products, clothes, or furniture. In fact, they are beneficial insects to have in agricultural soils or in one’s garden soil. They play important roles in the decomposition of organic materials, cycling of nutrients, and formation of soil micro-structure. Like most of our under-recognized soil invertebrates, they play a role in the soil food web and contribute to the health of the of soil community. There is also evidence that springtails benefit plant health by feeding upon fungi which may cause plant diseases.

You can promote collembolan presence in your soil by keeping soil covered with plant residue and other organic material, disturbing the soil less frequently, and encouraging other microbial life in your soils. If you would like to know if there are springtails in your soil, you can bring a hand lens into the field or garden, pull back some plant litter, and observe. You may also be able to catch some collembolans in a simple plastic cup pitfall trap. If you would like further instructions on how to sight these critters, contact Claire LaCanne.

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