Springtails: identification & treatment

Springtails: identification & treatment

Springtails like to romp about in potting soil. But are these small insects harmful at all and do they need to be controlled?

Springtails (Collembola) are usually found in the soil where they feed on rotting plant material and fungi. Generally, there is enough of that in the soil and we do not have to worry about our plants. It is only when the small animals appear in large numbers and can no longer find any other food, that they can also start harming our crops.

Springtails: characteristics

Springtails are moisture-loving insects that are very tolerant of cold. They live sociably in the ground and fulfil an important role in the ecosystem by breaking down dead organic material. Due to this decomposition humus is formed, which in turn provides food for the plants. Some of the most common springtail species are, for example, Onychiurus fimatus or Sminthunus viridis.

What do springtails feed on?

As already mentioned above, springtails are detritivores. Therefore, their primary diet consists of rotting and dead plant material as well as fungi. However, what can happen is that an above-average number of springtails accumulates and, consequently, their food supply decreases. In such a case, it is possible that the small animals begin feeding on living roots or seedlings and become harmful to the plants. This can be caused, for example, by using unnecessarily high doses of organic fertiliser. A larger supply of food increases the number of springtails. 

What are springtails and what do they look like?

If you see small jumping bugs or “lice” while watering your houseplants, you have already discovered the first sign of springtails. Depending on the species, springtails have a pretty well-developed jumping apparatus. One of their distinguishing features is the so-called furca: a fork-like apparatus on their abdomen that helps them jump. This jumping apparatus is reduced in springtails that live in deeper soil layers. Normally, the furca is fixed to the back when at rest. If the springtails are disturbed, the fixation is released and the furca springs down. This causes the springtails to bounce upwards, often even with a flip. 

Springtails have a three-part body. The species living close to the surface are darker in colour, while those living in deeper layers of soil are lighter. The hexapods also differ in body shape. Among the approximately 1,500 species in Central Europe, there are both springtails that are longer in shape and other that tent to be more globular. Their average size is between 0.2 and 0.5 mm and they have either chewing and biting or piercingly sucking mouthparts.

How to get rid of springtails

Treating springtails with water

If you have springtails in your potted plants, there is an easy way to get rid of them. Place your plants in the sink or a large pot and fill it with water. The root ball must be completely covered, and the plant must remain in the water for at least half an hour. After this, the springtails should float on top of the water surface and can then be easily disposed of. Next, you should take the plant out of the bath and not water it for some time. After this treatment, it is often also beneficial to repot the plants.

Treating springtails with dryness

If you have springtails in your garden bed, you have to work in exactly the opposite way as with potted plants. As springtails enjoy moist environments, the best way to get rid of them is by drying them out in the garden. The small, jumping animals in the bed should not be a big problem, as there is usually enough dead organic material on which they prefer to feed rather than on your plants. You can also try the method of drying out very large potted plants if dipping them into water is too cumbersome. In the case of a springtail plague in a hydroponic culture it is recommended to repot the plants in soil or to clean the pot thoroughly and add new expanded clay.

Treating springtails with predatory mites

Predatory mites can also be used to control springtails. Hypoaspis miles or Hypoaspis aculeifer, for example, are suitable. These predatory mites are often sold to control fungus gnats, but they have a broad host spectrum and can also be used for springtails. The ravenous animals can even go without prey for a long time and starve. Therefore, they are ideal both for preventive treatment and for acute infestation. The predatory mites are supplied as scatter material and only need to be distributed onto the ground.

Checking the root area

You should also check your potted plants. The main cause of the problem is often underground. As springtails like to feed on dead material and rotting organic matter, it is recommended to check the root ball of your plants. Remove rotting parts and replace the substrate with fresh soil. Even this small step can help against the springtail infestation. 

Beware of Internet tips!

When searching for tips on springtail control online, you might stumble upon treatment methods that promise amazing results but unfortunately do not have the desired effect. These tips include, for example, watering the plant with lemon water. Lemon water changes the pH value in your potting soil and can therefore damage your plants. Some sensitive plants, such as orchids, are especially susceptible to damage of the pH of the soil is changed. Some sources also recommend using detergent when dipping the plants to reduce the surface tension. However, since only a few of the 1,500 springtail species are able to float on the water surface, it is not necessary to load the plant with dishwashing detergent. If the plant is infested with springtail species that can survive immersion in water, it is better to dry out the substrate.

Treating springtails in the house

When combating springtails in your living quarters, the most important step is finding the source of the outbreak. Houseplants are often the place to start. Once you have cleared them of springtails, you should soon have peace within your own four walls. As springtails revel in moist environments, they tend to inhabit places with a high concentration of moisture. The first step to a successful indoor springtail treatment, is a thorough cleaning at home. Insects that crawl away can be caught with a vacuum cleaner. Alternatively, ventilation in damp rooms (in bathrooms, for example) should reduce the number of springtails, too. However, a springtail infestation can also occur in damp buildings after water damage. Damp environments are conducive to springtail reproduction. It is therefore essential to find such places and dehumidify them. For such procedures, however, you must consult a specialist.

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