Springtail into Summer
Every year, as spring moisture and cool temperatures fade into hot, dry days, springtails become a nuisance problem for many people. Around the world springtails are one of the most numerous organisms inhabiting soil where they help break down organic matter and fungi. Previous studies show that there can be between 40,000 and 200,000 springtails in one square meter of soil in temperate grasslands and woodlands. In the spring, cool, wet weather allows populations of springtails to surge in the soil. Once temperatures rise and the rain subsides, the soil dries out, forcing large numbers of springtails to find a cool, moist environment or suffer the consequences. Unfortunately, springtails sometimes enter homes and gather in large numbers in moist areas such as the kitchen or bathroom where faulty plumbing can provide moisture for them.
Springtails are very small, only a few millimeters in length or smaller. They usually go unnoticed until they invade homes; however, close examination of soil, leaf litter, and other organic material will demonstrate their abundance. Most springtails do not have the typical breathing system (branched tubes for oxygen diffusion) that insects have, but instead exchange oxygen directly through their cuticle, making them highly susceptible to desiccation. In addition to being wingless, diagnostic features include the “furca” and “collophore.” The furca is the springing organ from which this organism’s name is derived. It is housed near the end of the ventral (“stomach”) side and is held in place by a catch located on the abdomen. When threatened, the furca is released and the springtail flings away, seemingly disappearing from sight. This can most commonly be seen with the springtails known as snow fleas, which can be observed frequently when hiking on snow fields in the spring. On the first abdominal segment springtails have a tube (collophore) extending down that extrudes a sticky substance that helps them stick to surfaces and can also aid in water uptake. Due to their small size, a hand lens, or more appropriately a microscope, is needed to see the features described above.
Springtails are tiny insect-like creatures, usually only a few millimeters in length or smaller (shown at 50x magnification).
Left: Two springtails showing dorsal and lateral surfaces. The furca, or springing device, can be readily seen protruding from the end of the bottom springtail’s abdomen. When living, the furca is held under the body and not easily observed.
Right: Ventral side of a springtail showing the collophore located just behind the last pair of legs.
Springtails that invade homes usually decline in numbers within a few days to a week. They are resistant to many insecticides so spraying is not recommended. Inside the home, areas with excess moisture should be dried out and the source of moisture (leaky pipes, sinks, etc.) should be repaired. Because residual debris or organic material can harbor springtails, cracks and crevices along interior walls/baseboards near problem areas should be thoroughly cleaned. Large aggregations of springtails can be vacuumed and the bag discarded. Use caulk to seal cracks and crevices where springtails may enter.
Some people believe that some springtails are parasites, causing biting and scratching sensations of the skin, citing a 1994 study. Conclusions from the study’s publication implicating microscopic springtails parasitizing human skin have since been proven false. Springtails are only a nuisance pest and can be dealt with using tolerance and the simple techniques listed above.
-Ryan Davis, Arthropod Diagnostician