You’re watering a houseplant when you notice something very tiny, possibly whitish or gray, that springs up into the air and drops right back down? It’s barely visible (few are more than 1/8 of an inch/3 mm long) and you certainly can’t make out any of its details without using a magnifying glass. Still, you’re horrified!
An insect in my houseplants! Where’s the nearest pesticide!
But not so fast. This tiny creature may actually be good for your plant!
The creature in question is a springtail, a small jumping arthropod. It is no longer even considered an insect, but belongs to its own class, Collembola, somewhere between an insect and a crustacean.
Wingless and nearly blind, it is one of the most numerous living beings in the world, with different species (there are more than 8,000!) being found in soil just about everywhere, from the Arctic to the Equator. There are even springtails (called snowfleas) that thrive in snow!
Its most notable feature (without which you would probably never have noticed it) is that it jumps when disturbed. Typically it leaps upward to avoid flooding when you pour water on the potting soil, and that is thanks to its forcula, a folded taillike appendage held tight as a spring under its abdomen. When it feels threatened, it springs in the air. You can easily see how the springtail gets its name!
There aren’t any.
The springtail is primarily a detritivore and a fungivore: it consumes waste products, fungi, algae, etc., helping decompose organic matter. In doing so, it releases minerals, to the great benefit of your houseplants. Some species even control harmful fungi and thus help prevent rot. It’s true that a few species will occasionally nibble on the root tips of some plants (although not so much species found indoors), but that tends to stimulate better root branching, which is good for the plant. Overall the springtail is considered beneficial.
The best method for controlling springtails in your houseplants is to remove your glasses when you water. Or, if you’re not farsighted, to wear very dark sunglasses. That way, you won’t see them. Because if you don’t see them, you won’t try to eliminate them, and you don’t want to eliminate them because they are not only not harmful, but beneficial.
Seriously, though, if you want to reduce the number of springtails, simply water less. The species found in our houseplants (there are several) prefer soil that remains moist on the surface at all times. If you let the soil dry out a bit more deeply before watering, they will disappear. And the vast majority of houseplants also prefer that the soil dry out at least a bit before you water them again. No insecticide is therefore necessary.
Of course, you could also control them by watering the soil with insecticidal soap or neem oil or by applying a pyrethrin-based insecticide… but in doing so, you risk killing even more beneficial organisms, most of them microscopic.
Controlling the Yuck Factor
At some point or another, every gardener has to learn to accept the fact that the soil, either in a pot or in the garden, is teeming with small living things, most invisible to the naked eye. And that most are beneficial. Okay, you may judge that creepy if not outright disgusting… but gardening is not always tidy. It just isn’t!
Live and let live: develop that attitude, and you’ll be a much better gardener… and a laidback gardener to boot!
If you want to learn more about springtails and other tiny soil creatures, here is a fascinating site well worth visiting: Chaos of delight.