Beneficial insects Houseplants

Springtails: Small but Useful

By Julie Boudreau

Not all small insects that live on our houseplants are harmful. There is one in particular that is more than welcome: springtails!

Springtails are tiny creatures that live in the soil and feed on decaying matter. Image: Andy Murray on Wikimedia Commons

They are barely two or three millimeters long. Elongated in shape, they are often white, sometimes gray. They wander on the surface of the soil and when disturbed, jump! If you come across these individuals in your plants, don’t panic! They are springtails. And for our houseplants, springtails are completely safe.

Not Quite Real Insects

With their six legs and long antennae, one would think that springtails are insects, but this is not the case. Unlike insects, the mouthparts of springtails are internalized. It is through this distinction that springtails were placed in a class of their own: the entognaths! Springtails do not have wings nor do they have stages of metamorphosis (like the caterpillar which becomes a butterfly). They are born already fully formed!

With 8,700 species spread around the world, there’s no chance you’ll get to know them all by their little nickname! A microscope is necessary to differentiate them. But there is a springtail that we know well, without knowing it! It is the famous snow flea (Hypogastrura nivicola). These tiny grains of pepper hopping on the snow, in the forest, in March; These are springtails!

Everyone already knows about snow fleas. These are springtails, not real fleas! Image: Ryan Hodnett on Wikimedia Commons

It is often said that when the human race disappears on Earth, it will be the cockroaches or the ants who will take control of the Planet. I think it will be springtails! Their tolerance to extreme conditions is surprising. Some springtails live near volcanoes, where the temperature reaches 118°F (48°C). At the other extreme, there are species in Antarctica that survive at -22°F (-30°C). There is even a species that can do without oxygen, being able to survive 30 days in an atmosphere composed of pure nitrogen.

Completely Useful!

The ecological usefulness of springtails is undeniable. It is a stirrer of organic matter. It feeds on decaying matter, fungi and microscopic algae. Some are pollen lovers and others will even get rid of parasitic mushroom spores. Besides, I have already praised springtails in an article on living soil.

Even in cases of large infestations, it is rare for springtails to present a problem. My best advice would be to let them live. After all, by breaking down organic matter, they make minerals accessible to the plant.

If springtails are indeed a nuisance, it is quite easy to control them simply by letting the potting soil dry. In fact, most springtails like very moist soil.

And Yes, You Weren’t Dreaming… They Jump!

Springtails are equipped with a fascinating protection system against predators. They have an appendage called the furca . Folded under the creature’s abdomen, it, when unfolding, catapults the insect to a distance equivalent to 50 to 100 times its length! A real little spring which has already been discussed in this article.

It’s thanks to this structure that it can jump. Image: U. Burkhardt on Wikimedia Commons

As in the garden, the degree of tolerance to insects indoors varies from one gardener to another. We often think of homes as sterilized spaces of all life, but this is not the case. There are mini-ecosystems in action both in our houseplants and in the dark recesses of our damp basements. There are many articles explaining how to get rid of springtails. I thought that an article to salute the services provided by springtails would bring a little more love and respect towards these little creatures.

Images: Julie Boudreau

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

1 comment on “Springtails: Small but Useful

  1. WOW!

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