For any terrarium builder, springtails are the go-to clean up crew. They are excellent helpers that love feeding on fungus and decaying matter, all things you definitely don’t want in your terrarium. If you’ve thought about adding these guys to your next terrarium, that begs the question: how do you catch springtails?
Springtails can be easily caught with a simple trap made from a container containing a wet paper towel and a mushroom. You’ll find plenty of springtails in your container after leaving it out in a moist outdoors area for a few days. Once you have your springtails in a container, they can easily be transferred to your terrarium.
But before we get into the details on how to locate and trap springtails, it might be helpful to first understand what they do and why they are important.
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What do springtails do?
Springtails, also called collembolans, are whitish, grey insects measuring about 1 or 2 mm long. Technically, they are no longer considered insects but instead are categorized as hexapods, not that it makes much of a difference for gardening purposes. There are thousands of different species of springtails around the world, including Antarctica.
You can think of springtails as tiny terrarium janitors. They feed on fungi, pollen, algae, disease-causing microorganisms, and decaying matter, all things that you don’t want to see in your terrarium. They convert dying matter into fresh nutrients that are beneficial to plants. Essentially they’re recycling the waste and converting it into usable plant nutrients, restarting the cycle of life.
Because they play such an important role in the plant ecosystem, many terrarium builders will look to add them to their terrarium. The idea is that these guys will allow your terrarium to be a completely self-contained ecosystem in a bottle. They are a key part of any bioactive terrarium.
They’re often combined with charcoal because charcoal is commonly used as a substrate in springtail cultures. When the cleaning properties of springtails are combined with the filtration properties of charcoal, you can be sure that your terrarium is getting the best treatment it can get.
In case you’re curious about what other terrarium insects are out there, I have another article that covers another 10 insects that also work great with a terrarium that you can read here.
How do you make a springtail trap?
So here’s what you probably came for.
When it comes to trapping springtails, a simple trap will be more than enough to get plenty of springtails. You can always buy your own springtail culture online for a few bucks, but if you’re on a tight budget or just want to try something fun, a trap is the way to go.
Here’s what you’ll need to make your trap:
- A small container
- A wet paper towel
- A mushroom
To put your trap together, all you need to do is put a wet paper towel in the container and place your mushroom on top. You can also throw in some leaf litter you find lying around in there. That’s pretty much it!
The other thing that you might want to consider is spraying your paper towel with mite spray. Certain mites might be predatory and can feed on your springtails. If you want to avoid that, you might want to keep the mites out if you can. Otherwise, you can always get more springtails if needed.
Springtails are attracted to moisture, fungus, and decaying material. The trap that you just put together has all three of those things. You basically have a springtail utopia in there.
So now that you have your trap, you’ll need to decide where to place it.
Springtails can be found outdoors in moist areas like fields or forests. You might even find some in your backyard. Check under decaying branches, leaf litter, soil, and under rocks and you might see some running around. Looking under any logs or rocks or any shaded area will also give you pretty good chances of finding some springtails. You might even consider digging into some soil a few inches to check for springtails in the moist soil.
Finding any spots that look like that will probably do just fine for your springtail trap. However, even if you find a spot that isn’t perfect, springtails will probably still make their way into your trap.
In fact, it’s estimated that there are about 100,000 springtails per square meter of ground. You’ll have no problems finding springtails to make their way into your trap. They’re so common that they’ll even make their way into damp areas that people don’t want them to be in.
Once you’ve found a spot, the rest is pretty easy. Just lay down your container with your moist paper towel and mushroom so that springtails are able to climb in. If you have to, you can also move some dirt around or dig a tiny hole so that the opening is at ground level.
Once your trap is laid out, all you have to do is leave it there for a few days to let the mushroom and the moisture bring in the springtails. By the time you check on it, you’ll probably find a bunch of springtails caught in your trap.
The other alternative to using a trap is to simply get a container and scoop up any springtails you find crawling around. Just take a walk and look under some rocks or lawn decorations to see if you can find any small white bugs. There’s probably a good chance that you’ll find a decent amount of springtails just ripe for the picking, no trap required.
How do you add springtails to a terrarium?
Once you have your springtail trap filled with springtails, now it’s time to add them to your terrarium (or a springtail culture).
You have a few options available to you to perform the transfer:
- Open the container and angle the opening so that springtails jump into your terrarium
- Pour some extra water into your trap and pour a little bit of water from your trap into your terrarium
- Get a turkey baster or a pipette, suck up some springtails, and drop them into your terrarium
My personal preference is the second option. The extra water will collect a handful of springtails using water’s capillary effects and bring them with any water flowing into your terrarium. Doing it this way helps to ensure that your springtails are a little bit more contained during the transfer rather than jumping everywhere randomly. You’ll have fewer springtails escaping into your home this way.
If you want to avoid having to clean up any straggling springtails after your transfer, it might be best to do this outside.
One thing you want to keep in mind: if you ever want to regrow your springtail culture, you’ll want to make sure not to transfer all the springtails into your terrarium. You’ll want to leave at least a few springtails in your culture so that they have a chance to rebuild their population.
If you want to learn more about how to grow more springtails from a culture, I have another article that covers everything you need to know about cultivating springtails that you can read here.
How long do springtails live for?
The springtail life span varies depending on the species. But most commonly, springtails will last anywhere from a week to a few years. The record for longest springtail longevity was set by pseudosinella decipiens at 67 months in a laboratory.
From a practical perspective, springtail cultures will constantly be replenishing themselves with younger springtails as older ones die out. As long as you have enough of a food source and keep the mites away, your springtails should last indefinitely.
If you want to keep your springtails alive as long as possible, there’s a few things that you will want to provide for them:
- Adequate moisture
- Air to breathe
- Adequate temperature
- A mite-free environment
- A food source
- Moderate, indirect lighting
Most of those things should be pretty straightforward. As for the food source, usually a few grains of rice will do. Yeast will also work fine. As long as there is some sort of fungus growth like mold in your culture, that should provide them plenty of food to survive.
You will also want to add about a half inch of water in the container to ensure there is plenty of moisture for them. If your container completely dries out, that’s going to spell out the end of your colony.
If you’re culturing your springtails and their own container, you will want to make sure that there are some small holes/openings for carbon dioxide to escape and oxygen to come in. Alternatively, you can open up your culture every few days or so to let fresh air in. If your springtails are in a terrarium, your plants should produce enough oxygen for them to breathe.
If you have those ingredients, your culture will have a very good chance of surviving and reproducing. There’s not too much else you have to do to keep them alive, springtails are pretty hardy. Even pest control has trouble getting rid of them completely.
Can springtails get out of your terrarium?
If your terrarium is a closed terrarium, your springtails should not be able to escape. The terrarium should be completely sealed, not even air or water can escape. If it’s completely airtight there’s no space for any springtails to somehow crawl out. The only way they may be able to escape is if you open the container and take some soil or plants out that might carry a few springtails with them.
On the other hand, if you have an open terrarium, springtails may be able to escape on their own. An open terrarium has a wide opening that springtails may be able to jump through or crawl out of. There’s no real way for you to stop them from crawling out other than to switch to a closed terrarium.
If you’re concerned about springtails escaping your terrarium and into your home, you should be more concerned about keeping your house free of overly damp areas. If you start seeing springtails congregating around certain areas in your home, it’s best to resolve the moisture issue rather than try to keep springtails out.
If you’ve never heard of the differences between an open and closed terrarium and want to learn more, check out my other article that explains everything you need to know about open vs closed terrariums.
How long does it take springtails to reproduce?
Springtails reproduce pretty quickly. Most species will go from egg to adults in about 4-6 weeks.
Female springtails lay roughly 400 eggs in their lifetime. As the female lays eggs, the eggs are fertilized by sperm cells in the substrate deposited by male springtails.
Fertilize springtail eggs hatch in one or two weeks with warmer temperatures leading to shorter incubation periods.
The hatchlings will go through several different growth stages, molting at each one before reaching adulthood. This process takes place within the span of 6 weeks after hatching.
Adults can continue to molt, but at this point they are ready to reproduce and restart the springtail life cycle.
So if you’re wondering when your culture will start growing its population, just wait a few weeks and you’ll see a noticeable growth in your springtail population.
What temperature do springtails die?
Temperate springtails (the most common kind of springtail) reproduce best at 65-85F. They might be able to survive temperatures slightly above or below that range, but their reproduction rate will start to slow.
Tropical springtails on the other hand will tend to do better at warmer temperatures. This might be more suitable if your plants happen to prefer higher, more tropical temperatures.
At lower temperatures, females lay fewer eggs, have a shorter lifespan, and may even start to cannibalize their eggs. The net result of this on a colony is that the population will start to shrink if the temperature gets low enough.
Generally speaking springtails are very tough creatures. They can withstand pretty extreme temperatures without dying. That’s how they make it through cold winter nights and the baking summer heat.
As a matter of fact, when the temperatures get warmer, springtails will intentionally reduce their body size by as much as 30% through several cycles of molting. The reduction in body size is advantageous to reduce their metabolic rates and energy requirements which helps them tolerate the higher temperatures.
Most likely, as long as you aren’t tossing your springtails into the freezer or putting them in the oven, they will probably survive the temperatures of your typical indoor conditions.
The one thing I would caution against is placing your springtail culture directly next to a window in direct sunlight. If they are in a closed container with high moisture, it’s going to create a greenhouse effect, where the temperatures can start to get pretty hot. It’s possible your springtails may not survive the heat.
Are springtails more active at night?
Springtails are the most active during the afternoon or early evening.
So if you’re looking to find springtails actively crawling about, the after work rush hour is your best chance to get in on that action.
Can springtails infest your house?
Springtails are actually pretty common pests in the pest control community. They can sometimes be found within a home in moist indoor areas like kitchen sinks, bathrooms, and house plants soils.
So if you’re worried about your springtails infesting your home, that’s not completely out of the question. You might want to exercise a little bit of caution when handling your springtails. If any springtails escape, there’s a chance they could escape somewhere in your home and start a small colony of their own.
Springtails can be a little bit tricky to handle. They tend to jump around once they see any kind of threats or movement around them. They have a small tail that curls up like a spring and launches them a few feet if they detect danger. This means you have to be careful not to let them bounce out of your container once you’re transferring them to your terrarium.
Here are some tips that you can try to prevent any springtails from escaping your culture and infesting your home:
- Open your lid very slightly when allowing springtails to jump into your terrarium from the culture
- Avoid handling your springtails indoors
- Perform the transfer over a clean table or potting mat to easily spot any stragglers
- Swirl the water around a bit in your culture and pour a bit of that water into your terrarium
Are springtails harmful to humans?
Despite what some people might believe, springtails are completely harmless to humans, although it’s possible some people might see them as a nuisance or might mistake them for fleas.
Springtails do not carry disease and don’t bite. They don’t even have the anatomy to bite anything.
There are a few document cases of scales or hairs from springtails causing skin irritation, but that’s pretty rare. There is also one case of an entomologist who had springtails hatch in his nose after inhaling some eggs, but that’s a very extreme case.
Long story short, springtails are not harmful to humans. So there’s nothing to fear when handling springtails. They might crawl on you or jump at you, but they can’t hurt you.