Springtails are the staple insect for any garden or terrarium. If you’re serious about getting your plants the absolute best when it comes to cleanliness, you can’t go wrong with bringing springtails into the picture. They’ll vacuum up any fungus, decaying material, and disease-causing bacteria. You probably don’t want to keep buying $20 starter kits for every terrarium build you do, so how do you go about feeding and growing your own springtails?
To feed springtails, you will have to grow them in a culture with plenty of water and moisture with a little bit of moldy food supply so that they have the right conditions to reproduce. Culturing springtails will provide you an endless supply of springtails that can be added to all of your plants and terrarium you will care for in the future.
So now that you roughly know what springtails are, why you want them, and roughly how to cultivate them, let’s get into the nitty-gritty details.
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What is a springtail culture?
A springtail culture is like a springtail starter kit of sorts. It’s essentially a small population of springtails that can be used to grow your own larger population of springtails, which can later be used to grow even more springtails.
You can get your own starter springtail culture by trapping springtails yourself or by buying a pre-made one online. While trapping your own springtails is free, most springtail cultures are pretty cheap and can be bought for just a few bucks online with less hassle than setting up your own trap.
If you buy springtail cultures online, typically they come in a small container with a little bit of charcoal and maybe some food supply in there for the road. Your supplier might even give you a few items to help you build the population on your own, such as springtail food and charcoal.
Depending on what type of conditions the springtails are shipped in, it’s possible they might not survive the trip. If you can, try to find mixed media cultures rather than charcoal cultures. Mixed media cultures will tend to have higher survival rates than charcoal because of charcoal shifting around during transit.
But before you go off to write your one-star review when receiving dead springtails, there’s a couple of things you should try first. Try tipping the container over with the lid tightly sealed to get water distributed in the container. After that, open the container and blow a little bit of air in there, then lightly cap off the container to let air leak in.
With a bit of luck, you might see your springtails come back to life. It’s possible they could have just gone dormant for a bit because of the buildup of carbon dioxide in the container.
How to cultivate springtail cultures
So let’s say you got a small selection of springtails. How do you actually grow them into an endless supply of terrarium janitors?
Conceptually, all you need to do to grow a springtail population is give it enough food and the right living conditions and your springtails should take care of the rest.
Before getting into the details, here’s a list of the things that you’ll need:
- A small container
- Rice or yeast powder
To set up a springtail culture, here’s a list of steps that you’ll need to follow:
- Add the charcoal to the container
- Add about an inch of water
- Add your springtails
- Add rice or yeast powder
- Close off the container
That’s pretty much it. It’s pretty simple.
If you want a little bit more explanation, let’s get into some more details on each component of the springtail culture.
What container should you get for a springtail culture?
The container is pretty straightforward. You just need something to hold your springtails in a confined space.
Preferably, you will want to stick with a clear container. The most cost effective container is probably a clear plastic container or tupperware.
Springtails will generally reproduce fastest in ambient light, but not direct light. You don’t want to place your container in direct sunlight because that can quickly heat up the culture and kill off your springtails. You can think about it like a hot car on a sunny day. Keep your container in the shade and away from windows if you can.
The container size you’ll want to choose will depend on how many springtails you will want to grow. The more space that you have, the more springtails you’re able to grow.
You’re also not just limited to container size. You can also think about the quantity of containers. Having a bunch of smaller containers can help you separate out your springtails for different projects if you like being organized. It can also be an easy way to hand springtails off to your friends if you like.
One thing to note: springtails do need to breathe. To provide them enough air, you will want to either poke some holes in the container or open up the container once every few days to give them some air. Otherwise the carbon dioxide buildup could cause them to suffocate. Just make sure the openings aren’t big enough to let your springtails out.
If you are feeding your springtails regularly, you probably don’t need to worry too much about giving them sufficient air supply. Your feeding sessions are going to naturally give them some ventilation every time you open up the container to toss them some food.
Why use charcoal for a springtail culture?
Charcoal is going to be the substrate for your springtail culture. It acts as a growth media for bacteria, which is something that springtails eat. It also gives your springtail something to walk on and a place lay their eggs, rather than having them just float on water.
Besides giving your springtails a little bit of extra food, it’s also going to be pretty helpful for your terrarium. Charcoal is often recommended to add to a terrarium because of its filtration properties. It purifies your terrarium from toxins, mold, and harmful bacteria.
Having charcoal as a substrate in your springtail culture means that you can directly pour out the contents of your culture into your terrarium. It’s like a two for one deal: it’s great for your springtails and also great for your terrarium.
If you’re going to go out and buy some charcoal, make sure to stick to types of charcoal that are suitable for gardening.
Here’s a list of charcoals that will work great with your springtails and your terrarium:
- Activated charcoal
- Horticultural charcoal
- Lump charcoal
- Aquarium charcoal
If possible, you’re going to want to avoid using barbecue briquettes as your charcoal. These contain harmful chemicals like ignition accelerants that will have a negative impact on your springtails and your terrarium’s health.
By the way, if you’re curious about why charcoal isn’t always necessary for a terrarium, check out this article.
Besides charcoal, you have some other options available to be used as springtail culture substrates:
- Coco fiber (coir)
- Culture media
These will also work fine for your springtail culture. Springtails are pretty tough and can survive a variety of different conditions, so long as there is moisture and a food source. The only difference here would be rather than filling up the container with an inch of water, you would just keep the substrate moist at all times.
The food: how do you feed springtail cultures?
Springtail cultures will need a source of food in order to sustain population growth. Their primary food source will be fungus that grows on different substances like:
- Rice grains
- Dog food
- Fish flakes
They’ll also directly eat fungi like mushrooms and yeast if provided.
Given that you can find mold growing on all sorts of different types of food, you have a pretty wide selection of options available to you.
Preferably, you would want to stick with 100% pure brewers yeast. When introducing uncontrolled food sources, there’s always a chance that it can carry or breed mites which could potentially overwhelm or outcompete your springtails. This is a little bit more common with grain-based foods. Brewers yeast should be pure and mite free, reducing your chances of that happening.
As for feeding frequency, you would just have to feed your springtails once you see that the food source has run out. Depending on how much food you gave them, their food source should last them a few days or so, after which you will have to add some more food to the culture.
You’re also going to want to be cautious not to overfeed them. That could potentially cause your springtails to start dying out. If you notice that your culture starts to stink or you start seeing dead springtails, consider reducing the amount of food that they’re getting. The ideal amount should be just a few bits and pieces here and there, not a thick sheet covering the entire culture.
It’s also a good idea to give your food a gentle misting once you’ve added it in. This will encourage mold growth to feed your springtails as well as top up the container with any moisture that evaporated.
Once you add your springtails to your terrarium, you shouldn’t have to provide them with food yourself anymore. Decaying matter and fungi growth being produced naturally in the terrarium is going to provide a constant food source to sustain a sizable springtail population.
The water: how much you need and why you need it
Springtails love and thrive in moisture and high humidity. Because of this, having water in your springtail culture is a must.
While it’s possible to get by with giving them some tap water, preferably you would want to give them distilled, dechlorinated, or reverse osmosis water. This will minimize the chance of any chlorine, minerals, or trace chemicals harming your springtails or your plants once you transfer that water with your springtails into the terrarium.
For most containers, adding about an inch of water should be sufficient to keep your springtails happy. Just make sure that there is plenty of substrate surface above the water for your springtails to walk on and lay eggs. It’s also going to allow space for food to lay on the substrate rather than being submerged in water, where your springtails can’t access it.
And just so you’re aware, springtails will not drown in the water. Their small size allows them to easily float on top of the water because of water’s high surface tension. This also makes it pretty easy to transfer a lot of springtails by just pouring water from your culture into your terrarium.
Types of springtails
Once you have all the materials and your culture ready to go, all that’s left is the springtails.
While there are over 3,600 different species of springtails, broadly speaking, they can be separated into two types: temperate and tropical springtails.
The most common type of springtails you’ll see online and can probably find naturally occurring in your area are temperate springtails. Temperate springtails do best in cooler temperatures between 65 and 80 F, roughly around a comfortable room temperature.
Temperate springtails are also on the smaller side, ranging from 0.25-2 mm. They generally have a thin, slender body type.
Tropical springtails are worth considering if you are planning to operate your terrarium at a higher temperature or plan to add springtails to a vivarium. Tropical springtails will be more suitable for temperatures above 90 F and will be about twice the size of temperate springtails. If you need springtails to feed your pets, tropical springtails would be more suitable for that.
If you’re unsure about your particular temperature conditions, don’t stress too much about getting the perfect temperature. Springtails are pretty hardy creatures that will survive at a wide range of temperatures. The only minor downside of going outside their preferred range is a slower reproduction rate.
If you want to get a starter culture of springtails, you can easily find some online or you can go out and catch your own with a DIY trap.
If you’re concerned about your springtails dying during transport, you might be able to find some in a local reptile shop or a nearby Petco. Otherwise, you can get some from the biggest online seller of springtails, Josh’s frogs. Amazon will also have a few listings you can take a look at.
How fast do springtails reproduce?
Springtails will reproduce pretty quickly. Most springtail species will go from eggs to fully grown adults in 4 to 6 weeks. What this means for your springtail culture is that you’ll start seeing noticeable growth in your population in just a few weeks’ time.
I already answered this question in my other article that you can check out here.
But if you want a quick summary, here’s a rough outline of the reproductive cycle:
- Females lay eggs
- Males fertilize the eggs
- Eggs hatch in one or two weeks
- Hatchlings molt several times over the span of a few weeks until reaching adulthood
- The adults restart the reproductive cycle
Are springtails harmful?
Springtails are absolutely harmless to people, plants, pets, and your home. They have no way of biting or stinging you. They don’t even have the anatomy to do that.
There are some sources that suggest springtails may parasitize humans, but it’s never been scientifically confirmed. It’s possible that people may be mistaking springtails for ticks or fleas because of the way they jump around.
The only self-defense that the springtail has is its small tail called a furcula. This little appendage is like a tightly wound spring that can launch it a few inches up in the air when it feels threatened. It’s basically a way for the springtail to flee or evade predators. Don’t mistake this for springtails trying to jump on you to attack you.
There is only one condition where springtails could possibly be harmful to your plants. That condition is if your plants are being overwatered. If your plants or terrarium are being over watered, that will lead to excessive mold and fungus growth, which will lead to an overpopulation of springtails. If there are too many springtails and not enough food, they’re going to start feeding on things they wouldn’t normally feed on.
If there are too many springtails, it’s possible they may start gnawing on your plant roots, causing some damage, although this is quite rare. But there’s no need to worry about controlling the population manually. Just make sure to give your terrarium appropriate levels of water and this shouldn’t be an issue.
Check out this article I wrote that gives an in-depth answer to this question if you’re interested in learning more.
Do springtails fly?
While springtails do jump, there are no species that can fly. They do not have wings, just the furcula that enables them to jump.
If you see any insects that do have wings, they are not springtails.
Thanks for reading. If you want to learn more, check out some of the related articles linked below.