In spite of their tiny size, springtails are nuisance pests in and around structure all across the US and throughout the world. Some entomologists consider the springtails to be separated from insects and have elevated them to the class Collembola (“the largest of the three lineages of modern hexapods”).
Springtails are the most abundant microscopic animals in the world and are found in huge numbers in nearly every habitat. There are about 700 species of springtails occuring in North America, and more than 6,000 worldwide. Springtails from the class Collembola have a tube beneath the abdomen, which secretes “glue”; this tube is important in grooming and allows these insects to adhere onto smooth surfaces. Thus, the name Collembola, from the Greek words “cole” meaning glue and “embolon” meaning piston.
Springtails can be a problem in newly built structures because of damp building materials and wet plaster. In older homes they will usually be found in the kitchen, bathrooms, basements or other areas where moisture is present. They cause no damage to buildings and cannot bite or sting humans. They are attracted to light and may be found in lighted areas at night. They can jump up to 100 times their body length. They have been known to jump over 30 cm into the air at an initial velocity of 1.4 meters per second. They have “mandibulate” mouthparts (adapted for chewing), which are withdrawn into the head when not in use. Most springtails breathe through their skin or cuticle, which is very permeable to water; therefore, these insects must spend most of their time in very damp locations.
Some springtail species can live without food for up to three years by recycling their own waste, while others can also go into a form of dormancy. Species of the Collembola can be found above 21,000 feet on Mount Everest, Nepal, in volcanic vents along Hawaii’s Kilauea, near the North and South Poles, and from the tops of the tallest trees to the deepest soil layers.
Springtails have a pair of fork-like appendages (furcula) at the end of their abdomens. The common name springtail is derived from its behavior of springing (jumping) away by snapping its tail-like structures against the ground when disturbed. Springtails are usually light brown to cream in colors. They are tiny (1/16 to 1/8 inch) in length, wingless and require very moist conditions for survival. They have oval heads with four-segmented antennae.
Springtails have an “ametabolous” life cycle, meaning that they DO NOT undergo metamorphosis. This indicates that they do not have nymphal, larval or pupal stages. Instead, springtails develop by going through a number of molts (shed their exoskeleton) as their body size is growing. Unlike other hexapods, springtails perform additional molts after reaching adulthood. Reproduction of springtail species can be complicated sometimes. For example, while parthenogenesis (reproduction without males) is common among females of some springtail species, females of other species require mating in order to lay eggs and they are so picky about which males they desire to mate with. These females desire the males to dance for them before they actually mate. On the contrary, many males of other species leave a sperm packet on the ground that is later picked up by the female. Others place sperm with their hind legs directly into the female’s reproductive organs. Females usually lay up to 400 eggs during their life span. Eggs can be laid singly or in large masses. It takes about 10 days for eggs to hatch, and the immature springtails go through three successive molts lasting 7 to 10 days before they change onto adults. The number of generations per year, the longevity of springtails and preferred temperatures are species- dependent topics, and are beyond the scope of this article. However, depending on the species, springtails can live from one week to three years. In general, they survive low temperatures and can appear in large numbers on snow surfaces (hence their nickname “snow fleas”).
Due to their breathing system, soft and small bodies, springtails rapidly lose water through their cuticle. Therefore, they usually live in moist, cool, concealed places of soil, rotted lots, moss, as well as ant and termite nests. Some species occur on the surface of pools, snowfields and other similar habitats. Springtails feed on leave litter, decaying plant materials, bacteria and fungi. Additionally, their diet may include fine roots in wet to damp soils. Springtail populations reach huge numbers, such as up to 50,000 per cubic foot of forest litter or up to 2800 per square foot in planted fields. When they reach a high population density up to 100,000 insects per cubic yard, they search for new fitting habitats. They often invade structures in dry and hot summer periods searching for moisture. Homeowners usually encounter them in large numbers and they become an irritation factor in damp basements, kitchens, bathrooms and garages. Others are found on surfaces of water, on soil of potted plants and in other moist habitats.