In the spring of the year, as we begin to warm up after a cold winter, possibly even continuing to enjoy the extended and warm spring rains, we may begin to find several kinds of tiny arthropods in our homes. Some of these “bugs” are not insects, but may be mites such as grain mites or mold mites that somehow find their way into the kitchen. We also may commonly find minute little bugs called book lice, or more properly “psocids”, crawling around on the counters or in the cupboards. Book lice are not lice at all, and cannot bite or otherwise harm people, but like the mites they are attracted to moisture sources and the bits of molds, mildew, or algae that grow on the moist surfaces. Another moisture-lover is a flying insect called a fungus gnat, again seeking moist habitats where its larvae will be able to feed on the bits of fungus that may grow there.
Springtails are another of the insects found around moisture, and homes may seem to be invaded by these tiny little bugs. They can be extremely common outdoors in the springtime, and some species may even emerge from their winter hideouts when patches of snow remain on the ground. These dark-colored varieties can be seen hopping around on that white snow, and have been given the misleading name of “snow fleas”. In reality they are not fleas at all, cannot bite, and cannot harm humans. Their ability to hop like a flea is due to an appendage attached to the tip of their abdomen, called a “furcula”, with its two-pronged extensions facing forward under the abdomen. When alarmed the springtail snaps this appendage down onto the surface below and instantly bounds into the air. This is where the common name “spring tail” is derived from, rather than the appearance of these critters in the springtime.
It is likely that springtails are the true cause of “bites” that people feel on their arms, and which get blamed on other causes such as fleas or biting mites. It is very possible for a springtail, in its meanderings, to end up on our skin, and when they make that leap by snapping their pointed little furcula down onto our skin we may feel a tiny pricking sensation. Since, when we look at the spot, nothing is there, we blame other causes for that tiny biting feeling. By capturing a few of the actual bugs on tape or a paper glue pad, and having it identified by a qualified person, we might be able to put our minds at rest that we are not serving as a food source for some blood feeder. Insect glue traps are generally available in the garden or pest control section of stores, and these are excellent for capturing samples of the bugs in your home. You then can take them to a local licensed pest control company, county department of agriculture or extension service, or possibly a local University biology department for proper identification.
There are many different species of springtails, some with odd shapes and names to match, such as the Globular Springtail, or the Podurid Springtails which are often the ones called snow fleas. One of the most common kinds, though, is a fairly normal looking insect with long legs, long antennae, and a light to dark gray color. They feed on tiny bits of algae, fungus, moss, molds, or decaying plant materials. One place they can find this in your home is in the soil of potted plants, particularly if that soil stays moist all the time. Potting soil mixes are generally very high in organic matter, and the moisture from watering creates the perfect environment for springtails. You can help to prevent them here by covering the soil with a thick layer of sphagnum moss, also available in garden sections of stores. Allowing the soil to dry between watering sessions also will help.
At times we might even look at some of these insects as indicators of problems in our homes. For instance, if you find springtails coming up from the drains of bathtubs it could indicate that pipes below the concrete slab have broken, allowing the insects into the pipes from below. Numbers of springtails being found under sinks could indicate leaking pipes, leading to moisture on the wood and the possible growth of decay fungi that you would want to eliminate. Large numbers of springtails in the garden outdoors are a sign of excessive moisture in the landscape, possibly caused by thick layers of mulch that we have placed on the soil just for the moisture retention it provides. Springtails may also invade your garden from surrounding areas, particularly if you live in a part of the country where summer rain is rare. California and the southwest states are examples of this, and natural grassy areas tend to dry out completely, causing animals living in those habitats to move to greener, moister environments such as our watered landscape.
Springtails also have a fondness for water, and it is common for a backyard swimming pool to, quite suddenly, be covered with a layer of springtails that seems to have leaped into it the night before. They are so tiny and light that they easily float on the surface of the water, but are unable to make their way back out again. In the house you may find that small number of them each morning, in the bathroom sink or the bathtub, as they seek the water that supports them. As you put your finger on that tiny dark spot to see what it is it suddenly disappears, the result of the springtail instantly springing away from you.
Control of springtails has a great deal to do with habitat modification and moisture control. These insects are nocturnal, meaning they are active at night, and during the sunlight hours will remain hidden in dark, moist micro-habitats. This might be under potted plants on the patio, under mulch in the garden, under rocks or boards used for landscape decoration, or under other things that could be discarded or placed up and off the soil. Piles of lumber or firewood that are directly in contact with the soil create the perfect habitat for springtails and many other bugs, as will piles of garden trimmings, old boxes or other trash on the soil, and thick shrubbery that covers the soil. As much as you are able to eliminate and change these habitats to dry them out and allow the sun to shine on the soil, the lower the populations of insects you will have.
Like so many of the nuisance bugs in our gardens, springtails serve a very beneficial purpose in nature, as decomposers and recyclers of organic matter. They cannot harm us, but become a nuisance when they enter the home or occur in large numbers in our pools or patios. With their ability to produce large numbers of offspring there have been incidents where up to 100,000 springtails were found on a single cubic yard of soil. With these kinds of population outbreaks it increases the chances that you will find them moving into your home, and bouncing around in sinks, on floors, on counters, or on your arms, and moisture management and habitat removal are the keys to their control.