Springtails are charming little creatures that are, sadly, often little understood.
These hexapod critters truly are the unsung heroes of our soil ecosystems. A vast worker force operating in the shadows, helping to break down plant matter and facilitate the flow of nutrients.
Yet they’re still regarded as pests when found in the home. Sometimes, even falsely claimed to be dangerous… (spoiler alert, they’re not).
Thankfully, springtails are experiencing something of a cultural renaissance as people come to understand just how useful they are – both in the ecosystems of our wider world and in our terrarium micro worlds too.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about springtails (Collembola sp.). Plus, how to use them as bioactive custodians in terrariums and how to culture them yourself.
Let’s spring to it!
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What Are Springtails? Meet Our Heroes
Springtails are a huge order of tiny wingless creatures known scientifically as Collembolas.
With over 9000 species of springtail around the world – from woodland hills to icy caves – these hardy critters really are something else!
What they may lack in the wing department, they make up for with a unique appendage that allows them to quite literally “spring” into the air. Hence their common name, springtails.
I hesitate to use the words “bugs” or “insects” here (despite them very much looking like one) because it’s now believed that they’re technically neither. Though genetically similar to insects, recent DNA analysis suggests they’re actually something unique, alongside some other arthropods.
In fact, they actually bear lots of genetic similarities to crustaceans, so perhaps our favorite bioactive pairing of isopods and springtails are more similar than we think. More on those later.
All that said, I’ll forgive you if you call them insects; I often do on this site just for the sake of simplicity. It’s all still very much in the air, and what else am I supposed to call a tiny white jumping thing?
Next up, we’ll discuss why these
insects creatures are so crucial in our world and our terrariums.
How Are Springtails Good for Plants? (Scientifically)
Springtails are described as omnivorous detritivores.
Meaning they feed on decaying organic matter, but they can feed on other kinds of stuff too.
What’s really interesting here is that they’re not so much eating the decaying material itself – they’re eating what’s growing on it. So it’s actually fungi (and, to a lesser extent, bacteria) that are the primary food targets.
Thankfully, the mechanical feeding action facilitates the breakdown of plant material and replenishes the nutrients in the soil. So these kinds of fauna play a crucial role in living soil health.
So naturally, anything that’s helping to clear up waste and feed our plants is a good thing, right?
In the pursuit of fairness, some particular crops can be susceptible to springtails in their germination phase. Still, in the vast majority of cases, springtails are seen as beneficial to agriculture.
This will be overwhelmingly true for both potted plants and terrarium plants too.
Modern research is finally beginning to show just how useful (and often beautiful) these critters truly are, but terrarium owners have been wise to it for a while!
Springtails in Terrariums: Usage & Benefits
Okay, so we’ve already covered how springtails are good for plants and soil health, which naturally translates into plant terrarium ecosystems.
But springtails afford more specific benefits to terrariums too.
- They help keep on top of mold outbreaks, which are a common occurrence in closed terrariums with little to no airflow. Fungi are the primary food source, right? That makes mold their favorite terrarium snack.
- In bioactive terrariums containing animals (or simple
isopodcultures), springtails can help manage food and waste, i.e., they’ll take care of any excess food and help process their poop too. That’s partly why springtails and isopods make such an excellent bioactive combo.
Seriously, springtails are the most effective defense against mold in terrariums – we recommend them for every setup.
They have such minimal care requirements and fully self-regulate; there’s really no reason not to.*
(*Open terrariums are the exception here. Springtails thrive in moist, humid environments, and open terrariums don’t hit the mark on either front. Plus, springtails can (and likely will) get out of a shallow dish from time to time).
You don’t need many springtails to get started; just a single starter culture is enough to seed a project. Then, how you add your culture to a terrarium depends on the medium they come in.
If they come in a tropical substrate, you can simply add that directly to your own, springtails and all.
Whereas if they come in charcoal or clay media, you can actually “wash them” into your terrarium with water. Don’t worry; they’ll float right in! No harm done.
👉 Our partners, Rubber Ducky Isopods, ship their Springtails Mini Master Cultures in an organic clay medium.
Popular Springtails Species to Consider
Despite the many thousands of known springtail species, only a handful are generally actively used (and sold) for terrarium usage.
They tend to fall into two categories, temperate and tropical.
- Tropical springtails may have a slight edge in very warm terrariums, but temperate springtails thrive in tropical terrariums too.
- You might find that tropical springtails reproduce more slowly than temperate ones.
- Finally, they look slightly different, with different body shapes. Tropical springtails are typically being more short and plump than the long and slender temperate varieties.
However, truth be told, the difference seems to be fairly trivial in practice. In most cases, either “type” would be absolutely fine.
Here are some popular springtail species to consider.
- Folsomia candida – A temperate species and for sure the most popular species in the hobby. These tried-and-tested wonders are excellent cleanup crew candidates.
- Sinella is a versatile tropical species with many different varieties, from pink to silver.
Grab a Mini Master Culture with thousands of well-established Temperate Springtails from our partners, Rubber Ducky Isopods. Shipped in 8 oz cups with organic clay substrate, along with house blend superfood + mineral water. (Shipping Included).
You can even get arid and semi-arid species too, so there’s no project that can’t be paired with springtails, as long as you get the right type!
How to Culture Springtails
For terrarium owners, maintaining a master culture is a great way to keep costs down when building future projects (and a good backup should something go wrong).
Thankfully, culturing springtails is incredibly easy.
All you need is a small sealable container like a Tupperware box with a suitable medium, e.g., tropical substrate mix, charcoal chunks, or clay.
You’ll need to maintain moist conditions and provide some food (and fresh oxygen in a fully sealed container) every few days, but other than that, they pretty much look after themselves.
On the food front, you can feed them powdered food, like this Springtail Superfood Blend from our partners, Rubber Ducky Isopods. Or, there are a variety of other bug-based foods out there too.
👉 Check out our guide, How to Culture Springtails, for more info.
That’s a Wrap, Folks
Springtails are the true heroes of our bioactive story.
Endlessly versatile and (thankfully) increasingly researched and understood – we have a lot to learn from these Collembola critters.
I, for one, would love to experiment more with the different vibrantly colored springtails.
Gold or pink? I can’t decide.
What would you start with?!