Call in the Clean-up Crew: Terrarium Insects & Bugs

Today we’re talking about terrarium bugs. The good, the bad and the ugly.

Love them or hate them, insects and bugs can make a valuable addition to a terrarium ecosystem.

Provided you get the right ones.

Some insects can keep your terrarium clean, rich in nutrients and free of pests, whereas others simply are the pests…

In this article we’re going to identify which bugs and insects are terrarium friendly (which are not) and where to find some really cool varieties.

Ready to unearth some gems? Let’s go.

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Bioactive Terrarium Bugs

Part of building a functioning terrarium ecosystem is replicating the natural processes and cycles that keeps our woodlands and rainforests alive.

Creating a mini water cycle for example, is pretty straightforward. A sealed container should do most of the work itself.

Harnessing the power of life and death, however. It’s a little more complicated.

Being able to decompose dead organic matter – and processing it to become available nutrients for your live plants – is part of being a truly self-sustaining terrarium.

The term for such a thing is a bioactive terrarium.

What makes this possible is the microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) and the microfauna (insects and bugs) that are able to help the decomposition process along.

Leaf litter bugs do this naturally in the wild, and they can do it in your terrarium too.

Springtails (Collembola sp)

Springtails are the perfect compromise for someone who wants the mould-fighting, terrarium cleaning dream team – without giant bugs crawling all over the place.

These tiny critters are only 1/16″ at full size, and they’re really more  jumpers than they are crawlers (hence the name).

Springtails
Springtails not to scale…

Springtails are detritivores, which means they love to feed on dead organic matter. This makes them perfect for processing any dead leaves or roots that you’ve missed, before they rot and start causing a problem.

Their second favourite food is fungi. So in the absence of any mushrooms in your terrarium, they’re going to feed on the most abundant source – mould (or mold if you’re american).

That’s right, you can say goodbye to those awful mould blooms with a colony of springtails.

In my Essential Guide to Tropical Terrariums, I recommend springtails across the board for anyone looking for a healthy terrarium.

Springtail Cultures

Springtails are typically cultured amongst chunks of charcoal. Mostly because the porosity of charcoal lends itself to be a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi, which the springtails can feed on.

It’s also a nice easy (non-messy) way to keep and/or transfer them.

Or, substrate works well too. Then you can just mix it right in without any extra fuss.

My springtail culture is just in a tupperware box with some substrate (the white powder is food).

So, when you order a springtail culture it’ll normally be a small pot of material with enough springtails to seed a new terrarium.

You can buy a springtail culture here on Etsy.

Different varieties can be found to best match your terrarium conditions (or colour preferences). Though people report that temperate springtails tend to adapt to tropical terrarium conditions just fine too so I don’t think it matters too much which you get.

Dwarf Isopods

Isopods go by many names, but you may know them as pill bugs, roly polies, doodle bugs or just good old fashioned woodlice here in the UK.

They’re much larger than springtails, so I guess they’re more for the bug enthusiasts out there. 

Isopods have some fascinating markings.

Just like springtails, isopods will readily feed on decaying organic matter and help keep your terrarium clean and fertile. Though, they are known to feed on plants in the absence of decaying matter – so keep an eye out for that.

One important thing to note with isopods is that they need a high humidity to survive. They don’t have lungs per-se, and they instead breathe through gill-like structures beneath their armour.

> See my guide, 12+ Funky Types of Isopods to Collect (Species + Photos) for isopod inspiration.

Isopod Cultures

Almost all of the isopod species for sale are dwarf varieties so that they’re small enough to fit in our terrariums.

They come in an extensive variety of colours and patterns – see the range on Etsy!

In practice they’re not all that different to those found in our gardens, but the different varieties will have different nuances in their reproductive rate and environmental favourability. Plus I’m told some varieties are less likely to eat plants than others.

If you like to make small terrariums, I’d opt for varieties with a relatively slow reproduction rate. Otherwise you can very quickly have a colony that’s growing faster than your terrarium can handle.

Bioactive Clean up Crew for Sale

Finding appropriate springtail and isopod cultures online is super easy these days. Many online companies stock a variety of microfauna for the terrarium and herpetoculture communities.

Springtails for Sale

Isopods for Sale

Non-Desirable Terrarium Insects

As much as I Iove to recreate natural worlds in my terrariums, some little critters just aren’t so suited to terrarium life. 

Worms are fantastic at aerating soil and reaching areas that other insects won’t. The only real issue is their size (and maybe a little bit of mess on the glass). For larger terrariums, there’s potentially some value in adding one or two earthworms.

Much like pill bugs, millipedes are effective decay-munching machines… that also run the risk of feeding on your plants. They get some use in larger vivariums, but I see people talking about feeding them apple slices and such so personally, I’d worry they would run out of food and turn to my plants.

The likes of snails, slugs and beetles will probably love being in a terrarium… but they’ll probably eat all your plants too. Not ideal. 

Whereas spiders, ants and ladybugs will eat all of your beneficial terrarium bugs, or they’ll die. Either way, not ideal.

Finally we come to the true terrarium pests. 

Gnats, mites and mealybugs are all known plant parasites that can hitch a ride into terrariums via plants and substrate. These have different negative effects on plants ranging from generally harmless (just unsightly and annoying) to vitality-sapping swarms.

Solving terrarium pest problems can be a challenging task and often involves significant interventions, from quarantining plants to swapping out substrates. But those are stories for another time…

Terrarium Insect FAQ

What do springtails eat?

Springtails are detritivores, so they love to eat dead organic matter along with fungi, mould, pollen, bacteria, and algae. Everything that can cause a problem in terrariums. Though, you can also buy specific springtail food to get them started in new colonies.

Do springtails eat plants?

Springtails don’t eat living plant matter, so your healthy plants are completely safe.

What do springtails look like?

Springtails look like tiny fleas and often come in a variety of shapes and colours. Terrarium springtails are typically bright white or other vivid colours.

Are springtails harmful?

Springtails are completely harmless to plants, people and animals. They don’t bite or sting, and nor do they carry disease.

How many springtails do I need?

The amount of springtails you’ll need depends on the size of your terrarium, but even just a small colony can be hugely beneficial.

How to culture springtails?

Springtails are incredibly easy to culture. They tend to culture best on moist natural wood charcoal in a sterile container, and fed with a simple food source like uncooked rice or brewers yeast.

How fast do springtails reproduce

Different varieties of springtails reproduce at different rates, but generally as a species springtails reproduce easily and rapidly under the right conditions.

How to culture isopods?

Isopods are easy to culture in an appropriate substrate, housed in a moist, dark environment. They’ll happily feed on fruit and vegetables.

Now it’s Your Turn

Which of these beneficial terrarium critters will you be adding to your terrarium first?

The pink springtails don’t look natural at all but I can’t help but want them. Let us know in the comments!

10 thoughts on “Call in the Clean-up Crew: Terrarium Insects & Bugs”

  1. Nice read as for pinks being unnatural looking they actually don’t appear pink when they eat most foods truthfully I have them and other than being a little larger than the white springtails they’re pretty much the same. I have at least 5 species of springtails living in one of my terrariums. Also certain soil millipede species don’t care for plants at all but likely do feed on plant roots but I’ve never had an issue with them find them beneficial. Also I have a small species of centipede that live in the soil they seem to keep the springtails in check along with hypoaspis miles aka predator mites I also keep in my substrate. I can’t seem to keep isopods in the water dragons terrarium except dwarfs as louse spiders always make their way in somehow. I have used a few beneficial predators to feed on different pests I’ve had over time as removing soils and stuff is simply not an option. One other pest I have though hasn’t been an issue yet but I fear will be eventually is sugar ants they have made their way in there.

  2. I have a closed plant terrarium jar 10” high and 8” in diameter. I have added springtails. Do I have to open the terrarium ever so often to give the springtails air to breathe? If so, how often? Thank you.

    1. Hi Sandra, that’s a good question! I have no idea how much oxygen they need to breathe vs how much is produced in a typical terrarium. That being said, I tend to only really open my terrariums when I’m watering them and my springtails have been absolutely fine. So, I suspect that any typical terrarium care should be enough and you probably don’t have to worry about opening them specifically for oxygenating it.

      1. My tiny first Vivarium is a 5inch by 3 1/4 inch pickle jar. It has 3 woodlice, a fern, and some liverwort. The lid has been tightly sealed for 8 months. The oxygen producing plants must be in ballance with the carbon dioxide producing woodlice.

        1. That’s interesting to hear that even the larger woodlice can be sustained (vs tiny springtails). Good to know! Thanks Tom.

  3. I’m a plant person not a bug person, so I hadn’t put any insects—beneficial or otherwise—into my terrarium (at least not intentionally). I did see some springtails in the soil of a small plant that I put in, though I seem to have springtails in most of my planters and they’ve never been an issue. However… recently I had a little mushroom pop up, which led to two more, which led to spores everywhere and my entire terrarium being coated in white. As I considered what I should do, the population of springtails EXPLODED. They were crawling everywhere, though they did clean up the spores so I can see my plants again. I can see seven more tiny mushrooms popping up and I know it’s only a matter of time before white dust—and the springtail population—takes over everything. How worried should I be?

    1. Hi Eve, I find the springtail populations tend be self-limiting. Once the colony has boomed and consumed all the mushrooms I imagine it’ll die out somewhat. I wouldn’t worry, neither mushrooms nor springtails should be a threat to your plants.

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