- Tiny, soil-dwelling arthropods that can be extremely abundant and even enter houses -

Summary: Collembola, also called springtails, are tiny arthropods that can be very abundant in damp, organic soils where they feed on dead plant material and fungi, occasionally damaging tender plant roots. Following heavy rains they may wash out of soil and collect in large "blooms" where rainwater flows, and can even enter houses at these times.

Jack DeAngelis, PhD
OSU Ext. Entomologist (ret.)

Springtails are soil micro-arthropods

Springtails, or collembola, are primitive hexapods (six-legged arthropods) that are closely related to insects. These small critters (1-6 mm, usually less than 3 mm) live in soil, leaf litter, and other damp organic material. Springtails can be extremely abundant in some damp, highly organic soils. They generally cause no harm to garden plants but may be so abundant that they become a nuisance. Very occasionally they damage tender, young garden plants by feeding on roots.

Springtails may be nearly colorless to white or gray and even yellow, orange, red, or green. The name "springtail" comes from an ability to spring forward, or jump, by releasing an appendage that is normally tucked under the abdomen (right, lower drawing). All stages except the egg are similar in shape.

When springtails are abundant the cause is usually high soil moisture and/or highly organic soils. Usually the best control is to reduce soil moisture by watering less. A normal wet/dry cycle is often enough to reduce springtail numbers in a garden. You might also cut back on the amount of compost added each year. If an insecticide is needed, however, insecticidal soap or the new plant-based botanical insecticides are good choices. Their other common name "collembola" refers to the scientific name for the scientific Order of these arthropods.

a springtail, also called collembola

Two views of a springtail; photograph (upper, head and antennae to the right) and line drawing (below, head to the left). Note the long "springtail" at rear end (lower, right) which may be folded under as in the photo above.

line drawing of a collembola or springtail

Springtails in homes

Springtails are sometimes found in homes in large masses of dark colored "bugs". They can usually be distinguished from other tiny critters because they seem to jump or hop. Most of the time entry into homes follows heavy rains, or the source is infested houseplant soil.

In either case simply sweeping them up is the best strategy, no insecticide treatment is needed. Springtails won't breed indoors, except in houseplant soil, and won't cause any harm. Outdoors the "invasion" will stop once the rains cease and soils and leaf litter dry out. Treat houseplant soil by allowing it dry out between watering as well.

Do collembola/springtails infest humans/homes?

No. There's a persistent Internet rumor that collembola infest humans by burrowing into the skin. The rumor is false and largely the result of a single study that purported to show collembola associated with lesions on people diagnosed with a condition called delusional parasitosis (DP). DP is characterized by a false belief of being infested by some unseen insect or mite (see Causes of Mysterious and Unknown Bug Bite). The study has not been repeated and there have been no follow up studies. The bottom line is there's no good evidence that collembola infest humans and in fact their anatomy is not suited to parasitism. Think of it this way, if collembola were able to parasitize us it would be a fairly simple matter to prove it with medical studies and some drug company would be making a fortune selling "anti-collembola" medications!

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