What Are the Little White Insects Floating in Worm Farm Liquid?

IMG_3385_DxO-2

Everyone gardener with a worm farm has probably seen little white insects wriggling around on the surface of the liquid that drains out of the drainage tap at one time or another.

Many gardeners wonder what they are, whether they’re harmful, and if it’s safe to pour them into the garden.

In this article, we’ll answer all those questions, and much more!

What Are Springtails?

These tiny little insects are springtails, or Collembola, and they’re usually found in areas with high moisture and decomposing organic debris, such as soil, leaf litter, and decaying vegetable matter. They can also be found in compost piles, mulch, beneath logs and rocks, and under potted plants.

They eat bacteria, fungi, lichens, moulds, algae and decaying plant matter, recycling them back into nutrients which fertilise the soil.

Typically, springtails are around 1-2 mm (1/25 – 1/12”)  long, though the smallest ones are only 0.2 mm long, and are among the world’s smallest insects. They are usually are creamy-white, dark-coloured, brown, grey or black in colour. but some springtails species are brightly coloured, being  red, orange, yellow, metallic green, or lavender in colour.

Many gardeners are probably more familiar with the largest springtails, which can grow up to 10 mm (3⁄8”) long. Ever lifted up a pot, and seen strange dark-coloured insects continuously bouncing and tumbling like crazy? Those are the big springtails!

If we have a close look at springtails, we can see that they have six legs, and soft, slender, elongated or sometimes more rounded bodies. They have short, segmented antennae with four to six segments. Springtails do not have wings and cannot fly, they crawl slowly, but are able to jump. Most springtails only have small, rudimentary eyes.

IMG_3411_DxO-1A close-up photo of springtails floating in the liquid that drains out from a worm farm

One of the distinguishing features of most springtails is their forked tail, known as a furculum, which they normally fold flat underneath their body.

When springtails are disturbed, they can quickly snap down and extend their folded tail, like a big spring, to catapult their body upwards, propelling them up to 100 times their body length. Being so small, that only translates to a few centimetres into the air for most of them! I’ve seen the largest ones bounce up to 10-15cm (4-6”) which is a far more modest jump. The springtail name comes from this defensive mechanism they employ.

springtail-collembola-diagram

The forked tail (furculum) of the springtail is used like a spring to launch the insect into the air to help it escape from predators.

Are Springtails Insects?

The Collembola (Springtails) are a class of arthropods, or insect-like critters, that some now categorise separately from other insects.

There are 1936 species of springtails, in 206 genera and 33 families. They are a primitive organism, their class has existed since the Pragian age, which spans the interval between 410.8 million and 407.6 million years ago.

Why are springtails no longer considered to be insects by certain authorities?

Springtails possess six leg (three pairs of legs), a segmented body and antennae, as do insects. For this reason, they were usually classified as an order of insects in the class Insecta.

What differentiates springtails from other insects is their mouthparts. Like insects, they can have various types of mouthparts, depending on how they feed. They range from simple mouthparts, such as piercing-sucking mouthparts, for sucking fluids from fungi or other liquid sources, to very complex, highly specialized mouthparts that are not fully understood as yet.

Insects have external mouthparts, think of the jaws of an ant or the long butterfly proboscis that can reach into flowers to source nectar. With springtails, all of the different types of mouthparts that may have, are always located and concealed within their head, their mouthparts  are internal. It primarily this characteristic that leads some scientists to believe that the springtails should be classified within the order Collembola, separate from the insects in class Insecta.

Are Springtails Harmful?

Springtails are not harmful. They are considered beneficial because they are decomposers, they break down materials and recycle them, returning the nutrients to the soil. Incredibly, they are among the few organisms known to be capable of breaking down the highly-persistent insecticide DDT in the soil.

There are 1936 known species of springtails, most eat decomposing plant matter, a small number of species eat will other things.

Some species eat plant roots. or damage tender young plants by nibbling on them. .

There are only a few carnivorous species that eat small soil invertebrates, other springtails and carrion.

In most cases, springtails benefit plants. Certain species, for example, help spread beneficial fungi on plant roots.

If springtails are found in a compost bin or worm farm, it’s safe to assume they’re just eating the rotting plants and helping break them down, that’s what the decomposer class of organisms do in the soil-food web.

  • Springtails do not bite or sting, and are harmless to people and pets.
  • Springtails do not spread disease, and are not known to transmit any diseases to humans.
  • Springtails do not damage homes, food, clothing, furniture or any other household items

One species of springtails, Hypogastrura nivicola, are known as snow fleas, but they’re not fleas, they’re springtails! These black springtails can sometimes be seen on the snow surface near wooded areas on warm winter days these searching for pollen spores to feed on.

It’s easy to distinguish real fleas from springtails. Fleas are black or brown in colour, they have hard teardrop-shaped bodies with flattened sides, and the adult fleas actively jump onto people and pets and bite them.

If springtails start migrating into the home, it may be a sign that there’s a water leak problem, and things are starting to rot or go mouldy! Once that emergency is resolved, eliminate all other obvious moisture sources around the building so they don’t try to hang around. Their appearance indoors is only a temporary nuisance, as migrations usually last less than a week, and when springtails become trapped indoors, they don’t survive and soon die out. Their migration indoors can be prevented by providing an alternative moisture source some distance from the building to help divert them away.

Springtails in Indoor Plant Pots

In rare instances springtails may appear in the potting mix of houseplants, and their presence can be observed as they temporarily move to the surface just after watering.

Within houseplant potting mixes or growing mediums, springtails perform the exact same function that they do outdoors, eating decomposing plant matter and soil microorganisms. Their presence can be considered harmless, as they do very little, if any, damage to the houseplant.

This problem is most likely due by overwatering, which causes the potting mix to rot. When this happens, fungi begin to break down the woody materials in the potting mix, which then attract fungus gnats, and these pests are destructive, their larvae eat the roots of the plants. The adult fungus gnats also fly around the room in large numbers and become a real nuisance.

The simplest way to prevent the potting mix rotting is to allow it to dry a bit more between waterings, which will discourages springtails, and more importantly, fungus gnats, which both require high soil moisture to survive and reproduce well.

Incidentally, there’s no point using insecticides to manage springtails, they tend to be fairly resistant to most insecticides!

Can You Use Worm Farm Liquid with Springtails in It?

When collecting the liquid from your worm farm, commonly referred to as worm wee, or more accurately as vermicomposting leachate, dilute it 10:1 with water, or dilute it to the colour or weak tea, and and then add it to the garden fairly soon afterwards. For more information, see the instructions – How to Collect and Use Worm Farm Leachate.

Springtails may be quite resilient, but these beneficial little critters can’t stay afloat on the surface of worm farm liquid forever, and if left too long, they drown! Having them exposed to burning hot sun doesn’t help them much either.

If springtails are seen floating in the vermicomposting leachate, scoop them off the surface with some liquid using a small container, and pour them straight onto the garden soil or lawn where they can do their good work.

References

  1. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service – Springtails, by Michael Merchant and Mark Muegge
    https://agrilifeextension.tamu.edu/library/gardening/springtails/
  2. University of Minnesota Extension – Springtails
    https://extension.umn.edu/nuisance-insects/springtails
  3. Pennsylvania State University – Springtails
    https://extension.psu.edu/springtails
  4. University of Maryland Extension – Springtails, Updated: March 25, 2021
    https://extension.umd.edu/resource/springtails
  5. Ohio State University Extension – Springtails
    https://ohioline.osu.edu/factsheet/ENT-52
  6. Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service – Springtails Factsheet, HGIC 2445, Published: Dec 2, 1999
    https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/springtails/
  7. Colorado State University Extension – Springtails – 5.602 by W. Cranshaw* (12/12)
    https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/insects/springtails-5-602/
  8. Encyclopedia of Life – Springtails, Collembola
    https://eol.org/pages/336

2 Comments

  1. Thanks Angelo for your thorough explanation. I’ve never thought much of these white critters, but definitely have thought the once around my outdoor pots are some sort of flea. Thanks for enlightening me to the different sizes of springtails.

    Like

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