Published on 12/09/10

Tiny insects search for moisture

By Paul Pugliese

Georgia’s climatologist predicts the state will have a warm, dry winter and early spring. This means Punxsutawney Phil, or Georgia’s own General Lee, probably won’t see their shadows on Groundhog Day and mosquitoes will likely return with a vengeance. When we have unusually warm, dry winter days, we often see some interesting bugs come out in January and late winter.

They are hunting for moisture

During mild, winter days University of Georgia Cooperative Extension offices around the state often receive calls and emails from clients who have found tiny flea-like insects covering their driveways, sidewalks or carports. At first glance, many people assume the colored mass is a mold or fungal growth. But, when they look closely, they see thousands upon thousands of tiny, almost alien-like, moving insects. Although the appearance of so many insects can be unnerving, they are harmless. The culprits are strange little creatures called springtails.

Springtails are normally less than one-sixteenth of an inch long. They are wingless and have very limited vision. Their color ranges from yellow to almost purple to green or gray. There are about 700 species of springtails in North America. In northern regions, they can appear on the surface of old snow banks and are commonly called “snow fleas.” However, this name is misleading since they aren’t really fleas and don’t actually bite.

Outstanding jumpers

The word “springtails” sounds like the title of some new Olympic gymnastics event. And these insects are pretty good gymnasts. They have a specialized structure called a furcula on their abdomen that acts like a tiny spring or catapult. When the furcula is released, the insect jumps into the air traveling a distance of 3 to 4 inches -- up to 100 times its body length!

Because of their small size, springtails can quickly dry out, which is why they are found in moist environments. They find damp basements, pond edges and areas of moist leaf litter or mulch especially attractive. When ideal moisture and temperature conditions are met, springtail populations can skyrocket. Up to 50,000 springtails can inhabit one cubic foot of topsoil.

Composting assistants

These huge numbers can sometimes be found clustering together on rocks. They can also be found covering the lower portions of garage doors or house foundations. Springtails feed primarily on dead or decaying vegetation. Other food items include fungi, pollen, algae and lichens. Springtails help to decompose organic matter and release nutrients back into the soil. For that reason, they are generally considered beneficial and indicators of good soil health.

Of course, a wave of springtails living in a garage might not seem beneficial. They seek out these moist locations when their usual habitat becomes uncomfortably dry. If found on sidewalks, garage doors or in similar areas, simply wash them away with a water hose. The water will disperse the insects and provide moist conditions in the surrounding soil for them to inhabit. If springtails move indoors, simply vacuum or sweep them up. Insecticides are not necessary and do not provide long-term control. Eliminating excess moisture in the home is the best long-term solution.

Fortunately, most springtail infestations last only a few days until rainfall or a change in temperature disperses them. Springtails may seem like an alien encounter from another planet, but they are just another fascinating part of our natural world.

Paul Pugliese is the Agriculture and Natural Resources agent for the University of Georgia Extension office in Bartow County.

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