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How to find, collect, and culture wild springtails

Updated: Nov 23, 2023

Springtails exist in nearly all environments and can be easy to find and collect if you have the patience for it!


Where to find springtails:

Forest floors, lakeshores, under the bark of fallen trees, on and in rotting logs, underneath of lawn pavers, compost piles, bags of soil at garden centers, on flowering plants, on the sidewalk, and on the surface of an aquarium are all places where I've found springtails.


With practice you'll find springtails almost anywhere! Most species are tiny so it will usually require a good deal of patience and practice to locate them after finding a suitable place to search. Stick with it and your perception will open up to the tiny bugs and you will start to see them everywhere you go.


How to collect springtails:

There are two main methods; tullgren funnels and by hand.


Tullgren funnels can be created by cutting out the bottom of water bottles/jugs and filling them with a sample of soil, leaf litter, or rotting wood. A cup with water or moist paper towel is placed under the funnel for invertebrate samples to fall into and a hot lamp is placed above it to dry out the sample and force invertebrates to flee out of the bottom and into your collection cup. This method has one large drawback which is why I no longer use it; you get a lot more than just springtails. You'll end up with all sorts of invertebrates, especially tiny mites who are very hard to isolate out of the sample.


It is more tedious in the short term but I have a lot more success collecting springtails "by hand" with an entomology aspirator as you can much more easily collect only springtails and not other pests. You can either build your own aspirator by using my design as an example or you can purchase one online.


To collect springtails with an entomology aspirator you'll need to prepare collection containers which can be as simple as a small piece of moist paper towel in a deli cup. Locate a spot with plenty of springtails to collect and slowly go through the area with your face in the dirt sucking up springtails with your aspirator and dumping them into collection containers. Note the different types that you gather as well as the environment they live in so you can have a better chance of successfully culturing them. I recommend starting with no less than 15 individuals of a species to better increase your odds; springtail sexes are lopsided, there are many times more females than males so the more you gather the better your odds are of collecting a male.


How to culture wild caught springtails:

This is where it gets tricky... springtails fill practically every detritivore niche in nature but different species have wildly different needs. A basic understanding in springtail identification is helpful as well as having notes on the environment in which your specimens were collected. You want to mimic the environment in which they were found as best as possible to increase your odds of success, and once you have had success you can experiment with new setups.


Culturing wild springtails is an imprecise art and even seemingly common types in the wild can prove to be difficult to culture in a controlled environment. Nobody has yet mastered the art of culturing every type of springtail, their needs vary so greatly by species that there is still much for our hobby to learn.


Enclosure:

A larger enclosure gives you the ability to provide more variation in the environment such as humidity and moisture gradient but can make it difficult for a small sample of springtails to successfully reproduce. You should use bins with a proper seal to prevent escapes and the entry of pests. Mainstays 11.8 Cup Tritan Food Storage Containers are some of the best but are limited in vertical space, and Ezy Storage and Sterilite make good bins with a gasket seal in a variety of sizes. Use your intuition when choosing an enclosure, there is no one size fits all and like I said, it's still a pretty imprecise process.


Substrate:

In most cases soil is your best choice of substrate when starting a newly caught species. The more organic matter in the soil the better, I highly recommend compost (which contains a lot of edible organics) for general springtail substrate. Sterilize substrate by deep freezing for 1-2 weeks, baking at or above 212°F (boiling point )until all of the substrate is at the desired temperature, or by baking for 2-3 hours at 165°-175°F (similar to pasteurization). Sterilization is important to eliminate any animals living in the soil which can compete with the springtails. Freezing or low temp baking can preserve microbial and fungal life which may be beneficial.


My general advice is to have dry substrate on one side and moist substrate on the other so you can observe what conditions your springtails prefer. A moisture gradient is greatly beneficial for a lot of species.


If you are attempting to culture a semiaquatic species you may like to try giving them a water area with plenty of algae and floating plants, but that is just a hypothesis on my part. Another niche type of springtail is the arboreal ones you find on trees and under bark, these may benefit from a large percentage of rot wood or flake soil in their substrate. Arid springtails (those found in dry environments) require dry ground as well as access to a moist area.


Ventilation:

In general I recommend providing a lot of ventilation on one side of the enclosure and none on the other in order to create a moisture and humidity gradient. As stated above this allows your springtails to self regulate and choose their own environment. Cross ventilation is best (vents on the sides of the enclosure) and I tend to ventilate the whole front 1/4 of a bin in order to create a better moisture and humidity gradient.


Fine mesh glued over ventilation holes is essential to prevent escapes and intrusion from pests like grain mites. 35 micron mesh or finer is sufficient.


Food:

Here we have yet another imprecise art. Most springtails do well with brewer's yeast or better yet a mixture of many different food sources so they have more choice (such as our Premium Springtail Food).


Arid springtails are often times pollinators in nature and will happily feast on bee pollen. Neanuridae and some other families often have specialized mouthparts and can only feed on suspensions like slime molds. We can speculate that some feast on the fungi growing in rotting wood or the spores of mushrooms. Many, like the orange and red springtails currently in culture, do much better with a protein source such as fish flakes. Experimentation and offering a variety of foods is key, just like how offering a variety of environments allows them to choose what is best for themselves.


Food should also be sterilized to prevent grain mites from gaining entry to your culture. This can be accomplished by baking the food at or above boiling point until it has all reached the desired temperature.


Further Techniques and Speculation:

Providing leaf litter, bark, egg crate, sphagnum moss, or other organic objects and hides to the enclosure can provide extra food sources and micro climates. The humidity directly on the soil will be higher than halfway up a leaf, and higher yet than on top of a layer of leaf litter. The humidity under bark or egg crate will be higher than if the soil was left bare. Providing these micro fluctuations in climate may be very benefical for some species.


Some species, like pollinator arid types likely benefit greatly from a tall bin with a large amount of cross ventilation high up on the bin and a lot of litter leading up to the top. In nature these species are high up on plants searching for pollen to feed on, and during this time are exposed to very low humidity and high airflow. Yet they have the option to come down into higher local humidity as they please. So the theory is that in culture they should be allowed to replicate this behavior through maintaining a high localized humidity low in the bin and providing plenty of surface for them to rise into the lower humidity near the top cross vents as they please. They will also likely seek out bee pollen granules as a main food source in culture.


The giant European species Tetrodontophora bielanensis is a species of great interest. They reside in the cooler mountainous regions of Europe and require cooler temperatures to reproduce. Live moss has also been speculated to be helpful in their culture.


Snow fleas of the US including Hypogastrura harveyi and Hymenophorura cocklei are most commonly observed in nature in the winter. It is theorized that cooler temperatures are essential for culturing them, so basically keeping them cultured in a refrigerator. H. cocklei has been reported by a hobbyist to have increased reproduction in cultures that are in the fridge.


Anurida maritima is a species present on coastlines throughout the world. Perhaps the key to culturing them is replication of a stable tide pool environment, and/or feeding of algae and the protein sources they'd find in the wild like crustaceans and fish.


Some species like the exotic giant springtails of the Australian continent are known to exist only in undisturbed old growth habitat. Perhaps this pristine environment is home to unique microorganisms or fungi which is essential to their survival. It is my opinion that these rare species should be left alone in the wild but the speculation of how to culture them could be important for understanding how to culture other species.


Semi aquatic species like Podura aquatica are another mystery for now. Common in the wild throughout the world but as of yet limited success in culture has been reported by hobbyists. String algae and diatoms may be very important food sources for them. And perhaps, as is speculated in some literature, their eggs are layed in water and the young springtails rise to the surface after hatching. The semi aquatic genera Sminthurides, commonly found on aquarium plants, has been successfully cultured with no standing water or algae source by hobbyists but long term success has yet to be reached.


It seems that replication of environment and micro habitats as well as figuring out key food sources is what it takes to culture many of the species yet to make it to the hobby.


Conclusion:

Most common springtail species you find can be cultured easily with a basic understanding of springtail husbandry. Those wild species which you have successfully cultured should be experimented with more with new setups to try to optimize their husbandry. Locality information should also always be recorded for potential future study. This guide should set you up for success and hopefully lead someone to crack another code in culturing the rarer and more difficult species. I said it a million times and I'll say it again, culturing wild springtails is an imprecise art. If you make a discovery please share it with the rest of us! The most interesting springtails in the world are not in the hobby yet, and sharing knowledge with the hobby will eventually lead to them being available to everyone!


Additional resources:

For understanding the orders, families etc. of springtails I highly recommend exploring https://bugguide.net/node/view/258362/bgpage


For incredible photos, lists of every species, access to literature, and so much more explore https://www.collembola.org


For basic identification check out https://www.collembola.org/key/bugguide.htm


For access to the wealth of hobbyist knowledge join and interact with https://m.facebook.com/groups/264132083776415/?ref=share&mibextid=S66gvF



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