Springtails (avoiding mould during incubation)

Springtails (Collembola)

These are small insects, which can be found all over the planet - in forests, on agricultural land, in suburban regions, up in the mountains and down in the lowlands. They are very common in leaf litter on the forest floor, where they feed on decaying plant material and mould. Often they can also be found in flowerpots.

Springtails effectively help to reduce mould growth in incubation boxes for phasmid eggs, as moult is part of their diet. We are adding springtails to all the incubation boxes, with good success.

One can get springtails from pet shops, especially pet shops specializing in frogs and reptiles. Especially frog keepers often use springtail as food source for their pets. Usually such places sell a tropical springtail species, as these are a bit more tolerant against drier conditions and breed better / quicker.

We can easily keep a springtail culture, so that we always have some at hand when needed. Like when we incubate a new batch of phasmid eggs. It is easy to keep a springtail culture in a simple plastic box.

Breeding Springtails

Get yourself a springtail starter culture from a pet shop, a frog breeder or search for it online.

Basically it is easy to breed springtails, you only need two small plastic boxes, each one with a tightly closing lid, spagnum moss (pet shop) and some whole wheat flour.

Breeding box for springtails.
Breeding box for springtails.

Soak some spagnum moss in water, then squeeze it to drain off water until it is just humid but no more soaking wet. Fill a plastic box half with moist spagnum moss, and add a good number of springtails. Then sprinkle a small heap of whole wheat flour into the 4 corners of the box (on top of the spagnum moss) and close the box with the lid. For ventilation cut some few smaller holes (about 0.5 x 0.5 cm) in the lid and tightly stuff these holes up with aquarium filter wool or cotton wool.

Preferably put the box in a warmer place (≈ 25 - 28°C), as the springtails will multiply quicker if kept warmer. After some weeks they have multiplied manyfold

Breeding box for springtails with flour.
Breeding box for springtails with flour.

Take care that the spagnum moss in the springtail breeding box never dries up completely. Springtails die quickly in a completely dry envirionment. Check the humidity of the moss from time to time, and add some water when you sense that the spagnum moss got too dry

Breeding box for springtails with flour.
Breeding box for springtails with flour (close-up).

Check every few days or at least once a week (depending on how the number of springtails in the box), whether they have eaten up the flour. Once the springtail culture starts to multiply strongly, then one should add additional flour every few days.

An alternative to spagnum moss is bark flakes (which one can get in pet shops), and some even breed springtails on charcoal:

Start a new springtail culture 1 - 2 times a year, as old cultures can break down almost out of the blue. This might be due to the accumulation of waste products in the breeding substrate. I have always two springtail breeding boxes - one with a fresh culture and one with the old culture.

For a new culture, prepare another box with fresh breeding substrate and then add a good number of springtails from the old culture.

Springtail cultures can become infested by fungus gnats (Sciaridae) or mites. Some measures help to minimize this risk:

  • tightly block the ventilation holes in the lid with aquarium filter wool or cotton wool, otherwise fungus gnats will quickly find their way into the springtail breeding box
  • only use breeding boxes with tightly closing lids
  • pasteurize the springtail food (whole wheat flour) for some minutes at around 80°C (like in the oven. This helps to minimize the risk to carry mites into the springtail culture

Once a springtail cutlure is infested by such a pest, then the best one can do is to start a new springtail culture in a clean box.

Springtails in incubation boxes for phasmid eggs

Put some spagnum moss (which is full of springtails) with a spoon in a small (household) sieve. Hold the sieve over a small plastic box, and in a short time many springtails will fall into that box. Then add a few springtail (about 15 - 20) to the phasmid egg incubation box (like a Cup-Incubation unit).

Springtails then help to keep mould growth at a minimum. They are also a good humidity indicator, cause they would die quickly if the substrate in the incubation box would dry up too much. So as long as the springtails are alive  in the incubation box, they are a reliable sign that the humidity inthere is good enough.

No need to add any additional food source for the springtails in the incubation box, as they shall just feed on any mould which might develop. We do not want them to strongly multiply  (see below)

Can't springtails crack phasmid eggs open?

We have used springtails in the egg incubation boxes for many different phasmid species. And this experience shows that springtails can not harm the eggs of most phasmid species. So far we recognized only two risky situations:

1) if eggs of species which glue their eggs are broken off the substrate they are glued to, then part of the egg shell can also break away. And once the protection of the egg shell is lost, then the springtails have easily breaking through the egg membrane and will eating up the whole egg.So if possible, do not break away glued eggs, or use the Glued-eggs-Technique for a near-natural incubation of such eggs

2) it happens that dead eggs start to rot and break open, and then the springtails will feed on these rotten eggs too and start to heavily multiply. When the springtails multiply too much in an egg incubation box, then the danger that they crack open eggs is higher cause there are many hungry mouths trying to nibble on the eggs. And as the saying goes constant dripping wears the stone. So check the egg incubation boxes from time to time. And if there are too many springtails in the box, then just gently blow in the box - and this will carry out many of the springtails. Repeat until just a few springtails remain in the incubation box.