A holiday surprise – the elusive purple springtail

By Janet Carroll | Jan 02, 2013
A springtail less than 1/4 inch in body length can leap 3-4 inches.

It’s always fun to discover a new creature.

I was in my garage recently, and I saw a pile of purple dust on the floor near the garage door.

What the heck is that? I thought.

Upon closer examination, I noticed that the dust particles were wriggling.

I also saw this purple mass in other places around my house: Inside my wheelbarrow, in a puddle on the driveway, and on a retaining wall and on my deck.

I scooped up a sample and headed to the Washington State University Cooperative Extension Office at McCollum Park in Everett. That is where I always go when I have a question about insects, plants and plant diseases. Dave Pehling is an expert on insects, and he provided me with a lot of information.

It turns out that these creatures are tiny, insect-like arthropods, called springtails. They are called springtails because, as tiny as they are, they can jump: A springtail less than 1/4 inch in body length can leap 3-4 inches.

The creatures often live in damp soil or leaf litter and feed on decayed organic matter in the upper soil layers. They are considered beneficial because they recycle nutrients back into the soil.

Springtails can be extremely abundant on wet winter days and, as you know, we have plenty of those.

“They jump by means of a spring-like appendage or tail that is held under the abdomen by a clasp and released under tension, tossing them up into the air,” according to Lloyd Eighme, a retired entomologist.

I think it is safe to say that there was a springtail eruption at my house. It turns out that they were on my neighbor’s porch and steps as well. Six weeks later, they are still around.

They are very abundant and, even if I can’t see them, I can smell them.

They have a very noticeable, strong odor, but I didn’t find any discussion of the odor in my research. Though I would like to describe the smell, nothing similar comes to mind.

Springtails are from 1/16-1/4 inch in length. Their color varies from white to brown to red to purple.

Springtails are not harmful, but can be a nuisance if they are overly abundant. I’ve seen photos of piles of springtails much bigger than mine.

If you find them inside your house it means that they found a wet area, and it would probably be wise to dry it out.

I swept the springtails in my garage onto the ground, but they tend to move around a lot. Since they aren’t really bothering anything, I just left them alone. They come and go.

Read more about springtails by downloading an introduction to springtails by Lloyd Eighme: skagit.wsu.edu/MG/bugs/Springtails.pdf

Happy holiday season and peace to all living things! Even the purple springtail.

Janet Carroll is a member of the Mukilteo Wildlife Habitat Project. After two years of getting landowners to certify their yards as wildlife habitat and conducting educational activities, Mukilteo has been certified as a National Wildlife Federation Community Wildlife Habitat.

The group continues their commitment to wildlife by creating and enhancing wildlife habitat in Mukilteo and connecting residents with nature. For more information on the project, go to www.mukilteowildlife.org, contact the group at mukilteowildlife@gmail.com or phone 425-514-5979.

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