Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Springtails plentiful on mild winter days

By STACEY COLE January 26. 2018 7:26PM
 (Metro Creative Connection)

Editor’s note: The following column was originally printed in the New Hampshire Union Leader on Saturday, Feb. 27, 1999.

A Franklin reader inquired: “Would you tell us please what you can about the ‘snow fleas’ which are so abundant on mild days. Mainly where they come from, life span, usefulness, etc.?”

Rarely seen except on snow as springtime nears, snow fleas (not really fleas) are one of the springtails (Order Collembola). These are minute, wingless insects that occur in soil, leaf litter, under bark, in decaying wood and in fungi. They also can be found on surface water and on fresh-water ponds, inland and along the seashore as well. A few occur on vegetation.

Springtails occur almost everywhere, including regions beyond the snow lines in Antarctica.

About 2,000 species of springtails have been identified worldwide, including 315 species in North America. They range in color from white, gray or yellow to red, orange, purple, brown or mottled hues. Those with a furcula are the jumpers. The furcula is sort of a forked structure situated on the fourth or fifth abdominal segment. It is normally folded forward under the abdomen and fastened with a clasp on the third segment. When the clasp is released, the furcula or “spring-tail” is suddenly freed, the spring straightens out and the insect jumps.

Springtails are important as scavengers and rarely are pests, although occasionally they damage living plants, particularly cultivated mushrooms. They also occasionally attack plants in greenhouses and can spread plant diseases. Most springtails are harmless, though, preferring to feed on molds, algae and vegetation. They often are abundant, sometimes several million inhabit an acre. As spring approaches, when thousands of them show up in a small area, they can turn the snow almost black.

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Several readers have recorded their experiences with keeping squirrels from bird feeders. A Deerfield reader gives an account of a solution that was new to me and also a revelation on how to keep deer from shrubbery.

He wrote in part: “ ... about discouraging squirrels from raiding bird feeders, I thought I might tell you how well a bottle of ‘100 percent fox urine’ works to deter them. At $8.95 for an 8-ounce bottle, it would be cheaper to give the little varmints single malt Scotch, but it’s worth it. They were gobbling all the sunflower seeds until I hung up a small vial of the fox urine on the bird feeder line. I watched the squirrels approach, investigate the vial, and run for the woods. Now I don’t have to refill the feeders every 24 hours, a dangerous task with all the ice underfoot lately. The label on the bottle reads, ‘Made in Maine All Natural Fox Urine.’ I don’t want to know how it is obtained, but Blue Seal stores carry it.

“Incidentally, the deer have been chewing up my yew shrubs nightly. Hair clippings from a barber or hairdresser can be stuffed loosely in nylon stockings and draped over the shrubs to keep the deer away. It works, but do the stocking stuffing outdoors. It’s a messy job.”

A couple who live in Bow included a diagram of their solution to the squirrel problem and wrote in part: “We have greased our feeder pole with chassis oil which helps, but the real saver is the garbage can cover. They have tried and tried to get over it to no avail. We do kinda feel bad for them but on the other hand are very proud that we thought of the idea.”

The sketch showed a hole had been punctured in the center of the garbage can cover. It had been installed as a baffle part way up the steel pipe pole.

A New Boston reader offered this novel solution to the squirrel problem: “After reading your article in today’s Union Leader on how people place hot pepper to discourage squirrels from dining at their backyard fly-in restaurants I had to drop you a line.

“What I discovered is if you place a pressure-treated piece of wood in the ground and leave at least 5 or 6 feet of it exposed, then slide a piece of PVC drain pipe over the entire length of the pole prior to attaching the bird feeder to the top of the post the squirrels cannot get a hold on the very slippery surface.

“When these creatures attempt to climb up the pipe it can turn out to be a very comical piece of entertainment. We went from seeing over a dozen red and gray squirrels, chipmunks and a large rat to only an occasional rodent.”

Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at jlord@unionleader.com.


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