Posted 23 June 2014
This entomology research profile has been produced as part of Harper Adams University's National Insect Week celebrations, June 23-29.
Springtails and agriculture by Postgraduate Researcher, Fran Sconce
My PhD project looks at springtails, which are wingless invertebrates closely related to insects that live in soils worldwide.
Springtails are particularly beneficial in soil because of how they feed; they munch on dead and decaying organic matter, breaking it up into small particles, increasing the surface area for decomposer groups such as bacteria and fungi to work on. Springtails also have colonies of decomposers in their gut which are spread around the soil as they feed and excrete.
I am interested in springtails because of their potential for long-term soil quality. A growing global population means an increasing amount of food to produce, whilst maintaining soil for future generations. Research into how farming practices affect beneficial species such as springtails is therefore very important.
Previous research showed that individual numbers of springtail species and overall number of different species decrease with high intensity farming practices, such deep cultivations and frequent agrochemical applications. Some springtail species however are able to withstand these practices and what I am asking is why? Is there a particular species characteristic, such as body shape, size or lifecycle length that enables survival?
During my project I am sampling springtails in fields under different management practices on the Harper Adams farm. I am also sampling springtails as part of a fellow PhD student’s experiment at Harper Adams, which looks at the effects of different traffic and tillage regimes on crop yield and soil quality.
This week I will be sampling by taking soil cores from the different fields and using Tullgren funnels to separate the springtails and other invertebrates from the soil. The funnels are essentially a light bulb over a tube, with some mesh in between. The soil core is placed on the mesh and invertebrates present will move away from the light and heat of the bulb down into the tube, from which I collect and identify what species they are.
Sometimes it can take over an hour to identify which species the springtail is because of how small they are!
Follow Fran on Twitter @FranciscaSconce and National Insect Week @insectweek