Roly-poly, pillbug, doodlebug, or sowbug, whatever you call them, the more you know about these creatures, the weirder they get.
First, they are not really bugs. They are crustaceans, making them cousins to lobsters and armadillos. Also, sowbugs and pillbugs are not the same thing.
Both species have 14 legs and breathe through trachea-like gills in their feet, but sowbugs have tails and pillbugs do not. Also, like armadillos, pillbugs can roll up into a ball when disturbed. Sowbugs cannot do this. More importantly, pillbugs enjoy eating green plant material. Their diet includes all parts of your beans, beets, chard, corn, cucumbers, lettuce, melon, spinach, squash, and strawberries, and potato tubers. While pillbugs eat stink bug eggs and help break down nutrients, they can be pretty destructive in the garden. These pests can chew tender seedlings down to the ground in a single feeding. Most of this feeding is done in the evening and at night.
Sowbugs, or woodlice, mostly eat dead plant material, helping with composting and decomposition. Female woodlice carry fertilized eggs in a marsupial pouch, like a kangaroo. They can also reproduce asexually.
These fascinating creatures can live for several years, producing two or three generations each year. Each brood can include 30 to 80 offspring. In particularly rainy years, pillbugs can be a problem in the garden.
Woodlice and pillbugs prefer cool, dark, moist places - under planters, bricks, hoses, dense vegetation, whatever they can find. Having evolved from sea-going crustaceans, such as lobster and crab, water is critical to their survival. [Note: don’t eat them. Wikipedia says they taste similar to “strong urine." I don’t know how they found out, and I am certainly not going to try it myself!]
While pesticides can be effective against pillbugs, there are better control methods. The best way to reduce pillbug populations is to reduce dark, moist hiding places, and to keep mulch and other dead plant material away from seedlings, until they are large enough to survive being gnawed by a pillbug. Diatomaceous earth can also be used as a deterrent and some slug and snail baits are effective.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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