I was working in my garden this weekend and I noticed that my vegetable and herb garden has a large population of pill bugs. As a child, I referred to them as Rollie Pollies or Roly Polies, but they are also known as doodlebugs, potato bugs and wood bugs. Not to be confused with sow bugs, pillbugs roll up into a tiny ball when you bother them. As a child I used to pick at them with sticks and truthfully I haven’t given them much thought since childhood until I saw them in my vegetable garden this weekend. I had to find out whether these cute little bugs are beneficial bugs or pests. To my amazement, I found out a lot of really cool things about these bugs. Here are a few:
- Pillbugs are not bugs, they are crustaceans, much like shrimp and crayfish.
- Pillbugs breathe through gills. Because of this, they need a lot of moisture or they will die. They cannot survive in water, but they must have water vapor in order to breathe.
- Pillbugs molt and shed, but they don't do it all at once. They shed half their exoskeleton and then shed the other half later.
- Pillbugs are like kangaroos because they carry their eggs in a pouch. The babies remain in the pouch for a few days and then move on.
- Pillbugs do not urinate. I found this fascinating because the thought of bugs urinating in the first place already seems weird and a little gross. Urine contains ammonia that must be excreted from the body, but pillbugs are able to deal with the ammonia gas and pass it straight to their exoskeleton.
- Pillbugs drink through their butts. They can drink through their mouths, but they also can take in water from the rear.
- Pillbugs eat their own poop. As if some of this information is not already alarming, pillbugs munch on poop and rotten veggies all day and even eat their own poop in order to recoup the lost copper in their bodies, which is needed in order for them to live. This is also known as coprography (or gross if you want a simpler term).
- Pillbugs have blue blood. The color is from a substance called hemocyanin which contains copper ions. When oxygen comes in contact with this substance, the blood of a pillbug becomes blue. Also when pillbugs get sick, they also turn blue.
- Pillbugs live up to two years and are active at night time.
Now to tie in how these cute little bugs affect my garden…. After going through the internet and looking up information about these bugs, it appears that these bugs are definitely pests, but they prefer to eat rotten veggies instead of fresh veggies. The only problem with this is that if there are no rotten veggies, they will eat your fresh veggies. Pillbugs are considered scavengers. They eat decaying veggies, much like how hyenas eat the leftovers after a lion feast. They love strawberries and tomatoes as well as soft petal flowers such as pansies. If you have a small amount of rollie pollies then there probably will not be any sizable damage to your garden; however, pillbugs lay lots of eggs so if the population is not kept at a minimum, they can completely devour your garden.
If you are looking for a chemical/quick fix to getting rid of them, I found that Seven powder lightly sprinkled at the base of your plants will help. You have to be careful about seven dust though because it kills all bugs including beneficial ones such as honeybees. Seven dust is safe to use on veggies, but many dusts are not. Please make sure you read the packaging before applying.
If you are looking for organic solutions to getting rid of these bugs, here are a few:
- Cut a piece of honey dew melon or cantaloupe (corncobs work also) and put it in your garden upside down with the rind facing the sun (this keeps it from drying out). The bugs become attracted to the melon and collect on the fruit. You can then either throw it in the trash or rinse it off with a hose (away from your garden) and put it back into the garden.
- Mix rotten veggies with mulch, grass clippings, coffee grinds and/or compost on the outside of your veggie garden to divert them out of the garden.
- Try putting a small bowl of beer in your garden. They dive in and drown just like slugs and snails.
- Put collars around your young plants (you can use toilet paper rolls) to keep them from munching on the base of the stem. Rollie pollies prefer young plants.
- Cornmeal was listed online as a suggestion; however, I have not tried this one so I can’t guarantee it works.
- If they are eating your fresh flowers, plant companion flowers for them to eat, such as impatiens and pansies. They also eat butterfly bushes, salvia and butterfly weeds.
- Manually remove them. Poke them with a stick and remove them once they are in a ball. One person suggested using a shop vaccuum and just vacuum them up from the top layer of the soil.
- Loosely roll up a damp newspaper and tie it with string, placing it in your garden where they camp out. During the night, they will crawl inside, then you can dispose of them and the newspaper. Repeat until they are under control. You can also get rid of earwigs this way. I haven't seen many earwigs here in Georgia, but I know there are a lot of them in Colorado and the mid west.
- If you can afford it, add natural predators of these animals. Frogs love them. If you live on a farm, ducks love to eat rollie pollies. Believe it or not koi fish love to eat them too. Certain spiders also eat rollie pollies. Unfortunately, I have two really rotten cats who would eat the predators so this won’t work for me.
- Set out small containers, such as coffee cups or even laundry detergent scoopers, in the problem areas. Place the cups down in the ground so that the brim is at or barely above ground level. Boil water with two packets of yeast in a medium-sized pot to dissolve the yeast. Pour the yeast solution (beer can be used, but yeast packets are cheaper) into the cups. You can slightly cover the containers to keep rain water (yard water) and other elements from diluting the solution.
Rollie pollies can actually be beneficial since they eat fungus, mold, decay and other things that can cause problems in your garden, but they must be kept under control. They also do not spread disease or contaminate food. What I have realized is that if you have rollie pollies in your garden, it must mean you are doing something right. I would definitely be careful of adding rollie pollies to your compost, worms are definitely better because at some point, that compost will go into your garden, giving them a ready made feast. Sometimes I throw old veggies, egg shells and compost into my vegetable garden as compost, which is definitely ok to do. Of course now I will make sure that I keep an eye out for these pests.
I guess it is now time for a new experiment. I think I am going to try several of these remedies and see which one works the best. Beer, yeast water, cornmeal, damp newspaper and honey melon/cantaloupe will be used in my experiment. Stay tuned!