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Pill bugs, sow bugs & 'Roly-Polies'

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Now! Question. Mike: I have two young boys and don't like using "Pesticides" in the yard or garden; do you have a natural way to get rid of sowbugs?
    --- Brett in Oklahoma City, OK
Question. Last summer I battled a tremendous amount of pillbugs/sowbugs that were eating my plants. Any suggestions?
    ---Tracey; Trenton, NJ
Question. What can I do to get rid of roly-poly bugs in my yard and potted miniature roses? They are killing my potted plants.
    ---Patricia in Lawton, OK
Question. Any advice on getting rid of pill bugs? They are currently 'hiding' under my tomato plants. Last year, they waited for the tomatoes to ripen and then started moving in. I also had a problem with slugs, and am wondering if it's too moist under the plants.
    ---Tony in Brown City, MI
Answer. Although the names sow bug, pill bug and roly-poly are often used interchangeably, we are actually talking about two specific non-insects here. The proper name of the "pill bug" is Armadillidum (Arm-a-dill-a-dum) vulgare; the true 'roly-poly', it will curl into a little armored ball when threatened. The sow bug (Porcellio sp. ) can't perform that trick, relying on a nasty taste to deter predators. The common term applied to both is 'woodlouse'. So some of you have pill bugs and others have sow bugs, but you're all 'lousy'! (Hey—it's a lot better these than having the other kind in your hair.)

Isopods, not insects, these cousins to crayfish have more in common with crabs and lobsters than cicadas and ladybugs. And although they can be pestiferous under the right conditions, they more often take the fall for some other creatures' crime. When I get emails about them, I write back to explain that they mostly live on decayed plant material and to ask if the writer is SURE that they're the ones doing the damage.

…To which Brett in Oklahoma City replied: "I'm not 100% sure, but there are holes in the leaves of my hostas, and the sow bugs are the only things I see". Patricia in nearby Lawton said: "Well, I was sure until you told me that they mostly eat dead plant material. Now I'm at a loss. They're the only thing that comes out when I water"!

No surprise there. To say that woodlice are fans of moisture is putting it mildly. All of their relatives live IN water, their bodies are NOT watertight, and so their entire life is an endless search for moisture, which is why we often see them around compost piles and mulch—they always gravitate to the moistest area around. And when they're in mulch they don't need to attack your plants; they prefer that nice wet, dead plant material. Yum.

So, 'who' is to blame here? I pick slugs out of the pestiferous lineup. They live in the same kinds of overly-moist conditions, and I often see woodlice (and millipedes) move in after slugs have chewed the first holes in things like strawberries or tomatoes. And Brett even mentions "holes in his hostas"; that's a positive ID! Hostas are the favorite food of the nasty little slimers. Book 'em, Dano!

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