How to Get Rid of Roly Poly Bugs and Sowbugs (And Why)
Often found in home gardens and landscaped areas across the country, sowbugs (Porcellio scaber) and pillbugs (Armadillidium vulgare), also known as roly polies, feed primarily on decaying plant matter and are important in the decomposition process.
Many of us are delighted at the sight of a roly poly bug as it rolls itself into a tight little ball when touched, which is a defense mechanism it uses and is known as conglobation. In small numbers, it can actually be useful for your backyard, thanks to its great composting skills.
But when present in large numbers, they have been known to feed on seedlings, new roots, lower leaves, and fruits or vegetables laying directly on the soil.
These small scavengers scurry when disturbed and are often found outside hiding under leaves, rocks, garden debris, mulch, and other dark, damp areas.
Occasionally they will enter homes as accidental invaders. Indoors they are simply a nuisance and cannot survive for more than a day or two without water. These tiny critters do not bite or sting and cannot damage household structures.
Nonetheless, we always want to make sure not to encourage them too much or they’ll quickly go from entertaining to a big nuisance. So read on to learn what they are, what differentiates roly poly bugs from sowbugs, and how to control them effectively.
What are Roly Poly Bugs (Pillbugs) and Sowbugs?
Roly-poly bugs and sowbugs are interesting not insects at all but are terrestrial crustaceans, making them more closely related to crabs, crayfish, and shrimps than ants and other insects that are normally found in soil.
They are the only crustaceans that are terrestrial, meaning they are adapted themselves to live entirely on land. But they still have gills, meaning they require moisture to survive yet they can’t live underwater!
These little critters mainly eat decaying plant matter and other decomposing materials, making them great decomposers and good for the ecosystem as they can improve soil quality. But in large numbers, they can be a nuisance as they start consuming new roots, lower leaves, seedlings, and even fruits and vegetables.
How to Identify Pill Bugs (Roly Pollies) and Sowbugs?
Similar in appearance, sowbugs and pillbugs (3/4 inch long) are slow-moving oval-shaped crustaceans that more closely resemble crayfish, shrimp, and lobster than insects.
They vary from gray to brown to almost purple in color and have seven pairs of legs, elbowed antennae, and a segmented hard shell-like covering, similar to that of an armadillo.
Sowbugs also have two tail-like structures on the rear end that pillbugs lack.
Note: Pillbugs are sometimes called “roly-polies” because they often roll up into a tight ball when disturbed, also known as conglobation. As they conglobate, they are known to entertain kids and adults alike!
What is the Difference between a Roly Poly (Pill Bug) and a Sowbug?
Many people mix up sow bugs and pill bugs because they appear similar at first glance. Sowbugs are a little bit smaller than pill bugs, and their back ends have two small structures that look like tails. Pill bugs don’t have these structures.
Sowbugs are also unable to roll into a ball (conglobate) like roly-polys. But you might have one, the other, or both because they both enjoy similar diets and routines and that’s why we’ve included them both here in the same guide to cover all our bases.
Different Names for Roly Poly Bugs and Sowbugs
You may have already noticed us referring to roly poly bugs as pillbugs in this article, which is interestingly not the only name they have which can actually sometimes be quite confusing for some people.
First of all, as we mentioned above, although roly-pollies are often referred to as sowbugs, they are two separate species. And roly-poly bugs are affectionately known by many other names, depending on the part of the world!
Sowbugs’ scientific name is Porcellio Scaber and roly poly bugs scientific name is Armadillidium Vulgare. Now let’s look at all the other names they’re known for to clear this confusion once and for all:
US and Canada: Common names in the United States and Canada include pillbugs, woodlice, wood shrimp, doodle bugs, or boat-builders.
England: Some fun names these little creatures go by in England include chiggypigs, penny sows, and cheesybugs.
Australia and New Zealand: Interestingly, they’re known as butchy boy in Australia and slater in New Zealand!
Life Cycle of a Sowbug and Pillbug
Both sowbugs and pillbugs mate throughout the year with most of the activity occurring in March and April. The female incubates her eggs in a fluid-filled pouch (marsupium) located on the underside of her body for 3-7 weeks.
After hatching, the young nymphs (similar in appearance to adults, only smaller) remain in the pouch for up to two months until they can care for themselves. Nymphs molt, or shed their exoskeleton, at regular intervals and reach sexual maturity, usually within a year.
As adults, they continue to molt about once every month. Females can produce broods of approximately 30-40 young that may live up to 3 years. There are one to two generations per year, depending on weather conditions.
Where Do They Live?
Pill bugs are tiny scavengers that consume decaying plant matter. They will also eat living plants and may cause root damage to your flowers, fruits, or vegetables.
They tend to hide out in dark, damp places like underneath logs, leaf piles, stepping stones, landscape timbers, rocks, trash cans, garden debris, flower pots, mulch, and compost.
Roly-polies might also be present in your garage, basement, shed, or storage building, especially if the areas are damp and moist.
They require a moist environment because their bodies cannot store water. Most of the time, they hide during the day and come out at night.
When Can Pillbugs (Roly Poly Bugs) and Sowbugs Pose a Threat to Your Backyard?
As we mentioned above, in small numbers they can be great for improving your garden’s soil as they eat decaying plant matter and other decomposing materials, but in larger numbers they can start consuming plant roots, new leaves, etc.
Certain conditions create an environment where they post bigger threats than in other conditions. Let’s look at what these conditions are:
- They can become a problem when they’re not exposed to natural predators such as birds and start overpopulating.
- If your backyard has excessive mulch, it creates an environment with ample moisture and gives shelter to these little critters. This allows them to multiply into larger numbers easily, thanks to an abundance of moisture.
- On the other hand, if they’re already present in your garden and the soil is dry and depleted without enough organic matter for them to decompose, they can then start eating living plant matter in your backyard.
- If your plant’s root structure is unhealthy, it makes them more susceptible to other pests including roly poly bugs and sowbugs.
- Unfortunately, many times, these conditions are most common in greenhouses where they can become a real nuisance.
Sowbug and Pillbug Control (How to Get Rid of Them Effectively)
Controlling sowbugs and pillbugs is all centered around figuring out and controlling conditions that encourage their existence. Let’s look at some of the top ways to control and get rid of them effectively:
- To get rid of roly poly bugs reduce the habitat favored by these pests by eliminating garden debris, leaf piles, fallen fruit, and weeds from all growing areas.
- Use mulches that are coarse enough to let water pass through easily so the surface next to plants will not remain damp for long.
- Improve air circulation around plants by providing trellises for vines and raising fruits, such as strawberries and melons, up off the ground.
- Ensure that your plants have healthy soil and roots by using compost, compost tea, and other products that can assist your plant in staying healthy. To learn more about what your plants need, use the search bar at the top of Planet Natural’s site and check out our plant guides.
- Consider using a dehumidifier indoors such as in the basement, shed, or other storage areas to discourage these little creatures from hiding and reproducing there.
- Clean your gutters and clear any dead plant matter to remove their food sources so that they don’t breed excessively.
- Diatomaceous earth, made from the finely ground fossils of prehistoric freshwater diatoms (one-celled shells), is abrasive to crawling insects and can be used as a barrier to protect plants.
- Apply Insect Killer Granules around foundations, lawns, and landscaped areas to eliminate or repel all kinds of troublesome pests.
- Scatter Monterey Ant Control, a safe and organic bait containing iron phosphate and spinosad, evenly over the soil around or near problem areas.
- Apply fast-acting botanical insecticides as a soil drench if pest levels become intolerable.
Tip: Black plastic mulches will discourage many insects by creating an environment that is too hot for them.
Note: If pests are a problem indoors repair and seal cracks in the foundation wall, around basement windows, and along door jambs. Reduce high moisture areas near possible entry points by properly draining water away from the house.
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