You know, so many words get spent on the glamour rock star insects of the gardening world (bees, butterflies, ants and spiders) that I sometimes wonder what the other insects in my garden do all day. Are they the shiftless lay-abouts who do nothing but stop by my garden for a free meal and a place to live and occasionally committing some crime for which they should die? If so, are they then related to many of my ex-boyfriends? I need to investigate this more (the benefits of other bugs, not their relationships to my ex-boyfriends).
There is one bug that I see in my garden quite frequently and this is the pill bug. I have also heard them referred to as sow bugs, roly polies and isopods. Actually, I have only read them referred to as isopods. I don’t think anybody uses that name outside the scientific community.
Anyway, the reason I see these so frequently is because they are the insect prey of choice for my two youngest kids. These little bugs tend to be easy to catch and they have the charming tendency to roll up into a little ball, much to the delight of my children who then must show me this every time it happens.
The very first thing I learned is that Pill Bugs and Sow Bugs are actually not the same thing. They come from the same family (Isopodalem), they look very much alike but they differ in one noticeable way. Pill bugs can roll up into tight little balls, while sow bugs can only fold themselves in half. In other words, a sow bug’s legs are still visible when it is rolled up.
Beyond that little difference, the two species are very similar.
Second thing that I learn is that neither creature is an insect. Go figure. I randomly choose an insect to feature and it isn’t an insect at all. It is a crustacean. Yep, break out the butter, they are related to crayfish and lobsters. They even breath with gills.
Because pill bugs and sow bugs have gills, they have to stay in places with high humidity, like under rocks and rotting logs or in your compost pile. Sow bugs also tend to frequent areas with some amount of water. They also tend to live in dark areas.
Now for the million dollar question… Are pill bugs and sow bugs beneficial to a garden? Yes and no.
Yes in that they are one of Mother Nature’s cleaning crews. They are scavengers and they eat decaying and rotting material. They can help your compost pile break down faster and help to eliminate other dead creatures that may be laying around your yard. I’m not saying you have hundreds of dead animals decorating the place, but chances are there are more than a few deceased insects, small rodents or amphibians tucked into corners you never see. Your friendly neighborhood pill and sow bugs help to dispose of these things before they stink up the place.
They can be harmful to your garden because they are not to picky about what they eat. If it doesn’t move, they will eat it. Living animals are safe from them but your plants, who have not as of this date (though I am sure some lab somewhere is working on it) developed the ability to pull up roots and move about on their own, could become a tasty snack for pill or sow bugs.
I personally know I have lots of pill bugs in my yard but I don’t think I have ever seen any damage on my live plants caused by them. But it could be that the damage they cause is masked by the damage from the slugs.
For the time being, I will let the little buggers remain as long as they stay well behaved. If I change my mind, I know that I have two fantastic pill bug hunters living right here with me.