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A Guide to Pill Bugs as Garden Pests | Greenleaf Organic Pest Management

Posted by Mark A. Puglisi, ACE on Fri, Jul 14, 2017 @ 01:13 PM

Small, but Destructive: A Guide to Pill Bugs as Garden Pests

garden.jpgThey might be the cutest bugs you'll ever find in your garden, considering the way they curl into a tight little ball when you touch them. However, as unique as they may be, pill bugs are not a pest you want to discover munching away on your tomato leaves or pansy petals.

You won't typically see pill bugs in and around your plants unless conditions are overly moist. But, since they can show up at a moment's notice and sabotage your plants, it's important that you know a bit about them.

What Are Pill Bugs?

Contrary to what their name suggests, pill bugs are not actually insects. They are in the crustacean family, meaning that they are more closely related to crabs and crawfish than to flies and beetles. Scientifically, they are known as Armadillidium vulgare. You may hear people use the names "doodle bug" or "sow bug," which also refer to the same pest.

Pill bugs' bodies are covered with hard, plate-like exoskeletons that protect their tender parts. They're about 1/2 inch long when mature, and they're gray and brown in color. Their signature behavior, rolling into a ball, is actually a defense mechanism.

Where Do Pill Bugs Live?

Pill bugs' bodies dry out quickly if they are not in contact with a moist surface, so they typically spend most of their time under rocks and logs. If you lift any rock or log in a shady area in the forest, you're very likely to find some pill bugs. 

When the rainy spring season rolls in, you may start to notice pill bugs in your garden. Their populations explore at this time, so they leave their rock abodes in search of more food.

What Damage Do Pill Bugs Cause in the Garden?

When pill bugs invade your garden, they can cause substantial damage in a very short period of time. You may leave your garden in good shape one night and come back the next day to find that the leaves have been chewed off all of your seedlings and young plants. When the bugs are desperate, they may even eat the stems and shoots of softer, green plants.

Should You Worry If You Find Pill Bugs Indoors?

If you have a population explosion of pill bugs in your garden, you might find that a few of them make their way into your home. Specifically, you may come across them in your basement or other moist areas.

While coming across such pests can be a bit unsettling, rest assured that they are not a threat as an indoor pest. They won't cause structural damage, bite or chew on your furniture. They need plant debris to thrive, and they won't find that indoors, so the few stragglers that you find indoors won't settle or start a colony. Just kill the bugs or take them outside. Remove moisture from your home, and you should not see them anymore.

How Can You Keep Pill Bugs Away From Your Garden?

If you take a few preventative measures during wet periods, you should be able to keep pill bugs away from your garden. Weed your garden regularly, since this will minimize shade and make your garden less appealing to the pill bugs. Do not let weeds grow around the border of the garden, either. 

If you use mulch in your garden, do so carefully. Make sure your wood mulch is very coarse so that water flows through it quickly rather than trapping moisture near the surface where it's likely to attract pill bugs. Don't plant your plants too close together. Leaving a little more space between them, and perhaps using trellises to keep vining plants off the ground, will improve airflow, keeping the foliage dry and less appealing to pill bugs.

What Should You Do If You Notice Pill Bugs In Your Garden?

If you do notice pill bugs in your garden, it's important to act quickly since these bugs can cause so much damage so quickly. Work with a company like Greenleaf Organic Pest Management to take an integrative pest management approach to keep the pill bugs away.

Integrative pest management is an approach that focuses on the "big picture" to eliminate pests by making changes to your space and using the most effective, lowest toxicity pesticides only when necessary. This is a great approach for managing garden pests such as pill bugs, since in many cases, making changes to your garden and how you care for it will drive the pill bugs away.

Some changes your certified pest control expert may recommend include switching to different mulch, eliminating shade in your garden, using drip irrigation instead of overhead watering, and cleaning up leaves and other debris. If these methods alone are not effective, they may apply some safe pesticides to your garden or the area surrounding it.

Pill bugs may not be the most common garden pest, but when they do appear, that can cause major trouble. If you start seeing these odd little creatures around your plants, contact your pest control company promptly.