help! pill bugs harming strawberries!

lil_tomatoApril 23, 2010

Pill Bugs/Roly Poly's are everywhere in our garden. And they are burrowing into our strawberries (burrowed into our beets last year). What can be done?

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Dan Staley

A little odd or rare that they are doing this, but not abnormal. Plenty of good information out there on prevention and control. As we have no idea where you are located, generalizations will have to do.


    Bookmark   April 23, 2010 at 1:45PM
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Pill Bugs, Sow Bugs, do not burrow into fruits although they will eat fruits that something else has already started to work on. They are part of Ma Natures recycling machine and mostly clean up after us, helping to digest the waste vegetation we leave around. A good, healthy organic garden will have lots of these wee buggers around because a good, healthy organic garden creates the type of environment they like, cool, moist, with lots of food resources (your mulches) available.
Something else (maybe a chipmunk) bit off some of your strwberry and now the Pill Bugs, Sow Bugs, are coming in to clean up. They are not your real problem.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2010 at 6:59AM
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Actually, pillbugs do burrow into fruit and vegetables. Kimmsr you are right that they prefer "open wounds", but trust me they are capable of burrowing into the flesh of fresh healthy fruits and veggies. I've had a great deal of experience dealing with these beneficial pain in the rectums.

Some observations that may help:

They come out mostly at night, so this is the best time to observe their habits using a flashlight.

They really love emerging seedlings, but tend to leave plants alone once the secondary set of leaves come out, if they make it that long.

They really prefer to eat plants adjacent to their daytime hideouts. When starting seedlings rake all mulch at least a couple of feet away from the seed bed until the seedlings get a hold.

Diatomaceous earth sprinkled in ceremonial rings around seedlings will keep them at bay, but loses its effectiveness once it gets wet. It may need to be applied every evening for 3-4 days. This works with slugs and snails as well.

In my garden they tend to do the most damage in early spring. I attribute this to the fact that the toads have yet to come out of hibernation. Once things warm up, I regularly find toad droppings full of pillbug parts, simple pleasures! If you have toads in the area, but not in your garden, import them. I have spent many a rainy night driving around rescuing toad from the highway. I bring them home and release them in our garden. Also, you can use solar landscape lights (the pathway type not spotlights) to attract toads, and keep them in your garden. They like to hang around light because light usually means food to a toad.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2010 at 8:44AM
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Urban legend that roly polys don't eat live food. They will eat just about anything, live or decayed, a favorite of theirs is newly sprouted seedlings. I have seen them munching away on squash and tomato leaves that happen to touch the ground, and they definitely will eat strawberries and tomatoes if they can get to them. I can't direct seed anything because the roly polys will eat the seedling as soon as they emerge. Go outside early in the morning when it is just getting light and you can see them at work.
Snail killer will kill them.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2010 at 12:54PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

These little guys loooove strawberries!

If you change the environment, you'll have much less of a problem. Unfortunately, most of us use a mulch of some kind, providing the cool, dark, and damp habitat that these little animals prefer.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2010 at 5:16PM
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Many people that "see" something happening assume that what they "see" is reality while it may not be. Often beneficial insects get blamed for a problem because people "see" them at work and do not understand what happened before those people arrived. Erroneous assumptions at work.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2010 at 7:25AM
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Yes, erroneous assumptions are at work. Kimmsr, I know you are a fan of Googling things, and maybe that is where you are getting your information. But the reality is pillbugs WILL eat fruits and vegetables and seedlings. I think you feel compelled to defend them because they are beneficial. Nobody is disputing that. They do play an important role in decomposition, but many beneficials have some undesirable qualities as well. Look at birds, for example.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2010 at 9:42AM
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jean001(z8aPortland, OR)

This time, I'm on kimmsr's side.

Other things damage the fruits. Although pillbugs & sowbugs clean up the damaged part, they're blamed for the original damage.

As for eating seedlings, the scavenge & disturb high organic soils & potting mixes, often with inadvertent damage to the seedlings.

But when populations are extremely large, they may directly damage seedlings.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2010 at 12:14PM
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Dan Staley

IME the initial damage to RIPE frs is something else, but as soon as the ethylene production starts, the first critters to the decomposition come in. The soft tissues that may still be good will get eaten as well. Past peak ripeness and initial ethylene production attracts the critters. That is: if they are feeding on it, it has already begun to decay.


    Bookmark   April 25, 2010 at 12:48PM
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Strange that so many people can directly observe pillbugs doing damage to healthy seedlings or young plants, yet a few long-term residents of this forum keep ignoring or dismissing those claims every time they are raised. Woodlice have eaten healthy seedlings in my yard and ringed numerous other healthy plants as they nibble away non-woody tissue where the stem enters the soil. A cursory search of the web provides many similar direct observations. It is wrong to say they are only secondary pests, they are often a primary cause of seedling death.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2010 at 12:36AM
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Well, I've dealt with them kindly for 3 years now. I am convinved they have been detrimental to my gardens. I cannot use anything with posion or chemicals because I have a koi pond. Sure kois love them but I'm not gonna sit around feeding rolled up crustations to my koi.

What I plan to do tomorrow is to take my shop vac out and go to each rock that I know they hang out under, lift it up and suck em up. In my raised bed, I have a few pots sitting there and these bugs hang out there in the cool shade during the day. I'll move the pots and suck them up too. They won't be needing the shade anymore.

So many people say they eat decaying material, but that's not true, it's seedlings also. I have YET to see any major benefit of this crustation. It may have some, but it is outweighed by its negative charachteristics.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2010 at 1:33AM
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This link might help some people understand the place Pill Bugs have in nature.

Here is a link that might be useful: About Pill Bugs

    Bookmark   April 26, 2010 at 6:33AM
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Y'know what else helps people understand the place of pill bugs in nature? Observing pill bugs in nature for many years, not reading random web links about them in a biome that has nothing to do with my garden.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2010 at 5:11PM
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My thoughts exactly dicot! I am really surprised it has not been suggested yet that the OP go out and get a god reliable soil test!

    Bookmark   April 27, 2010 at 9:29AM
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gjcore(zone 5 Aurora Co)

My garden has tens of thousands of pill bugs and I've never seen any damage that they have done. I also have quite a few strawberries.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2010 at 6:57PM
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and get a god reliable soil test!

Wow, that must be one reliable soil test.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2010 at 7:37PM
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Dan Staley

Wow, that must be one reliable soil test.

Think of the postage to mail that off. ... = : o

Nonetheless, I can't say I've ever had pillbug problems myself, but I also use wood chips and mulch and such well away from the veggies, so they hang out there, and I think the commute is too long for them to justify the reward, so they just chill in their neighborhood.


    Bookmark   April 27, 2010 at 8:00PM
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Dan, if you never had roly poly problems then why are you responding to this post twice like an expert on them? People in different part of the country have different pests. In southern California roly polys are one of the biggest garden pests, but then again we never heard of some of the bugs others might have in other parts of the country. And then kimmsr read something from someone in south Dakota that says roly polys are a beneficial creature (I don't want to say insect) and believes it, and the author even admits south Dakota only has four of the 20 types of these creatures. Just today I found some roly polys eating my strawberries, and these weren't damaged by anything else. Someone mentioned toads will eat Roly Polys, but we don't have toads around here, too dry, so maybe that is why these roly polys can multiply to such vast numbers that they become the one of the worst garden pests. We do have lizards, but they won't eat roly polys. I tried feeding them to a pet lizard my kids had and she wouldn't touch them. Seems like someone who knows nothing about these creatures wrote that they are beneficial and only eat decayed stuff, but never actually went out into a garden to see what they really do eat, which is just about anything they can reach and that is soft like seedlings, tomato and squash leaves, strawberries, tomatoes, fruit from trees that fell on the ground, decayed vegetation, even coffee grounds.

    Bookmark   April 28, 2010 at 12:05AM
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Wow, that must be one reliable soil test.

Yeah, you have to be careful not to be fooled by the soil test form Satan. He will tell you to use Miracle Grow and Roundup! ;)

    Bookmark   April 28, 2010 at 9:19AM
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Dan Staley

Dan, if you never had roly poly problems then why are you responding to this post twice like an expert on them?

Reread thread.



    Bookmark   April 28, 2010 at 9:38AM
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I'm in south/central US so I think they are more of a pest here. We do square foot gardening so everything is very close together and there is also mulching (plenty of places to hide out). We also can only get to the garden location once a week so we do miss some of the fruit which might be attracting them. I am sure they are doing the damage, though!!!

    Bookmark   April 28, 2010 at 1:58PM
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Sooooo....., Back to the question of what works for those of us who do experience (or think they are experiencing) damage from the woodlice. For all my complaints, I rarely kill them, so to work around them:

I) I germinate mainly in flats and rarely in situ, the flats are located outside on old coffee tables that I try to keep as bug/pathogen-free as possible.

2) I remove woody mulch from the transplant zone and sprinkle wood ash around the seedlings (which becomes ineffective quickly when watered).

3) If really annoyed, I spread some Tanglefoot gook on the stem right at the soil line with a toothpick (which can get VERY messy later on, but at least I still have the plant).

4) I overplant my seedlings, expecting to lose a few.

    Bookmark   April 28, 2010 at 3:00PM
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gjcore(zone 5 Aurora Co)

Keeping the berries off of the soil goes a long way. I think there's a reason they're called "straw"berries.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2010 at 12:59AM
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I like that idea, gjcore! I think we have some hay there (it's hard to find straw in this area). However, I can definitely add some more.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2010 at 1:45PM
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I frequently find these critters happily burrowed into my strawberries. I'd agree they seem to go for the ripest ones. Anyway, I just brush them off, give the berries a good rinse.
I would like to try the straw to see if that helps. I don't know where to get it though.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2010 at 8:42PM
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carolb_w_fl(zone 9/10)

Wow! Bit of a controversy over this, it seems.

IIRC, pill & sow bugs do not possess the organs needed to digest fresh food - they eat food that is already decaying.

IMPE, they follow the ever-so-sneaky slugs & snails (& who's to say that sometimes they haven't 'burrowed' into a miniscule cut or puncture in the fruit's skin that we can't see w/ our naked eyes?)

Ummm - kinda limiting to claim that science is unneeded - don't think that'll get anyone very far...

Here is a link that might be useful: Pillbugs/Sowbugs @ UF

    Bookmark   May 15, 2010 at 10:45AM
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Those of you who keep harping that roly polys only eat decaying vegetation are completely 100% wrong. carol w fl, in the link you just posted where does it say they only eat decaying vegetation. In fact it says they will damage roots. These ivory tower writers should spend some time in a real strawberry patch and then they will make a remarkable discovery, they have been repeating the same false info endlessly. Just because they do eat decaying vegetation you all seem to take that to mean that's all they eat. Wrong conclusion!

    Bookmark   May 15, 2010 at 2:56PM
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hamiltongardener(CAN 6a)

I keep seeing this come up every year and, like others here, have witnesses an infestation of roly-polies damage my plants and fruits.

So I've looked at a few studies:

These are the first couple of hits from universities I saw. They all say that pillbugs and sowbugs will primarily eat decaying matter, but also young plants and fruits, especially those which touch the ground.

A couple of years ago I had such a bad infestation that they were crawling UP the plants like tomatoes to get the fruits and tender new growth. There were thousands.

Perhaps the posters who believe they only eat decaying matter have not had a large population of pillbugs. If they can find enough decaying matter, they don't do much damage to plants, but if there are a lot, they go for whatever food they can get.

Incidentally, that was the first year I mulched my garden after reading all the advice to mulch, mulch, mulch. The next year I planted "conventionally" leaving bare soil around the plants and there were considerable less pillbugs, back to "normal" levels. I have wondered often if I provided a perfect living/breeding ground for the little buggers in all that mulch which caused the population explosion. Or maybe it was just a freakish bad year for them. I won't know unless I recreate those conditions in my garden, but I am scared to do it again. These things were EVERYWHERE!

    Bookmark   May 18, 2010 at 8:14PM
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anney(Georgia 8)

Okay, there's controversy that I don't have an opinion about either way, but if you want to get rid of the pillbugs, there is a way.

Use the new incarnation of Sluggo, which appears to be the same as the old incarnation, but it wears a label now. Monterey Sluggo Plus® Approved for Organic Gardening

If you like Sluggo®, youÂre going to love Sluggo Plus®! Controls snails and slugs, earwigs, sow bugs, pillbugs, and cutworms. Can be used on ornamentals, vegetables, fruit trees, berries, turf, and non-commercial greenhouses. ... Sluggo contains naturally occurring iron and phosphate and is safe to use around pets and wildlife.

I have an older version of it to finish up that contains iron phosphate but was not approved for the organic label, though actually it was organic.

    Bookmark   May 18, 2010 at 8:45PM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

Toads are great in the garden.

    Bookmark   May 19, 2010 at 9:54PM
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I've read many of the posts on this site re: pill/sow bugs and took some of the advice and have been reducing them although probably not eliminating them from the strawberry patch. I put down saucers with beer and also small 6-inch squares of wood, pressing them onto the soil. IN the morning, I found a few sow bugs in the beer (no slugs) and many of them underneath the saucers and the pieces of wood. I scooped them up, dirt and all and put them in a pail which I then half filled with water, added a little organic pesticide, and rubbed a band of mineral oil around the inside of the pail to deter those who managed to crawl up the sides.

I realize that the first mistake I made was spreading compost from my compost pile in the strawberry patch without digging it in. It was loaded with earthworms AND also sow bugs.

    Bookmark   May 27, 2012 at 2:26PM
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After a few years attempting to figure out what was eating my strawberries and finding repeated insistence online that it was not pill bugs, I wanted to upload this picture I took today of a berry I picked a few minutes ago, with a little pill bug eating some lunch.

The wound it is leaving is consistent with all the wounds I have found in our strawberries, last year we lost about 2/3s of our berries due to this so at least I know now. We keep a separate patch for birds to eat, and this berry is from our patch completely covered in bird netting.

Felt compelled to sign up and post this as confirmation for the people seeding doubt about the possibility pill bugs could be a culprit in their gardens.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2013 at 5:36PM
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zeuspaul(9b SoCal)

For the believers. Do collars work to keep the pill bugs from eating my squash sprouts? I recently got 15 cyds of mushroom compost. I mulched the squash hills and am now inundated with pill bugs. They eat the leaves as they just start to appear. Once the leaves spread open and are above soil level they seem to be ok.

I cut some 2 inch and some 4 inch pvc pipe about an inch long. I placed the collars around some sprouts that are just beginning to emerge. Will it work? Can these little devils climb pvc? Any other ideas?



    Bookmark   April 17, 2013 at 9:14PM
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Kinda hard to dispute that photographic evidence!

    Bookmark   April 19, 2013 at 4:10PM
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Many Scientists here but few answers to the question! I think zeuspaul's pic in this forum says it all. his pic depicts EXACTLY whats happening to my strawberries... i need to know a good organic pesticide besides diatomaceous earth (its still rainy here).

    Bookmark   March 27, 2014 at 12:21PM
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ernie85017, zn 9, phx

Sluggo Plus. I use it periodically in the strawberry beds when I see damage. I guess it wears off, and they come back, so I apply again. You only use a little bit. Safe for pets, etc.
But I wonder about the earthworms.
I have strawberry damage like the photo. Just when they get ripe enough, I pick one and it has holes on the underside.


    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 3:41AM
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I'm with ernie. Sluggo Plus

The drought has brought on a scourge of pill bugs in my yard and garden.

It is because there is not sufficient organic materials for them to eat. So they start in on the plants. What would you do if you were a pill bug without organic material to eat? A soft juicy fruit would suffice. As the drought eased and my work composting carries on it is getting better.

Without a doubt, I had to use Sluggo Plus. I worry about the earthworms, but I had no choice. It is either the pill bugs or my plants. I only use it in areas absolutely essential.

I like pill bugs. They are wonderful composters, they mine the soil for toxins and remove toxic metals, they break down the slow decomposers like wood chips. They're great unless you have them in the trillions without sufficient food.

    Bookmark   April 22, 2014 at 8:23AM
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Well, to stay 100% safe and organic I will try the same idea's posted for slugs, like, orange rinds and beer. I will also leave out some broken pottery and just relocate the pill bugs elsewhere.
The Iron Phosphate products have EDTA and are tempting to animals because of the wheat gluten. The EDTA is a chelate and works together with the iron phospate. If ingested by dogs the levels of iron become toxic if enough is ingested. Dogs don't have the same ability as humans to remove excess iron from their systems. Plus, if you are using a product that kills earthworms it can't truly be organic and safe.

    Bookmark   May 1, 2014 at 12:15PM
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