Sow/pill/potato bugs...AAAAGGGHHHH!

Mearth(z8PNW B'ham)June 2, 2006

These critters have decimated my napa crop! They are emerging from the soil in my raised beds by the hundreds (thousands!?). Is there an effective method for controlling huge numbers of this pest? Thanks in advance for advice.

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Hold up!! Pillbugs/sow bugs and potato bugs are completely different sets of critters. Pill/sow bugs are crustaceans (like shrimp), sometimes referred to as roly-polies for their habit of folding themselves up into balls when disturbed and potato bugs are true insects (Stenopelmatus species) with a rather frightening appearance.

But, all would prefer to feast on decaying vegetation rather than live plant parts. In fact, pill/sow bugs are part of nature's cadre of composters and are actually considered beneficials. Potato bugs have more of a reputation for devouring live plants, but even then, that is not their preferred diet and it would take a rather significant population, which I have never seen in western WA.

Can you describe the damage done to your plants? Pill/sow bugs are extremely common here - I have literally thousands in my garden and often discover them hiding in the bottom of containers when I repot - but I have never witnessed any mass plant murder on their behalf. Perhaps it is some other, yet-to-be-identified culprit causing the problem. Sight unseen, I'd nominate cutworms - they are at their peak of destructive performance right now and nocturnal to boot, so hard to detect during the day.

    Bookmark   June 2, 2006 at 2:20PM
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squeeze(z8 BC)

some folks call sowbugs potato bugs, gardengal, and sowbugs do indeed devour young tender plant material this time of year in preference over the wet decaying matter they usually subsist on - I find young spinach, lettuce and cukes are especially attractive to them, and later they decimate the strawberries laying on the soil - anything that's wet soft and tender is easy prey for them

not much to be done except try to reduce the population and always plant lots of everything so enough survives to an older tougher stage where they aren't as attracted - organic mulches can distract them, but also provide ideal habitat for them to breed, they're not "emerging from the soil", they're living in the rough organic surface layer - try placing pieces of wood or something around and check under them every morning to clean out the bugs sheltering there


    Bookmark   June 2, 2006 at 4:05PM
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Mearth(z8PNW B'ham)

Indeed...sow bugs. I used all the names I have ever heard folks use to ensure that many people knew what I was talking about. I've just returned from yet another session of plucking hundreds of the buggers out of the cabbage bed. They are, as Squeeze stated, living in the not-quite-done compost I mulched with. Having one heck of a party, from what I can see. I will try the boards method and see if I can reduce the population enough to let the cabbage get ahead.

I've never had a problem with these critters before. I'm as startled as G-gal.

    Bookmark   June 2, 2006 at 6:38PM
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Pillbugs, aka rollie polies, curl up while their cousins the sow bugs don't. Both are sometimes called potato bugs, wood lice, and a hundred other names. These land dwelling relatives of shrimp, crawfish, and lobsters however normally do not eat live plants, they help clean up the dead vegetation we have, are part of Ma Natures recycling machine, but they will, if there is not enough dead organic material around feed on live plant tissue, and if you have a large population of them you must have lots of dead plant tissue around. They need the same environment to live in as slugs and snails do and that is cool, moist areas which mulch provides. Since these wee buggers are beneficial, mostly, there is no good reason to "do something" to control them except maybe encourage toads and garter snakes to hang around.

    Bookmark   June 3, 2006 at 6:38AM
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hi mearth, the compost will be an attractant for them and they may have been in there in large numbers when you added it to the bed, but as mentioned they love young tender seedlings and fruit laying on the soil aswell. you wont get the population down successfully in my experience but there are a couple of things you can try. cut the bottom off some plastic pots, or make cylinders from soft drink bottles, old yoghurt containers, anything like that, then shift the compost away from around the seedlings and put the plastic containers around them twisting them into the soil to dig them in. this works quite well to keep the bugs out as long as you dont trap them inside the cylinder. another suggestion is to scrunch up sheets of newspaper and wet them and lay on the soil as a lure to attract them away from the plants, rewet if they dry out. Ive used a combination of these methods with good results and once the seedlings are older and less soft the sow bugs/wood lice wont bother them.


    Bookmark   June 3, 2006 at 8:27AM
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Mearth(z8PNW B'ham)

Ahhh...all the wisdom here!

Last night I mulched some areas with sea lettuce. this morning, all roly-polies were found munching away at the underside of the kelp. Roly-poly partay! So, I will continue this strategy of simply offering them something tastier nearby. Handpicking was not doing the job.

Thanks all!

    Bookmark   June 3, 2006 at 11:53PM
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OK so this may be the strangest set of questions you may have ever gotten. I am a homeschool mom and my daughter has this project on sow bugs. I live in Maine. Can you tell me how and if I can attract them? If not, would anyone be willing to send me some? She also has some plant projects, one with lima beans so I am sure I will have more questions as we go. I would appreciate your help.

    Bookmark   June 17, 2007 at 11:09PM
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Provide the right habitat for them, decaying organic matter that keeps the soil cool and moist and, like other parts of Ma Natures recycling machine, they will appear.

    Bookmark   June 18, 2007 at 7:01AM
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We had a pet lizard once and it wouldn't eat rollie pollies. Maybe they don't taste good.

    Bookmark   June 18, 2007 at 8:10PM
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lelia(Northern Cal)

I had a terrible problem with pill bugs this year. They walked right over decaying leaves to completely destroy my melon, zuke, okra, flower and herb seedlings. They crawled up my winter squash plants and sheared off huge sections of the big leaves so that they would fall on the ground where the rest of the little boogers would come over and pull up a chair. I've witnessed all of this, and picking them off by hand doesn't work unless you make it a full-time job. Before I set out my carefully nurtured peppers and eggplants I was getting a little panicky, and then some fine creature (a skunk I believe) started scratching around and eating them at night. Even that wasn't enough, though, until I found an organic product called Sluggo Plus, which is a bait for pill bugs, slugs and earwigs. I've found that I have plenty of pill bugs left (what looks like a normal amount), but my seedlings are no longer getting mowed down. It's beneficial to the soil, and I'll continue with it until the little plants are strong enough to withstand the pill bugs' shallow munching. Meanwhile, the skunk is still scratching for pill bugs. I don't like to use baits (I used a fresh lettuce trap, but that wasn't enough), even organic ones, but I was forced to choose between that and my veggies, and the bait won out. Seedlings are fine, there are enough pill bugs left for the skunk (who doesn't seem to be affected), and I'm a happy camper.

    Bookmark   June 19, 2007 at 4:38PM
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I am not sure what everyone is talking about here. The only place and time I see 'potato bugs' is on potatoes. Not sweet potatoes, but northern potatoes. When they find my potatoes they absolutely chew every leaf down to the center vein if I get busy and can't kill them fast enough.
Chickens won't even eat them. They have never lived in compost piles or even walked across another plant that I have noticed. My understanding is that they are potato specific and they fly around looking for some poor sap who planted lunch for them and the thousands of future children.
This is Wisconsin so maybe that is why this is all different.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2007 at 7:52AM
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We suffered a major invasion this year. While we haven't gotten rid of the sow bugs/pill bugs/charlie bugs/rollie-poly's/potato bugs completely, we've found a balance. An extensive google search helped. Here's a link to my blog post about what worked for us. We (obviously) didn't want to use any chemicals.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   August 3, 2009 at 8:07PM
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You are referring to Colorado Potato Beetles. They usually head for potato plants but will also dine on Tomato plants if there aren't enough potatoes around. They have some of the same compounds in the leaves that attract them. I have found that the easiest, albeit perhaps stranges way to get rid of Colarado Beetles is to first of all make sure your potatoes are healthy and growning well making them less attractive then weaker plants (true of all insect invastions) Then you can mulch them with hay or straw and it makes the next steps easier. Also easier digging here in clay country. Early on I watch for the beetles and hand pick the first round checking the underside of the leaves for eggs and smashing those. I usually carry a jar with a small amount of kerosen or gas in it to drop the beetles in. As the plants grow and it becomes harder to cover 150 pounds worth of spud sets I just go out with a broom every three to four days and "sweep" the plants off. As the eggs hatch this knocks they nymph larva off and they usually die before they can get out of the straw and back on the host plant. Other than a few strange looks from passing vehicles, it works like a charm for me. By the way, many around me use any where from 1 to a combination of three chemicals to kill them and they are usually covered up with them the whole season and out there spraying every 3 days. This year I only had to sweep the plants twice because I've been doing it for many years now. To tell you the truth I think the beetles have come to like the bug juice everybody else sprays more than the potato plants.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2009 at 1:36AM
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