Pillbugs? Do I need to kill them?

stevejanofskyMarch 18, 2012

I am planting for this season and came across a new infestation in my container garden. I think these little suckers are pillbugs - can anyone confirm? I understand they aren't the worst thing to have around, but I seem to have quite a lot of them and they're hanging around my plants that are still around. Should I be worried? If so, how do I get rid of them?

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Pill Bugs are land dwelling relatives of lobsters and are cousoins of Sow Bugs (which do not roll up into a ball) that live in quite moist places and feed mostly on decaying vegetative waste. Like many other insects a very large population might be a problem since they might feed on the plants you want instead of decaying vegetative waste. If you think the population you have is too large you can dry out the places they seem to congregate in, although mulch in the garden is a good thing even though it will provide a place for them to be.
There really is little reason to do much except watch them.

Here is a link that might be useful: Pill Bugs

    Bookmark   March 19, 2012 at 7:29AM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

I totally agree with Kimmsr. However, since these little creatures are in your container plants, I'd suggest some other steps, too.

This is an instance when Diatomaceous Earth (DE) can be a helpful remedy. Simply sprinkle a generous dose into each container. You don't really have to stir it in. DE doesn't dissolve in water and will eventually be carried into the soil medium.

If you are still planting, you can mix up some DE while you're preparing the potting medium.

Be sure to use food grade/horticultural grade DE, not the stuff you'll find for pool filters.

Good luck with this...I know from experience that these little guys can be very persistent when they find their way into containers. I had some infest some bonsai plants I had summering under a shade tree, their containers raised above the ground by a long shelf made of bricks and boards. My bonsai medium is almost entirely without anything that one would think attractive to sow/pillbugs, composed of granite grit, Turface, conifer bark, etc. Yet, they decided to enter that domain by the hundreds.

I used DE in the containers and rolled up newspaper traps outside under the tree and was eventually able to get rid of them.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2012 at 12:41PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

Should I be worried?

===>>> in 35 years of gardening.. i have NEVER DONE ANYTHING ABOUT THEM ...


and i have never seen them at plague levels ... and i wonder if that is a down south thing ...

so to specifically answer your title.. NO YOU DONT HAVE TO KILL THEM..

unless that somehow brings you some satisfaction.. or reduces some irrational fear of bugs... but then.. neither of those is really about the pillbugs..


    Bookmark   March 19, 2012 at 4:12PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

Ken, you need to stop thinking in terms of ALL or NOTHING. Just because you've never experienced problems with these critters, does not mean that circumstances arise where populations can become a problem.

Might it be a Southern 'thing'? Perhaps. But maybe not. Container plants are certainly more endangered by a population.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2012 at 10:07PM
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I'm a bit more worried about them as I caught them out of their underground hideout this evening. They were swarming all over the surface of the soil and all over the leaves of some of my plants. Nothing looks excessively munched on, but there are a few leaves that have been eaten. If I had to guess I'd say they were ~200 or so a square foot on the surface tonight.

I'm done planting - would something at this level be handled by Diatomaceous Earth.

For what it's worth, I'm not in the south, I'm in Pittsburgh. If that's the south to you, I'm assuming you're Canadian? Also, I have no irrational fear of bugs. How did you read that from my post?

    Bookmark   March 22, 2012 at 10:39PM
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JimR36(5b CO)

rhizo1 - There's no need for stereotyping and regional bashing on this site (i.e. "might be a Southern thing"). I'm in the south (though with a midwest background) and there are plenty of sensible folks with open minds and reasonable approaches to gardening down here.

I actually agree with your other point. Even though pillbugs might not cause problems to some (myself included), that doesn't mean they aren't problems for others. I do see them listed sometimes along with other pests, so people should educate themselves if they suspect problems associated with this insect.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2012 at 10:44AM
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tsugajunkie z5 SE WI

Jim- rhizo was responding to Ken's "down south thing".

Pillbugs in the garden have never been an issue for me either. They eat organic matter (well, strawberries too). To rhizo's point, in a container where organic matter may (actually should) be limited the buggers might take a liking to the roots and I'd get rid of them as well. Maybe submerging the pot in water first or, failing that, repotting and adding DE as suggested.


    Bookmark   March 23, 2012 at 4:38PM
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Thanks for the suggestions. I'm going to spread some DE over the top of the beds as its a bit too late (and too big - these are 2' x 5' garden boxes) for dumping and mixing. Hopefully I reduce them a bit before my seedlings become lunch. Will post here with how it goes.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2012 at 5:01PM
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tsugajunkie z5 SE WI

Oh, that kind of container. A raised bed container. You may have plenty of organic matter for pillbugs then. Do you use compost in there?


    Bookmark   March 23, 2012 at 6:57PM
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I filled them last year with 1/2 compost, 1/4 vermiculite and 1/4 peat. I didn't replenish before this season as I didn't get much growing in last year. So yes, there's quite a bit of compost. Still though, it seems like there are a ton of them. Literally swarming after it gets dark and they come out to play.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2012 at 7:18PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

Come here, JimR....I need to slap you silly. I've lived in the South for most of my adult life. lol (And then I'm going to slap ken lolololol.)

I'm with TJ: "Oh, THAT kind of container." With all of the compost and peat, you've set up a four star dining hall for these things.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2012 at 10:46PM
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So knowing that I have raised bed style containers in which I have compost and peat, swarming pillbugs all over my plants is OK?

    Bookmark   March 24, 2012 at 12:27AM
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If you read the link I attached above you will learn that Pill Bugs, Sow Bugs, Wood Lice, Potato Bugs, and the other names they go by are not really much of a pest in the garden. While they can, and do, occassionally eat some of the plants we don't want them to more often people blame them because they see them cleaning up behind the real culprit.
Since these we critters are part of Ma Natures recycling machine there is no good reason to kill them, unless the population gets so high that they are devouring your garden and then eliminating those dark, moist, cool places they hide in is the most effective emans of control.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2012 at 6:30AM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

Steve, knowing the kind of containers you use AND the type of medium helps us understand why these creatures have become such a problem for you.

You've created a perfect storm, so to speak. If your situation were in an outdoor garden area (sans containers or raised beds), I would encourage you to somehow change the environment to make it less hospitable to sow bugs. But that is very difficult to do in your case. I guess that I would go with the DE and traps.

Experiment with the traps...a loosely rolled up newspaper, dampened, may attracted dozens overnight. Add some fresh fruit for bait. I've heard that cantaloupe is especially attractive to them. I can testify that fresh strawberries are a favorite.

Put your baits out in the evening and collect them in the morning before the sun heats them up. Dispose of in a tightly closed plastic bag and put in the trash. You could drown them first, in a bucket of soapy water.

I wish you luck, Steve. I know that populations this high pose a problem. I hope that the DE helps; I think that it will. The traps will really help, too...you might be surprised. Let me know how it works out, will you?

    Bookmark   March 24, 2012 at 10:54AM
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Will do. Thanks for all the help and persistence. I tried my first DE application last night but we had some wet weather that will persist for the next few days. I'll reapply when it's dry out.

I'll try the traps also. These would be best placed on the surface of the bed in the container? The soil is 15 or 16 inches deep.

What might I do for next season to prevent this? Different mix? Mix DE with the soil before planting anything?

    Bookmark   March 24, 2012 at 1:14PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

DE (you did get the right kind of DE, right? Not the pool filter formulation) does lose some of its effectiveness when it gets wet, but will regain it when it dries out. It won't dissolve.

The traps should be placed in different locations on the surface of the bed. You could try one or two around the outside, if you wanted to, just to 'scout' for more culprits.

I would suggest that you change out your mix for something much coarser in texture and less likely to create fine dining for your pillbugs. Be on the lookout for a source of conifer bark fines. It can sometimes be called soil conditioner. I'm not talking about the mini pine bark nuggets, those are usually much too large. Use the bark to replace the compost (or most of it) Replace your vermiculite with perlite, and keep the peat moss. You'll need to add some gypsum to a home-made mix so that you can provide some calcium without having to raise the pH.

Visit the Container Forum for more ideas of how to make a superior mix...one that plants can thrive in.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2012 at 4:16PM
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Have never had a problem with them. Have had them in containers too. They are harmless and cute. I am with all the other people who advocate leaving them alone. Let them live. They can be your little garden buddies.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 8:22PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

Ignorance is bliss, so they say, lol. Cute, but not always harmless. Those who have had to deal with high populations of these little animals will never call them 'little garden buddies'.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 9:55PM
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Totally amazing. A link is provided to an article written by someone tht has spent most of their lives studying insects and the habits of those insects that tells you that certain ones are not the problem some people think and one of those people uses the phrase "ignorance is bliss".

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 7:35AM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

C'mon, kimmsr. My argument with you (on this issue) is that you seem to think that these arthropods NEVER become a plant pest and those of us who have experienced a problem with them are 'mistaken'.

I've tried to make it clear that UNDER CERTAIN CONDITIONS pillbugs, normally considered pretty benign, can and do damage plants. Would you not consider Steve's estimation of around 200 per square FOOT an over population? I do...and I happen to be right! I suggested some very simple steps for him to take in order to reduce the hoards and bring them to a more acceptable population.

It's all about paying attention and 'listening' to the problem, Kimmsr. Not all situations follow the normal path. Sometimes we (humans) create artificial environments wherein animals behave in very non-natural ways.

We read and hear about examples of this all the time. Some of us, Kimmsr, even experience it personally.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 11:54AM
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JimR36(5b CO)

This post has been beaten to death; way beyond the original bludgeoning of our poor little friends. I'm going outside now and hugging a pillbug. They're all over the place!

*very mild sarcasm noted
*never take yourself to seriously
*over and out

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 1:18PM
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JimR36(5b CO)

*check grammar too (too instead of to)

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 1:20PM
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bugbite(z9a FL)

They eat some young seedlings, like marigolds. The like to eat tomato seedlings. They eat weakened plants like some transplants. Although they will attack at night they also will attach during the day. If you see young plants being eaten check around the base of the plant during the day to see if they are balled up witing for the night. Go out at night and check with a flash light,
The problem is that 1 out of 50 might like live plants. That's is enough to mow down seedlings. I have seen them bite a small stalk to kill the plant and go back the next night to finish it off. They are currently my #1 garden enemy.
I use the following trick to save my seedlings in trays. Whether you have many trays raised by grids like I do or a single tray this is what I do:
To create a barrier between the ground and the trays, I take a brick. On the top edges of the brick I place duct tape all round. Small amount on the brick, largest part sticking off the brick (on all 4 sides). You can place a brick on top to hold the tape on or not. Remember the sticky side is down. Or you can place a brick under the "tape brick" to raise the "tape brick" off the ground.
For a large grid area supporting 12 large trays I can get by with 6 bricks. A single tray might require 2 bricks.

It keeps ground crawling insect off the trays.

Yesterday I quickly did one tray (a germination test for a special seed). I used 2 "tape bricks" to hold up the tray. This morning I counted over 50 pillbugs stuck to the tape. THAT TRAY WAS ON A WALL 3ft OFF THE GROUND.
So the answer is, if you are experiencing seedlings or transplants or other plants that disappear or get chewed on, pick up each pill bug and check to see if it has a guilty grin, if so they crush easily.

    Bookmark   April 1, 2012 at 5:42PM
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Well I have been using NOLO bait to get rid of my grasshopper problem.NoLo is an oragnic naturally occuring infection specifically for grasshoppers and wont harm anything else. My point is that the darn pill and or sow bugs are eating my nolo because it is wheat bran with the spore inside. This stuff isnt cheap so I need to safely get rid of the things. Yes I have fought them for years and the eat anything. I need to find a prduct thats safe for the bees and will only harm the pill bugs.

    Bookmark   May 16, 2012 at 8:31PM
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MidnightBirdGirl(Zone 7)

Pillbugs are eating the roots of my Brugs and some of my veggies. They have also eaten some of my squash flowers. We have them so bad they were getting in the house! I saw on another thread her that garlic and pepper tea works. I am going to try it.

    Bookmark   June 2, 2012 at 4:53PM
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Pillbugs, Sowbugs, Wood Lice, what ever name is used for these arthropods, they are still scavangers and seldom will harm living plants. When seen munching on "live" plants it is usually because something else has done harm first, not the Pillbugs. They, most often, are in doing clean up work, but get blamed because the real culprit is not seen.
There is no good reason to kill most insects outside of the house. If inside your house find out why they are there and fix that and they, the insects, will leave.

    Bookmark   June 3, 2012 at 7:45AM
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MidnightBirdGirl(Zone 7)

Kimmsr, my house is pretty darned clean...nothing a pill bug could wantin here. There the only real damage on my plants is from the pill bugs.and it is mostly at the roots. Hundreds will be at the roots of one plant. They like moisture,and are opportunists, more than scavengers. And yes some insects can do a lot of damage outside. I try to stick to organic means. Maybe you have never experienced real insect damage, or had an issue with things like fire ants,or squash bugs or cucumber beetles or grasshoppers, or cutworms or tomato hornworm (to name a few)----They must be controlled.

    Bookmark   June 3, 2012 at 6:44PM
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I'm trying to do research on how to kill pill bugs and every post, I see you saying that they are harmless. In every single one of them, several people tell you that they are not harmless, yet, you continue to post over and over that they are. Let me tell you again:

Yes, you are correct when you say that they eat only weakened plants. I've got news for you, SEEDLINGS ARE WEAKENED PLANTS! These things devour seedlings. It has gotten so bad that I can no longer plants seeds in my garden. That limits what I can plant because not all plants transplant well. On top of that, when a plant is transplanted, it goes into shock, which means, you guessed it, it's weakened and pill bugs kill it.

I've lost countless tomato seedlings, squash plants, beans, collards, kale, mustard greens...you name it, these buggars eat them all. And yes, I've seen them with my own eyes eating otherwise healthy plants.

So PLEASE! Stop saying these things are harmless. They are not. They kill plants. Just because they don't kill yours does not mean they are not killing everyone else's. Yours in not the only garden on the planet.


    Bookmark   April 21, 2013 at 11:17AM
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There are people that have spent a considerable amount of time studying these arthopods that are telling you that they are pretty harmless, not just me. There are, apparently, many people that either do not ever read or simply ignore what is written by people that study insects and have advanced degrees and knowledge about them that state these arthopods are pests.
Using poisons to control these things says that you are not nearly as smart as they are and cannot figure out how to control them any other way.

    Bookmark   April 22, 2013 at 7:10AM
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If the people studying these arthropods think they are harmless, they are wrong and need to give their grant money back. They could save a whole lot of time if they come to my house one night around 10:00 PM and watch the damage as it happens. If it helps, I can take some pictures and email them to them. It's extremely clear to me what is happening and my degree is in IT.

I've done the research too and read the same things you did. I spent countless hours looking for cutworms as the damage fit the description to a T. I thought a cutworm was cutting my plants down and the pill bugs were devouring them dead plant. It wasn't until I saw them eating the base of the plant that I realized that cutworms were not my problem. I've also seen them eat the primary growth stem from the top, effectively killing the plant. Sometimes, they just eat all the leaves off the plant. I've lost about eight garden bean starts to these guys. I see where they came up as there is nothing left but a green stem. And, again, I watched the damage as it happened. There was nothing I could do. I could have picked them off, but there are thousands of these things. I have better things to do than stay up 24 hrs a day picking pill bugs off my bean starts.

    Bookmark   April 22, 2013 at 9:51AM
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I just made the startling discovery that they will eat crops if provided with the right conditions. I have landscape cloth down in one of my gardens with wheat straw on top of that. I cut and x in the landscape cloth where I wanted to put my crops (corn, beans, and members of the squash family all together) and planted the crops. I put the flaps of the x back in their original positions to help keep the soil moist. I didn't think this would cause a problem, because I hadn't seen any signs of slugs in this area. This evening at dusk, I was inspecting the seedlings, and I saw something I never expected to see. There were swarms of sow bugs and pill bugs all over the bean seedlings, and some of the cucumber and cantaloupe leaves and stems. And they were definitely eating the plants.

I moved the flaps back away from the seedlings, allowing a foot or so of bare ground where the plants are, and they seemed to clear out. Hopefully that will solve the problem, but I will put down some diatomaceous earth around the plants if that doesn't work.

    Bookmark   June 17, 2013 at 9:02PM
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