One summer when I was about 10 years old, I had two farms. One was a lizard farm, with a variety of lizards that I had captured and put in a big box. I had alligator lizards and blue bellies. That adventure ended when a lizard bit my mother on the finger. Goodbye, lizard farm.
I also had a pill bug farm. I put rocks in the middle of a large dish filled with water and put the pill bugs on their individual islands. That was when I first noticed that pill bugs carry their babies between their legs and under their shells. In both cases, I had not made arrangements to feed my pets and can't remember even thinking about that. I also raised tadpoles next to my bed and had a horny toad living in my closet.
I am now a Master Gardener and am still friends with lizards and pill bugs. Also known as roly-poly, sow bugs and wood louse, pill bugs have moved in to live with my worms and at times seem to outnumber them.
When I first started worm composting, the University of California published an article that said the manure or droppings of these creatures was just as nutritious for plants as worms castings. Worm castings are the worm “gold” you read about. Maybe you have purchased some to fertilize your plants. Worms eat 90 percent of the decaying plant material that you give them. Their resulting manure is a mild fertilizer with all the trace elements. Pill bugs eat the same things that worms do.
Pills bugs are not actually bugs. They are crustaceans, members of the same family as lobsters and crabs. They breathe through gills. They live in dark, moist areas and eat decaying material such as dried leaves, tea bags and banana peels. Occasionally they feed on the tender leaves of emerging plants and seedlings. For this reason, they are considered garden pests. But in the right place, they are not pests.
Some types of pill bugs cannot roll up into a ball when trying to defend themselves. These are the sow bugs. They are built a little differently in the shell area. Also, if you look carefully, you can see their tails. When they molt, only half of the shell comes off initially and then a few days later, the other half comes off. These shells look bluish rather than brown.
Pill bugs do not need a male to reproduce. They are self-fertile. The eggs take three to nine weeks to hatch, and a pill bug can lay eggs up to three times a year. The young spend several days in the mother's pouch and then go out on their own.
A pill bug’s predators are anything larger: frogs, toads, lizards and small mammals.
If you think your seedlings and young plants are under attack by these little creatures, then make sure you water in the morning so the soil surface is dry at night. That’s when pill bugs go out looking for their next meal. I read that you can trap them with a half cantaloupe, but I have found that quail and other birds are usually the ones nibbling on my seedlings.
Workshop: U. C. Master Food Preservers will teach a workshop on “Pickling and Fermenting” on Friday, July 14, from 10 a.m. to noon, at the UC Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Ave., Napa. Learn the basics of pickling and fermenting, understand the cautions involved in home food preservation, watch a demonstration of each process and discuss recipes easily managed by the home cook. Online registration (credit card only); Mail-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).