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Pill bugs should be seen as a beneficial garden guest

The pill bug is not the rock star of the garden. Rarely mentioned at all, the pill bug is not a bug at all but rather a crustacean. Pill bugs are the only crustacean that can live outside of water. Different gardeners have varied opinions of this small gill-breathing creature known to the scientific community as an isopod.

The pill bug has three body parts, the head, thorax and the abdomen. Pill bugs have a prominent pair of antennae and seven pairs of legs. Male and female pill bugs can be distinguished by the leaf-like pouches found on the underside of females. These are used to carry eggs and developing embryos.

Pill bugs are often mistaken for sow bugs. Sow bugs canít roll themselves up in a perfect little ball like pill bugs can.

Pill bugs can do some damage in the garden, specifically to young, newly planted transplants, but are rarely a problem where well-established plants are concerned. Pill bugs spend most of their time eating dead and decaying material in the garden. This is usually considered a good thing. My garden is full of them and my compost pile even more so.

The natural role of the pill bug is to eat dead and decaying things so they are actually helping things along in the compost pile. If you think pill bugs are eating your garden because you see them quite often, it may be the sneaky slug coming out after dark doing the damage.

Pill bugs seek out moisture. A well-watered garden will be very appealing to them. Watering in the morning can keep populations under control as the soil surface will have a chance to dry out before the pill bugs become active at night.

Despite their nocturnal behavior, I see pill bugs active in my garden all the time.

Pill bugs are not native to North America and, like most things, were introduced to the region when Europeans showed up. Genetic testing, if you can imagine someone actually doing that, shows that pill bugs probably entered the United States in the early part of the 19th century via the lumber trade in the Mississippi River and St. Lawrence River routes.

Modern modes of transportation have allowed them to colonize most parts of the nation by hitching rides on trucks, trains and the occasional automobile stuffed full of potted plants.

Despite their lack of threat in the garden, many people simply donít want them around and will resort to pesticide use in order to decrease their numbers. Consider that pesticides kill good and bad creatures before you unleash the poison.

To naturally get rid of pill bugs without harming beneficial earthworms, you can sprinkle diatomaceous earth on the soil surface or directly on the pill bugs. Found in most garden stores, diatomaceous earth is awesome, to say the least. It is made up of the fossilized remains of one-celled algae called diatoms. When ingested, the diatomaceous earth causes the innards of the pill bugs to be shredded. Itís unsavory but effective.

If you donít mind the wee buggers in the garden, just ignore them, and know they serve a purpose in the cycle that is nature.

Like earthworms, snails and millipedes, pill bugs return organic matter to the soil where it is further digested by fungi, protozoa and bacteria, making available nitrates, phosphates and other vital nutrients available to plants.

Rather amazing, pill bugs can take in heavy metals that have contaminated soils from coal mining and other man-made disturbances of the earth. They promote restoration by accelerating the formation of topsoil, which in turn allows other plants to grow.

To read more Avant Gardener, visit Kyle at www.TuscBargainHunter.com.

Published: November 29, 2011
New Article ID: 2011711299965