October 12, 2004 > Pillbugs
by Pat Kite
Have you admired a pillbug lately? Perhaps you call it by another name: rolypoly, slater, sowbug, woodlouse, monkey pea or bibble bug. Gray armor-plated pillbugs got their name back before we had modern medicines for this and that. People would swallow them, in lieu of a tablet, perhaps first coating the pillbug with rabbit urine or some other yucky substance. The yuckier the substance, the heartier the cure. At least so it was believed.
Children like to poke pillbugs, watching them curl up in a ball. It's this habit that readily differentiates them from sowbugs, who otherwise look quite similar. Sowbugs can only hunch their shell when disturbed. But if you or the grandbabies really want to "know," peer through a magnifying glass. Sowbugs have a pair of small pointed tails sticking out from under the rear of their bodies.
Actually pillbugs aren't insects or bugs. They are relatives of the lobster, shrimp and other crustaceans. About 345,000 years ago, pillbug ancestors became able to live on land. Yet the pillbug still breathes through modified gills and the need for damp surroundings remains. That's why you see them hiding under rocks or garden vegetation. At night, when it's cool and damp, they come out to feed.
What do pillbugs eat? Anything soft and juicy: decaying leaves, overripe fruit, etc. In nature they are valuable scavengers.
Pillbugs travel from place to place on seven pair of walking legs. The armored plates of the female overlap underneath the base of her upper legs. This forms a pouch, something like a kangaroo's. In this go the 100 to 200 tiny eggs the female lays twice a year.
When the babies emerge, miniature versions of their parents, they remain in the fluid-filled brood pouch. A female with a full pouch moves around slowly in a humped position. If she's disturbed and must escape quickly, the armored plates making up the brood pouch separate and the babies are dumped on the ground. The immature young dry out quickly.
However if all goes well, the pillbug babies get to crawl out when ready. Within two days, they are the same size as their parents. They can live as long as three years if not snacked on by birds, frogs, bigger insects, etc., or chemically treated by people.
More environmentally aware control measures include removing flowerbed mulches, leaf litter, grass-clipping piles, fall fruit and dog droppings. Boards, boxes and other debris should be stored off the ground. Basically, you want to cut down on moisture-laden hiding places and a readily available food supply.
Grandchildren and encouraging grandparents can place a few pillbugs in a jar and study them. Fill a plastic container or glass jar 1/2-full of loose earth. Place a double layer of paper towels over the earth. The paper towels always must be kept wet. Don't forget. If you have a large enough container, you can half bury a small empty can on its side. Pillbugs will like this special hiding cave.
Put the pillbugs under the wet paper towels. Give your pillbugs some food. They like leftovers: a few potato peelings, carrot peelings, lettuce leaves or old garden leaves. Wash everything first, and don't overfeed, or you'll get a stinky container.
Now cover the container with cardboard. The cardboard should have air holes in it. Put a rock or something heavy on top of the cardboard so the pillbugs can't escape and make their home in your apartment.
Pillbugs got me started on garden insect writing. I watched them in my garden, became interested, researched a bit, and thought, "Wow, this is great. What else is there?"
Parents and Grandparents seeking an inexpensive way to introduce youngsters to practical science might look at pillbugs as a good beginning growth project. Be certain, of course, when the project is completed, to set the pillbugs free. Children like to do that too.