Being from New England, I can’t remember ever seeing a pill bug, or “rollie pollie,” until I moved south. When my son was about five years old, he was playing with some friends outside my apartment in Charleston. They were teaching him about “rollie pollies” – little dark gray insects that roll into a ball when you touch them. My son always hated insects, but he wasn’t afraid of these. In fact, he thought they were pretty cool. I found it interesting that these bugs were popular play things with the kids, but I never thought they had any particular benefit…until now.
It being winter (well, almost solstice time), and not having a garden at the moment, I’m spending my free time reading articles on gardening. When I saw one on “rollie pollies,” I was intrigued.
These critters are quite interesting. They’re actually not insects but crustaceans (relatives of lobsters and shrimp). They have seven pairs of legs, can live up to three years, and the females carry their eggs in sacks on their bellies, like marsupials. They are called pill bugs or woodlice. The nickname “rollie pollie” comes from their defense mechanism of rolling into a ball when threatened.
I’ve seen them around the homestead and in my raised beds. Again, knowing they weren’t bad, I didn’t worry about them in my garden. I just thought it curious they were there. Well, they absolutely love dark, moist places and feed on dead organic matter, so they are perfectly at home in the garden AND are a great benefit there.
Because they feed on organic matter, they increase the speed of decomposition, helping to turn the organic matter into soil faster. That’s a good thing because the process helps increase the bioavailability of nutrients in the soil, which helps our plants to grow. Many organic gardeners and farmers actually release pill bugs into their gardens and fields for this purpose. (The only caution is not to release large amounts of them while the plants are emerging and still seedlings. The pill bugs could munch on them.)
The other major benefit of “rollie pollies” in the garden is that they are a natural way to safely remove heavy metals from the soil. Toxins like lead, cadmium, and arsenic (among others) are not harmful to pill bugs. They take in those heavy metal ions and crystallize them in their guts. Then, the toxins are made into spherical deposits in their mid-guts. Releasing thousands of pill bugs can actually clean up large areas of toxic soil safely, while protecting the water table. If they can clean up such horrible byproducts of manufacturing, think what they are doing to help your garden soil.
Now that you’ve had your “who knew?” moment, like I have, be sure to look for these little creatures in your garden. And when you see them, give them a little nudge, watch them curl into a ball, and smile. They’re giving you good, clean soil for your plants.