Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.
As a child, I thought the common pill bug, Armadillidium vulgare, was cute, even fun. No teeth. No stinger. No creepy-crawly long legs. Perfect bug for a child, right? They do seem very docile. When disturbed, they either scatter like crazy or roll up in a tiny gray defensive ball. That is, if it is the actual pill bug and not the sow bug.
Pill Bugs vs Sow Bugs
Sow bugs are incapable of rolling into a ball. The child in me prefers the pill bug. The adult in me could care less which kind it is — I no longer find them cute or fun. Adult gardening has a way of changing one’s view of the world.
Sow bugs really are amazing and if the little buggers would leave my strawberries and tender new seedlings alone, I would not give them another thought. Did you know these little bugs are really not insects at all but crustaceans?
I kid you not, they are members of the subphylum Crustacea. (Subphylum is the rank below phylum in zoological taxonomy. Although I find it fascinating, not everyone shares my geekyness, so I will refrain from further elucidation lest I make this my first and last blog post).
Other members of this subphylum are crabs, shrimp, lobsters, krill, and even barnacles – all marine arthropods. Which explains why these guys are dependent upon a moist environment to breathe through their gill-like structures. However, if submerged in water they will drown (note to self).
Identifying Pests in the Strawberry Patch
This whole foray into potato bug bedlam* started recently when I went to glean some tasty treats from my strawberry patch. I have the plants situated along a southernish-facing retaining wall that makes picking very easy. All except for one ripe strawberry had been maimed by these little crustacean tanks.
The first time I noticed any blemishes on my beautiful red bites of heaven was only a few days before when they first started coming on. I assumed it was birds, because the few marred berries were right up front and in plain view.
I soon found out my assumption was completely wrong. Each berry I went to pick had a divot that was occupied with at least one potato bug (the colloquialism I grew up with). More often than not, multiple adult invaders were there with their little baby destroyer tanks.
Now, I don’t mind sharing a little of my garden’s bounty with the fauna of our beautiful earth, but when they start taking advantage of my kind heart, I take great offense. In the meantime, I also figured out they were eating holes in the bases of emerging vegetable stems, especially my poor cukes.
My mood became dark. I was on a mission.
Natural Strawberry Pest Management
Sure it is easy to just buy chemicals and kill them (but then it becomes more than just my annoyances, aka collateral damage). I, however, prefer to use natural means for pest control. Off to the Internet and Google search, where I found many informative pieces telling me how these evolved marine arthropods only consumed decaying vegetation and controlling them simply required removing mulch.
What?! That is crazy talk. Mulch helps me keep weeds down, retain soil moisture, and maintain a more even soil temperature. Not. Helpful. Plus, I knew they were missing the boat on the other things on the tater-bug menu. I kept searching and reading.
Some said bury tuna cans or similar so the rim was level with the soil level and then fill with cheap beer (one of my English Springer Spaniels would make a quick business of emptying them all, rendering this mode useless).
Another suggested a thoroughly dampened, rolled-up newspaper. I finally settled on trying the newspaper and putting some pieces of fruit out that I normally would give to my worm bin. I chose an apple that I quartered and laid the pieces flesh-side-down amongst my strawberry plants. I did this just before dusk.
The next morning, I pretty much ran out the back door with a girlish anticipation while my coffee was brewing to check on my interventions. Newspaper: Zero. Apple pieces: Eureka!
Now, this method requires a quick hand to deliver a death blow of some kind, but it works. Each morning since, I have found fewer and fewer tater bugs.
I do have to say there was one point where I hesitated killing those cute little babies, but one look at another ruined strawberry bolstered my mission. I reminded myself that I am only trying to eradicate them in areas they cause damage. They are more than welcome to inhabit my compost pile or the mulch under my rhododendrons, viburnums, hostas, azaleas, and other shrubs.
They and their slug buddies are prohibited from any strawberry, new seedling zones, any veggies or flowers (and slugs are most definitely banned from anywhere near my hostas). It’s like I tell the spiders how they are outside-only friends. Once inside the house, the gloves come off.
Facts about Pill Bugs
Funny things I learned while researching how to control my tater bug problems:
Pillbugs don’t pee. They can easily tolerate ammonia gas created from waste conversion and actually can pass this gas through their exoskeleton. I am so grateful this is limited to tater bugs.
Not only can they drink through their anus, they eat their own poop. Pill bugs can literally drink through both ends. Yes, you read that correctly, they eat their own poop but unlike you dog, their reason is pretty legit.
When a pill bug poos, it loses copper, something essential to its existence. In fact, their blood has hemocyanin (copper ions, unlike our hemoglobin, which contains iron ions). Because of this hemocyanin, they are true blue bloods. Eating its own poo provides a source of this element. Who knew pill bugs were little royal recyclers?
I am very interested in hearing how others deal with this problem, so please share in the Comments section below.
* The meaning here is that of a scene of uproar and confusion. Equally apropos is the archaic definition, meaning an institution for the care of mentally ill people.
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