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November 14, 2007 > Garden



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. Armor-plated grayish pillbugs got their name back before modern medicines. People coated the pillbug with rabbit urine or some other yucky substance and swallowed it "gulp." Did it help? If I had to swallow a bug drenched in pee, I'd get well pretty darn quick.

Pillbugs and sowbugs, the two most common American names, are actually different. Poke a pillbug and it rolls up in a ball. Poke a sowbug, and it just hunches up. But otherwise, they pretty much look alike.

Actually pillbugs aren't insects or bugs. They are relatives of 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 needs a damp environment. 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, forming a pouch, something like a kangaroo's. Within the pouch 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 up by birds, frogs, bigger insects, etc., or chemically treated by people.

Children can do an easy pillbug study project by placing a few pillbugs in a jar. 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 quite damp. 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. The cover should have air holes. When finished watching their lifestyle, of course you let the pillbugs or sowbugs go free. Setting them free is a good lesson in our environmentally challenged world.

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