Tuesday, March 25, 2008
The Pill "Bug" Debate
I’ve only—bless my lucky stars—found one garden snail in three years. I plucked it yesterday off the base of a sculpture in my garden that was awash with eight-inch tall, moist miner’s lettuce. Where was he hiding all the past years? Where are the rest of them? I bet he can’t be a bachelor. (This is the snail that escaped from an “escargot farm” after being introduced to California in the 1800s—not the rarely-seen native snail.)
But the sow bugs and pill bugs are now out in full force this spring.
Consider the lowly sow bug (they don’t curl up and have two tiny tails) or the cute pill bug pictured above, also called rollie-pollies—actually Isopods, the only land crustacean related to the lofty crab and lobster. These innocent little critters are beginning, once again with the advent of spring, to be falsely accused in the gardeners’ court-of-law. All kinds of people ask me how to kill, with safe methods, these "nasty bugs who are devouring everything in my garden”. I have to gently tell them that these particular critters may have been falsely incriminated by circumstantial evidence. If Perry Mason were still alive to represent these small, helpless creature in a gardener's court of law, they may be exonerated.
Although one gardener friend saw a pill bug eat a flower bud of a pansy. And a friend says, in greenhouses and young seedlings in flats where it can be very moist, pill bugs may be so abundant that they damage young plants. I asked Richard Merrill (my organic gardening “guru” with over 25 years of teaching organic gardening) about this and he responded “isopods prefer decaying organic matter... or rather more accurately they prefer the microbes of decay on the organic material. If they are without water and exposed to new seedlings, isopods will eat them also, but this is rather rare.”
So maybe it’s not beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Some commercial chemical compounds used by the uninformed to “eradicate” pill and sow bugs contain diazinon, a very toxic poison that is rated as equally toxic as the infamous DDT, And, according to the Rachael Carson Trust, is a suspected teratogen (causing birth defects in the next generation).
Pill bugs are part of nature's important decomposing cycle. That is, these “bugs” are usually eating mostly on moist rotten, decayed, dead, and decomposing plant tissues. Some other creatures, such as the nasty Mr. Slug, Mr. Snail, or Mr. Earwig, do the initial damage to the plant and the unsuspecting and opportunistic pill bug comes in to take advantage of the very first bits of rot, is falsely accused—and thus, is innocently killed.
Take strawberries as a wonderful example. As gardeners, we might awaken in the morning to find a pill bug neatly rolled up within a cavity so neatly carved within the largest, most gorgeous strawberry in the garden. If we were to actually reconstruct the "crime", what probably occurred was that herd of tiny slugs mounted a midnight raid of the berry patch, chewing tiny caverns in each berry. The very first tiny bits of oxidized-rot and decay sent (actually, scent) out a signal to the pill bugs that a new taste-treat of succulent decay was available. The pill bugs climb into these "condominiums" of repast and proceed to feast away. The sun slowly rises as the slimy villains, the slinky slugs, slither back into dark, dank hiding places, places that are not where they just got done feasting. The pill bugs, with carefree abandon, colonize the holes formally carved by other pests. The gardener finds the pill bug at the scene of the crime and inflicts a form of instant, shameless justice. Again Richard Merrill, “I have tried in vain to see isopods eat strawberries. I have seen slugs eat them (nocturnally) and then when the isopods become active, they seek out the holes in the berries for water.”
The "solution" I try to take, is not to try to eradicate sow and pill bugs. But I’m fortunate that I can mulch my perennials with turkey manure mixed with rice hulls and still allude these troublesome critters.
To reduce the populations of pill and sow bugs around her raised boxes of vegetables (as well a slugs, earwigs, and “escargot”) a friend maintains bare soil with no mulch and very little organic matter or fiber on its surface for four feet or more in all directions.
Plant only the most healthy and vigorous transplants (the pill bugs eat on the very first tiny bits of rotten tissue when a seedling has minute amounts of damage from mildew, rust, and damping-off) into warm, dry, and bare garden soil. Then flood flats and pots in a bucket of water to flush out pill bugs.
I think because my ornamental garden is never irrigated in the summer; I don’t have many slugs, snails (except the "Lone Ranger"), or earwigs. Lucky me!
But there are the pill bugs eating mulch and the decaying weeds I’ve pulled up.
Please comment – I’d like to know what you think.
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