Green Space: Sow bugs are not your enemy

Jim Hillibish

Pick up a rock or a pile of old leaves, or dig in your compost heap. You’ll see them. They look like mini armadillos, and they even act like them.

Sow (or pill) bugs are Ma Nature’s great digestive system. They eat all the dead stuff –– leaves, sticks, weeds, kitchen waste –– that we collect for our compost heaps. What’s left is compost.

When they are afraid, they roll up into a protective ball. A lot of you take one look and reach for the bug spray. But this is one time when an insect is not our enemy.

These guys suffer a bad reputation — “yicky,” says my neighbor. If you understand them, you may not welcome them, but you may not murder them, either.

Sows are the great scavengers. They live only in areas of high humidity. They won’t touch a pile of dry leaves. But add a little water, and they will boost the rotting process.

They often do their work at night when temperatures are cool and the dew is forming. We only see them when we disrupt their habitat.

Sow bugs are constant feeders. To maintain a colony, you must have dead, wet material. Otherwise, they bug out to richer climes. Compost heaps are perfect homes for them.

If enough dead matter isn’t around, some sows will attack plants. I’ve only seen this once in 30 years of gardening. Then I read that sow-bug plant damage mostly occurs in the South. Up North, they are benign, actually our friends.

You probably have sow bugs if you’re into container plantings. They adore that moist circle under the pot and eat the microorganisms that filter out. If this bothers you, move the pot away, and they will march off.

I got an email from a reader who feared they would infest her house. They could care less about that. Sow bugs only go where there’s rotting plant material.

These are remarkable creatures, directly related to shrimp, crawfish and other water crustaceans. They are closer to anthropoids than insects. Amazingly, they still breathe with the gills of their ancient predecessors. They are a living fossil.

These do us a big favor. It took me a while, but I like them, secure in the idea they are out there all night, munching my heap into compost.