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We have a lot of pill bugs in our vegetable garden and strawberries. How can we get rid of them?

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Pillbugs and sowbugs are relatives of insects that live in moist soil and similar habitats.  They are primarily detritivores (break down decaying organic matter); however, they can be pests of certain plants and fruits, especially strawberry and cantaloupe fruits.

You will not be able to "get rid" of sowbugs because they are numerous and actually contribute to healthy soils; however, to minimize their negative effects to fruits and vegetables in your garden here are a few tips:

  • Use a straw, plastic, cardboard, carpet, landscape fabric, or other type of mulch under your strawberries, cantaloupes, and other fruits and vegetables that tend to sit on or contact the soil as they ripen.  The mulch will create a barrier between the soil where the sowbugs live and the ripening fruits.
  • Reduce soil moisture as the fruits ripen.  Sowbugs require moist soil to survive, so they will not live where the soil isn't moist enough to support them.  By cutting back on irrigation as the fruits and vegetables ripen you can deter the attraction of sowbugs to the area.  You don't want to drought-stress your plants, but keep the surface soil from being too moist.
  • Some insecticides, such as carbaryl (Sevin) and permethrin (many brands) are harmful to sowbugs; however, as the fruits approach maturity you do not want to apply an insecticide too close to harvest.  Check the label of insecticides registered on the garden crops of interest for the required time between application and harvesting the produce (this is called the pre-harvest interval).

Generally, cultural management practices, such as mulches and soil moisture management are the most effective in preventing sowbugs from becoming a problem in your garden.

Here are a few links to web pages with information on sowbugs and their management:
http://www.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef439.asp
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodlouse
http://insects.tamu.edu/fieldguide/cimg377.html
http://www.ipm.iastate.edu/ipm/iiin/sowbus.html
http://www.ext.colostate.edu/PUBS/insect/05552.html

Posted on 9 Jul 2008

Diane Alston
Hort-Entomologist Specialist

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