Pill bugs, or you might know them as roly-poly bugs, have been around for lots and lots of years and have been a pest to many a potted plant in their time. While the name can seem cute and harmless, these little bugs can come in large numbers and be quite a nuisance.
Pill bugs need constant moisture to breathe, which is supplied for them in regularly watered potted plants. If you have pill bugs in your potted plants, water your plants as little as possible to reduce moisture and wait a few days. The environment will be too dry for the pill bugs to survive.
Pill bugs are not harmful to humans and most of the time they cannot survive long in your home, however bugs of any kind in your home can be unsettling! Here are some things you can do about them.
What Is A Pill Bug?
The University of Florida explains that the pill bug goes by a few different aliases. You may hear it called the pill bug, roly-poly (my favorite name for it), woodlouse, and for all those scientifically correct folks: Armadillidium vulgare.
Pill bugs got their names from their reaction to disturbances. They roll up into a ball (i.e. “roly-poly”) but when they do this, they kind of look like a pill, therefore, pill bugs. When they are called woodlouse, it is because they live under dead wood logs primarily.
Part of the isopod family, pill bugs are insects who only live on land. These insects need plenty of moisture to survive, and they are fond of damp, dark living conditions. They came here from Europe and now live all over the world.
Pill bugs like to sleep all day and party all night, so they are nocturnal creatures. During the daytime, they burrow themselves far under soil or foliage to stay out of the light. This can be an issue because if they are in a garden or potted plant, they might eat the roots of the plant during the day if they wake for a “midnight” snack.
These bugs are great for outdoor life and reduce carbon by a large amount when in wooded areas like forests by munching up the extra decaying matter. They are seen as environmentally helpful if you will.
These little pill bugs are gray or brown and they are usually about ½ an inch long. They are oval-shaped and have 2 sets of antennas with 7 sets of legs. They have 7 plates along their back that overlap to make rolling up into a ball easy for them.
Pill bugs can live anywhere for 2-5 years, which is quite a long time for insects.
According to City Bugs, these little bugs can wreak havoc when they have eggs (which are called a brood) in the summer or springtime. Pill bugs can have up to 80 eggs per brood, with a low average of 30. So many eggs coming from one singular bug means when you have one, there is a good chance you have multiple.
It is common to have had a brood hatch outside your home if you have a pill bug problem. Pill bugs commonly will not lay eggs inside a home, but near a home is a different story.
Pill bugs like dark and humid places to stay, so when they are outside, they live in places like dead leaves, under rotting logs, in mulch, and under rocks.
The University of Kentucky says these bugs are not harmful to you. They do not inflict any sort of attacks like biting or stinging and they do not eat your clothes or eat your food. These pests scavenge for debris and decaying matter.
Pill bugs, however, can end up feeding on younger plants or roots when given the chance or if they are away from their preferred habitat.
Pill bugs are predictable. They will always be most active at night and then burrow during the day when the light is out, and it is warmer. They do not enjoy the heat but love the damp nature of soil and foliage.
They are so reliant on water, sometimes they will roll up into balls because this way they retain water and moisture into their bodies better. They just cannot tolerate being dry or living in a dry environment.
11 Ways To Remove Pill Bugs From Your Potted Plants
If you have pill bugs inside your potted plants, chances are you probably have a very inviting environment for them outside your house and they were living closely outside your home and found a way in.
Wait Them Out
Pill bugs will not survive more than a few days on average inside of your home simply because they will not have enough moisture. If you have pill bugs, wait a few days to see if the problem fixes itself from lack of moisture on its own before moving on to different solutions.
Dry Them Out
You can try to speed this process up by watering your potted plants, only if you have to, early in the daytime, so by night when pill bugs come out, they are mostly dry and they will have to leave to find moisture.
Change the Soil in Your Potted Plants
You can also attempt to dry out your potted plants to help with this by changing the soil (do this outside) and refrain from watering your plants for a few days until the pill bugs leave. This is also a great way to get rid of pill bugs by itself. If you can get them out of the soil outside, the chances of them finding their way back before you can do preventative measures (discussed below) are slim.
Use The Potato Trapping Pill Bug Method
If the previous methods do not work, PNNL suggests you use a potato trap to remove them. You do this by taking a potato and creating a core in it and then gently placing the top of the core back into the potato, almost like a lid.
Then, you can put this either in the soil next to your plant or you can place it in a jar next to it with some inviting things on top and around it, like moist, dead leaves. When it is dark, you can remove these pill bugs when they go to the potato by vacuuming them up or by taking the jar outside.
Since pill bugs curl up as their defense mechanism, they are not likely to scurry when you turn on the light so you do not have to be worried about them running from you.
Increase the Heat Near Your Plants
You can turn on a heat lamp near your plants (if your plants allow it) to eliminate pill bugs. Pill bugs like damp and cool environments and, just like they cannot handle the dry conditions, warm conditions have adverse effects as well. If done correctly, this can even exterminate the insects.
You can even try just temporarily turning up the heat in your home for a few days. This might be uncomfortable for you, but it is extremely uncomfortable for pill bugs and they will scurry out to find a better spot to live. High temperatures can cause pill bugs to have their version of a heat stroke.
Plants Pill Bugs Dislike
There is a type of Japanese conifer tree that is great at repelling pill bugs, and you can get them for your home and even around your home if you live in the right conditions. This tree, cryptomeria japonica, grows to be quite large but can start indoors as long as it is in the sun often.
Make sure you keep this tree close to the sunlight because it is shade tolerant and for best results, give it fertilizer regularly. They can tolerate a partial shade, but it is not ideal. The more sun, the better for your new little pill-bug-repelling conifer tree.
Now, the next steps you can take to get rid of pill bugs happen outside. And to be honest, most of what you can do to get rid of them in your potted plants is to prevent them from coming into your house from the outside.
If you’d like a more repellent driven solution, take a look at our article: 9 Scents That Pill Bugs Hate (And How To Use Them) to learn more.
Get Rid Of Your Mulch and Debris
Next, you can make sure your home is not inviting pill bugs by removing all the things near your home they live in. Pill bugs love mulch, so if you have mulch surrounding your home, swap it out for stones or even just a coarser mulch. Lancaster suggests that by swapping out your mulch, you can get the pill bugs to move away from your house
You can also make sure to eliminate all debris from your home. Get it far away from your house. When I say debris, I mean things like leaves, fallen fruit or vegetables from trees, grass clippings, or anything a scavenger might find tasty.
Also, if you have a house plant with some dead or dying leaves hanging from it, do not be afraid to snip those and move them outside or to a compost bin. This way, your houseplant will be even more unappealing.
Compost Away From The House
Compost bins (inside and outside) can be a hotspot for pill bugs. It is their ideal living environment, damp, not super warm, and lots of decaying and composting matter to feast on. If you can, move compost away from your home and if you cannot, make sure it has a tight lid and is pill bug proof.
If you are looking for a sturdy, sealed compost bin, the Miracle-Gro Small Composter – Compact Single Chamber Outdoor Garden Compost Bin might be for you. It holds almost 28 gallons (105L) of compost and has a tight seal. It is also UV protected so you can compost safely year-round.
Use a Dehumidifier and Mop Up Extra Water
Minimize the moisture in your home. Use a dehumidifier or even some of the hanging bags used to soak up extra moisture if you do not have a dehumidifier. Make sure you read the instructions on these packets because although they are typically non-toxic, you want to ensure pets and kiddos are safe at all times.
This SEAVON Dehumidifier is a fantastic choice! It has two modes, high-efficiency, and quiet sleep, to easily fit into your daily life. It also has an auto-off function to keep your mind at ease when you leave your home.
Mop up extra water, fix leaky faucets and make sure that places like bathrooms and crawl spaces do not have any water in them. Pill bugs love to hang out in places like your basement, where it is damp and dark and cold, so making sure you take care of the humidity in these specific spots is a great start.
Use a Trellis or a Fan
Outside, you can use a trellis to keep vining plants off of the ground to reduce moisture and you can use a fan indoors (and even outside if you have the capabilities) next to your potted plants to reduce moisture. If you can air out your situation (quite literally) and make it an uncomfortable environment for the pill bugs, they will head out.
Pill Bug Proof Your Home From the Outside
Even if you have done everything right to ensure pill bugs do not feel welcomed in your home, you can make sure you are not even giving them the chance to get inside your home. By making sure your home is not accessible, they will not have a chance at your potted plants.
IPM suggests you use caulk around doors and windows to make a tight seal so pill bugs can’t get in. Pill bugs are not actively looking to get inside your home because outdoors is much more of a welcoming environment for them.
When using caulk, make sure you read the instructions before using and ventilate if necessary to ensure the air quality is safe for you and your family and pets. Every brand is unique, but it is always best to read the instructions before beginning any project.
As said before, pill bugs are very predictable, so if they cannot find an easy means of entry, they will probably turn around and go back outside.
If you dislike the idea of using caulk, you can also use weather strips or door draft guards to make a tight seal around your doors and windows. This is a lot less hassle, but it might not be as effective in the long run against other insects.
Finally, you can make sure you turn off all outside lighting. Lights can attract pill bugs at night since they are nocturnal. If you turn those off during the nighttime, your house, again, will not be nearly as appealing and the dead or dying vegetation in your yard and your potted plants will be safe from harm.
Roll Along Now!
Pill bugs are not a major threat to your house or your health. As stated before, they do not bite or sting and they will not harm any of your clothes or your food, but they can be quite a bother to your potted plants.
By making sure your home is dry, warm, and all of your house plants are not overwatered, you are taking your best defense against these roly-poly bugs.
Also, ensuring that your house is not accessible through cracks and holes around the foundation, doors, and windows will help the defense against these pill bugs, too. The best thing you can do for your potted plants is to make your home unappealing to pill bugs.
Horváth, G., Garamszegi, L. Z., Bereczki, J., Urszán, T. J., Balázs, G., & Herczeg, G. (2019). Roll with the fear: environment and state dependence of pill bug (Armadillidium vulgare) personalities. The Science of Nature, 106(3-4).
Smigel, J. T., & Gibbs, A. G. (2008). Conglobation in the Pill Bug,Armadillidium vulgare, as a Water Conservation Mechanism. Journal of Insect Science, 8(44), 1–9.
Tan, T. L. (2020). Can individual life history strategy explain personality in the Pill Bug (Armadillidium vulgare)? (Doctoral dissertation, Deakin University).
MORISAWA, J., KIM, C.-S., KASHIWAGI, T., TEBAYASHI, S., & HORIIKE, M. (2002). Repellents in the Japanese Cedar,Cryptomeria japonica, against the Pill-bug,Armadillidium vulgare. Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry, 66(11), 2424–2428
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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