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Pill bugs: beneficial pruners or garden detestation?

 
pollinator
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I have been using a lot of wood chips as a soil conditioner. They work great for that purpose but at what cost? I now have a lot of pill bugs. Not a problem, or so I thought. They are just there to eat the dead or decaying chips, or diseased plants. Right? Maybe not. I have transplanted healthy plants only for them to be mostly eaten the next morning and completely gone the morning after. I’ve even transplanted into pots with sifted compost and wood chips as mulch with the same results. It’s to the point I want to scoop up the chips and use them as mulch around my trees or a garden path. But do I need too? What am I missing?
 
gardener
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I have seen many people here on Permies who were convinced that pill bugs ate their seedlings.  However...

All the solid-looking authorities I can find on the internet are in agreement that they overwhelmingly focus their diet on decaying plant material, turning to tender greenery only when they are close to starvation from lack of preferred (dead) foods.

I myself mulch with wood chips, my garden pots and containers and beds are full of pill bugs, and I have never seen one so much as touch (much less eat) a live plant.  I have been watching closely/intently for a couple of years now, because of (what I see as) the false accusation.

Thus I am, and remain, highly skeptical of the idea that pill bugs eat seedlings.  There are many other tiny creatures (various insects, leetle birds, and eensie rodents) who are, in my mind, more plausible candidates.
 
pollinator
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i suspect slugs in this kind of situation.
 
Scott Stiller
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Thanks Greg and Dan. I’ve used two kinds of compost this year. One is chicken compost that’s sifted and the other is something else 😂. It’s a mix of all kinds of wood chips, rabbit poop, grass clippings and coffee grounds. Everything I’ve planted in that compost has died. It’s absolutely loaded with life! The Most worms I’ve ever see, and pill bugs. I’m sure there’s more but that’s what I can see. Seeing bad results I put some in pots with seedlings and seed. The seeds never germinated and the transplants died in short order. The only insect I could see were the pill bugs. I agree with you as far as their normal diet and not something I’ve even been concerned about. Sticking with my normal compost and waiting another year on the other. Thanks guys!
 
gardener
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Scott,  are the items you mentioned in the second compost still recognizable?
 
Scott Stiller
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The only thing that’s recognizable is the wood chips.
 
Scott Stiller
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Red handed. Three year old healthy strawberry plant.
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Scott Stiller
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I’m guessing they have been wounded by a slug and the pill bugs were there just to finish off. I don’t know what’s up though. I am frustrated by a new onslaught of problems that I haven’t had since starting permaculture. I have never had slug issues until now and I see a lot of them. I now also have a ton of frogs, worms, garter snakes and pill bugs. I’ve always trusted the permaculture way of letting nature work things out. It took five years to grow a successful pumpkin or squash. I now have vigorous seed that no amount of squash bug pressure can derail. Thanks for all of your input and I welcome more thoughts.
 
master gardener
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I have seen pill bugs eating strawberries and the stems of bean plants. Because we also have slug and bird pressure, I can't prove that the slugs didn't start the process and the pill bugs didn't finish it, but I am quite sure that in my ecosystem, pill bugs can be a problem. One local grower's solution was to put a ring (he used sliced PVC pipe and I've been looking for a better alternative) which he wraps in duct tape with the sticky side out. The pill bugs get stuck to the tape before they get to his transplants. I was wondering if I could find a way to use tangle trap instead, as duct tape is made of polyethylene as the first layer, unspecified "fabric" as the middle level and rubber adhesive as the sticky part (according to the web). I am trying to decrease my use of plastics where I can (it's a slow process in a climate where everything natural rots sooner than I want it to!) That said, if the wood bugs got the tomato plants I just planted yesterday and protected from the slugs with a ring of crushed egg shell, I may break down and use plastic this year and work on alternatives for next year!
 
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Oh, I remember the 'pill bugs don't eat seedlings' conversations

My experience is that pill bugs DO eat seedlings.  I don't know if it's only under certain conditions or if there is some damage that leads them to the leaves but YES! pill bugs have eaten some of my seedlings.

I did not film them in action although my husband is a witness...and our son!  
They were actively up on the young leaves, chewing away...gobs of them


 
pollinator
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I have seen pill bugs on strawberries, but they are almost always working away in bites that look like they came from slugs, snails, birds, or weevils. I have also never seen them on strawberries without the other species present and clearly doing damage themselves.

I speculate this is another way that the "Paul Gautchi/Back to Eden Method" requires running the wood chips through a chicken and/or duck run before using in order to be fully successful. The chickens substantially reduce the starting population of pill bugs, as well as slugs and weevils. It would be an interesting experiment to run separate beds with chicken run woodchips vs unprocessed chips. I am doing one unscientifically in the food forest I manage remotely, where domesticated birds have not been practical to keep, vs my old property where most chips went through the chicken and duck run. I am seeing drastically higher slug/snail populations, as well as many more pill bugs (though those are mostly under larger woody debris).

I am trying to replace the chickens and ducks with wild birds and amphibians I provide habitat for on the site, and they are dramatically increasing with their songs all around to show for it, but the slugs and snails are still insane right now. I pulled 50lbs of terrestrial gastropods off 2000sq ft of hugel beds in one week! I was able to drop them at my friends' places who took on my old birds, but it is really hitting our greens harvest, and it feels like I have slugs tattooed to my eyelids at night. I am inclined to think the pill bugs are just finishing their leftovers. On the bright side, my birds loved them even more than slugs.
 
Scott Stiller
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I like what you’re doing there Ben. I will read your post several more times to make sure I take it all in.
The person all of this keeps me thinking about it is Masanobu Fukuoka. I’ve read that he viewed aphids as beneficial pruners for weaker plants. I’m hoping that’s what’s happening here.
Your idea of letting the chickens have their way with the wood chips is very smart. I will certainly do that next time.
 
Scott Stiller
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This is the first strawberry I’ve harvested this year. I’ve started putting any berry that’s approaching ripeness on cardboard. All of them are still intact. I have some plants in beds that are only mulched with shredded leaves. All of them are untouched without the cardboard. Definitely something in the wood chips. Hope this helps!
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Strawberry on cardboard.
Strawberry on cardboard.
 
pollinator
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I've long thought that pill bugs ate my bean plants. I'm going to try to be really observant this year.
 
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In my garden, slugs tend to be the destroyers of seedlings, but the pill bugs will go after damaged parts of the stressed plants.  I had pill bugs swarming over a poor nearly eaten squash plant a couple weeks ago, and initially thought they were the culprits.  Once I shoed them off I saw the slime trails though.  I think once plants get stressed enough it triggers the pill bugs to treat their wounds like decaying matter.  I do a slug walk through the garden at night a couple times a week, and it is pretty crazy the number of slugs that exist in a small, 25'x25' plot, and most of them are very well hidden in the daylight.

Pill bugs do go crazy over fruit if it gets even slightly bruised, though.  Many a fallen plum has been made less appealing looking by their chomping out of the bruised bits.
 
Scott Stiller
pollinator
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Yea, I could be wrong. I have never had a slug problem here. I’m not sure what’s going on or what to do about it.
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pollinator
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Before this spring I would have been right there with everyone insisting that kill bugs are mostly harmless. My home garden has tons of them around and I have never seen them cause any harm.

However, the farm I work at has had an insane pill bug outbreak this spring. I have personally witnessed them actively eating the leaves of young plants and they probably took out about 10% of two large greenhouses. They did target unhealthy transplants at first but once they really exploded they also have attacked otherwise healthy seeming plants. To be fair, the person in charge of our ipm (who has been replaced in part due to this situation) really dropped the ball and didn't implement any of our program really.

One other interesting observation that I don't have a solid explanation for, there are lots of slugs (and their attendant damage) in the home garden, there are approximately zero slugs out at the farm
 
gardener
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As a big wood chip proponent, I will also attest to the fact that the chips make a perfect home for pill bugs, and that yes, they do eat living plants.  Once the plants are a bit larger they tend to leave things alone, but they can wreak havoc on seedlings.

But I still think wood chips are the best thing for the garden since . . . sliced wood chips.

 
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