Beneficial Bugs: Rollie Pollies aka Pill Bugs

Of the many bugs constantly crawling about rollie pollies are my daughter's favorite. And who doesn't love them? By gently scooting them with your finger they'll curl up into a ball that you can gently roll around, as if an armadillo had been transformed into a cute little bug. (Can you tell we're in Texas?) In piles of leaves or under a log, they seem to be anywhere that is cool, damp, and dark. But what the heck do they actually do?

Rollie pollies are extremely beneficial little crustaceans. Crustaceans? Yep! Crustaceans like shrimps or crabs. They're not even bugs at all. They also go by a few different names. Some call them pill bugs and others call them wood lice. Wood lice is a terrible name if you ask me because they're beneficial unlike the horrible head lice that pops to mind.

You can usually find them in places where plants are decomposing, such as under logs, because they are constantly nibbling away at dead, decaying organic matter. They're like little trashmen of the garden. And like any great composting insect, rollie pollie poop is great for the garden. They break down larger pieces of decaying plants so that the worms, fungi, bacteria, and protozoa that live in soil can further break it down to keep your soil rich and healthy.

But these little recycling crustaceans play an even bigger role than previously thought. Entomologists, or scientists who study bugs, have recently discovered that rollie pollies break down heavy metals in soil. There really is something for everything! 

It turns out that these minute crustaceans have specialized enzymes in their digestive system that crystallize heavy metal ions, such as arsenic, lead, and cadmium. So not only are they disposing of rotting plant material, but they're actually protecting our ground water from poisonous heavy metals. Next time you see one of these beneficial creatures be sure to say thank you! 

Rollie Pollies, Pill Bugs, Wood Lice, whatever you want to call them, they're extremely beneficial, extremely cute, and extremely social. They live in large colonies just like lady bugs or bees. They don't bite or sting, but please put them back gently after playing with them. Be careful, they tickle!



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