Woodlice, often mistaken as pests, are fascinating creatures that play a dual role in our gardens. While they are beneficial in breaking down organic matter and enriching the soil, overpopulation can sometimes be a cause for concern. This guide aims to shed light on these misunderstood crustaceans, offering insights into their nature and if there are too many, how to get rid of woodlice from our gardens.
What Are Woodlice?
Woodlice, colloquially known as pill bugs, roly-polies, or potato bugs, are not insects but crustaceans. This places them in the same category as shrimp, crabs, and lobsters. Unlike their aquatic relatives, woodlice have adapted to terrestrial life, making gardens and damp environments their home. Their segmented, armoured bodies, which can roll into a ball when threatened, are a distinctive feature. This ability to curl up has earned them the name “roly-polies.” Their primary diet consists of decaying plant matter, making them essential players in the garden’s decomposition process. However, it’s this very diet that sometimes brings them into conflict with gardeners, especially when they nibble on young plants or seedlings.
Where Do Woodlice Live?
Woodlice have a strong preference for damp, dark environments. Their crustacean nature means they require moisture to breathe, making them different from insects. Here’s where you’re most likely to find them:
- Under Stones and Bricks: These provide cool, moist conditions for woodlice to thrive in.
- Within Compost Heaps: The decaying organic matter is both a food source and a perfect habitat.
- Beneath Plant Pots: The moisture trapped under pots creates an ideal refuge.
- Inside Rotting Wood: As the name suggests, woodlice are often found in decaying wood, aiding in its breakdown.
How Do Woodlice Behave?
Woodlice exhibit intriguing behaviours that are shaped by their need for moisture and their role as decomposers:
- Nocturnal Activities: Woodlice are primarily active during the night. This nocturnal behaviour helps them avoid dehydration from the sun and reduces the risk of predation.
- Moulting in Two Halves: Unlike many creatures, woodlice moult in two stages. First, the back half sheds, and a few days later, the front half follows. This unique process allows them to remain somewhat protected during this vulnerable time.
- Rolling into a Ball: When threatened, many woodlouse species can curl into a tight ball, protecting their soft underside. This behaviour is not just a defensive mechanism but also helps in retaining moisture.
- Scavenging Diet: They primarily feed on decaying organic matter, but when food is scarce, they might nibble on young plants, which can be a concern for gardeners.
How Long Do Woodlice Live?
The lifespan of woodlice is influenced by various factors, including environmental conditions and predation. Here’s a breakdown of their life stages and duration:
- Egg Stage: After mating, female woodlice carry their eggs in a special pouch called a marsupium. The eggs remain here for several weeks before hatching.
- Juvenile Stage: Once hatched, the young woodlice resemble miniature adults but are white and more translucent. They undergo several moults, gradually increasing in size and gaining their characteristic colour.
- Adult Stage: As adults, woodlice continue to moult, albeit less frequently. On average, woodlice live for 2 to 4 years, although this can vary based on species and environmental factors.
Are Woodlice Good for Gardens?
In general and in normal population sizes, woodlice can be very good for gardens and they play several beneficial roles:
- Decomposers: Woodlice feed on decaying organic matter, aiding in the decomposition process. This helps in recycling nutrients back into the soil.
- Soil Aeration: As they move through the soil, woodlice help aerate it, promoting root growth and improving water infiltration.
- Natural Food Source: They serve as a food source for various predators, including birds, frogs, and some insects, promoting biodiversity.
- Indicator of Moisture Levels: A high population of woodlice might indicate overly damp conditions, guiding gardeners to areas that might need better drainage or less watering.
While they have these beneficial roles, it’s essential to strike a balance. If their population becomes too large, they might start feeding on young plants, which can be detrimental to gardens.
Is Too Many Woodlice a Bad Thing?
While woodlice play a beneficial role in gardens, too many woodlice can be a bad thing and lead to some challenges:
- Plant Damage: In large numbers, woodlice might start feeding on young plants, seedlings, and soft fruits, causing potential harm to your garden.
- Indication of Moisture Issues: A significant increase in woodlice can be a sign of excessive moisture in certain areas of your garden. This can be due to poor drainage, overwatering, or other factors.
- Aesthetic Concerns: Some gardeners might find a large number of woodlice unsightly, especially if they start invading patios, sheds, or homes.
How to Get Rid of Woodlice?
Below are 4 ways to get rid of woodlice from the garden. These are all-natural methods to manage their population effectively:
1 – Diatomaceous Earth
What is it? Diatomaceous earth is a natural powder derived from the fossilised remains of tiny, aquatic organisms called diatoms.
- How it works: The microscopic sharp edges of diatomaceous earth cut through the exoskeleton of woodlice, causing them to dehydrate and eventually die.
- Application: Sprinkle diatomaceous earth around areas where you notice a high concentration of woodlice. Ensure the powder remains dry for maximum effectiveness.
2 – Lavender Oil
Why Lavender? Woodlice are repelled by certain scents, and lavender is one of them.
- Preparation: Mix a few drops of lavender essential oil with water in a spray bottle.
- Application: Spray the lavender solution in areas frequented by woodlice. Not only will it deter them, but it will also leave a pleasant aroma in your garden.
3 – Natural Predators
- Who are they? Birds, frogs, and ground beetles are natural predators of woodlice.
- Benefits: Encouraging the presence of these predators in your garden can help regulate the woodlice population naturally.
How to attract them? Install bird feeders, create a small wildlife pond for frogs, and avoid using chemical pesticides that might harm beetles.
4 – Garden Maintenance
- Decaying Plant Matter: Woodlice are attracted to decaying organic material. Regularly remove such matter from your garden to reduce their food source.
- Drainage: Ensure your garden has proper drainage. Puddles and overly moist areas are attractive to woodlice.
- Watering: Avoid overwatering your plants. Water in the early morning so the sun can dry out the soil during the day, making it less hospitable for woodlice.
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When Is It Time to Seek Professional Help for Woodlice?
While natural remedies and preventive measures can be effective, there are rare situations where professional intervention might be necessary:
1 – Severe Infestation
- Signs: If you notice large clusters of woodlice in multiple areas of your garden or inside your home, it’s a sign of a severe infestation.
- Damage: When the damage to plants and seedlings becomes noticeable and widespread.
2 – Recurring Infestations
- Persistent Issue: If, despite all measures, woodlice keep on returning in large numbers, it indicates an underlying issue that needs addressing.
3 – Health Concerns
- Allergies: Some people might be allergic to woodlice. If someone in your household is showing allergic reactions, it’s best to consult a professional.
- Disease: While woodlice aren’t known to transmit diseases, they might be indicative of damp conditions which can lead to mould growth, a health concern.
4 – Expertise
- Identification: Professionals can accurately identify the species of woodlice and their habits, leading to more effective treatment.
- Treatment: They have access to treatments that might not be available to the general public, ensuring a more comprehensive solution.
Should We Use Chemical Treatments for Woodlice?
No, chemicals should not be considered when dealing with woodlice in the garden for several reasons:
- Environmental Impact: Chemical treatments can have detrimental effects on the environment. They can harm beneficial insects, disrupt the natural balance of the garden ecosystem, and even contaminate soil and water sources.
- Health Concerns: Many chemical pesticides contain toxins that can be harmful to humans and pets. Exposure, whether through inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact, can lead to various health issues. Especially in gardens where children and pets play, the risks associated with chemical treatments are too high.
- Effect on Beneficial Organisms: While targeting woodlice, chemical treatments can also harm beneficial organisms like earthworms, ladybugs, and bees. These organisms play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy garden, aiding in pollination, soil aeration, and natural pest control.
- Resistance Development: Over-reliance on chemical treatments can lead to woodlice developing resistance. This not only makes the chemicals ineffective over time but might also lead to an even more challenging pest problem in the future.
In our quest to get rid of woodlice in the garden, it’s essential to recognize their beneficial role in the ecosystem. These creatures, often perceived as pests, are vital players in maintaining soil health and promoting decomposition. While it’s understandable to want to get rid of woodlice from the garden when their numbers grow large, it’s crucial to approach the issue with a balanced and informed perspective. Natural remedies and preventive strategies are the best courses of action, ensuring that we don’t harm the environment or disrupt the ecological balance. By understanding and respecting the role of every organism, including woodlice, we can create gardens that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also ecologically sound.
Garden Doctor Tips
“Keep areas dry, woodlice need moisture on their underside, so they seek out damp spots!”
“Woodlice love your compost pile and are part of the healthy flora and fauna in your garden!”
“It is best to let potted plants that are already infested dry out completely for a short time and the woodlice will move on!”
“Do NOT use poison on woodlice – poisons will do more harm than good to the ecosystem and can even get into water supplies!”
Frequently Asked Questions
Are woodlice vermin?
No. For the garden, woodlice are important soil conditioners that keep beds clean. If woodlice appear in very large populations, they should be attracted and relocated.
Can woodlice bite?
No, woodlice don’t bite. Their feeding tools are not suitable for penetrating human skin.
Do woodlice transmit diseases?
Woodlice do not transmit diseases to humans, animals or plants.
Are woodlice protected?
Woodlice occur in large numbers worldwide and are not under protection in the UK.
What attracts woodlice into the house?
A larger population of woodlice in the house can be an indication of excessive humidity. Close basement windows with fly screens and do not store fruit or vegetables open. Gaps and cracks in walls and floors should be sealed.
Can I vacuum woodlice?
It is not recommended to vacuum up the woodlice with a vacuum cleaner, since the animals will find more than enough food in the bag to continue to multiply there.
Trevor Wright is not just a seasoned horticulturist; he’s the esteemed Garden Doctor. With a BSc in Horticulture and years of hands-on experience in the soil, Trevor has become a trusted mentor for all things gardening. As the founder of Garden Doctor, he’s committed to clarifying the intricacies of gardening, offering straightforward advice that’s rooted in years of practice. His writing is a garden of how-tos, savvy insights, and comprehensive guides that enable individuals to nurture and grow their garden dreams. When he’s not knee-deep in garden beds, Trevor is at his keyboard passing on his green-thumbed wisdom to budding gardeners, ensuring that the legacy of sustainable and joyful gardening blossoms far and wide.