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Pill bugs vs. sow bugs


I grew up with pill bugs in our backyard.  When we played with these little land crustaceans, we called them rolly-pollies because they were able to curl up into a ball, and as a result, I tend to think of all woodlice as rolly-pollies.  However, when I looked into the topic, I learned that not only are the little critters in my compost pile sow bugs instead of pill bugs, they're also an invasive species brought over from Europe.  (But then, so are pill bugs!)

In case you feel the need to identify the invertebrates in your compost too, here's a quick primer.  Pill bugs (as I mentioned previously) can roll up into balls, and they also tend to have a blue tinge to their gray.  Sow bugs don't curl up, are browner gray, and generally have little tails visible sticking out from under their shell.  Both live in damp places, are largely nocturnal, and mostly eat decomposing matter (although some will also nibble on seedlings and ripening strawberries).

As a final word to the wise --- even though woodlice are crustaceans like lobsters and crabs, you might not want to eat them.  One scientist reports that woodlice taste like urine, but a few wildcrafters liken boiled woodlice to tiny shrimp.  I suspect the difference might be between pill bugs (which roll into a ball and thus don't produce many defensive chemicals) and sow bugs (which can't roll and thus do produce lots of noxious chemicals).  I'd be curious to hear firsthand reports from anyone who's eaten sow bugs and pill bugs --- does one taste good and the other bad?

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So do you pinch them dead with your fingers?
Comment by Maggie Fri May 16 22:37:24 2014
How (and why) did that guy know what urine tasted like?
Comment by doc Sat May 17 10:34:52 2014

Maggie --- My understanding is that you boil them, which kills and cooks them at the same time.

doc --- Good question. Maybe he meant they taste like urine smells? :-)

Comment by anna Sat May 17 10:43:49 2014
Thank you for this article. I used it for my reasearch paper for science and it was very helpful.
Comment by Anonymous Fri May 18 08:37:39 2018

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