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Millipedes, Centipedes, Sowbugs & Roly-Polys—Friend or Foe?

Jun 09, 2011 -

                   
MillipedesCentipedesSow Bugs & Roly-Polys


Centipedes, millipedes, sowbugs, and pillbugs or roly-polys are unusual arthropods. Sowbugs and pillbugs are actually crustaceans (related to shrimp, crabs, and lobsters).

None of these pests transmit diseases to plants, animals, or humans. They don’t damage furnishings, homes, or food—but they can frighten people.

MILLIPEDES

Some folks confuse millipedes with centipedes. These two groups of many-legged, creepy-crawlies belong to different arthropod classes. The obvious differences:

  • *  Millipedes have 2 pairs of legs per segment, a feature that gave rise to its class name of Diplopoda.
  • *  Centipedes only have a single pair of legs per segment.
  • *  Millipedes are vegetarians while centipedes are carnivores.


Get a load of those legs

The name MILLIPEDE comes from the Latin word mille, meaning a thousand, and pedis, meaning foot. While these creatures do have a lot of legs, none actually have a thousand. There are lots of species (6,000+) and the number of legs varies considerably. One source says the highest number of legs known for any millipede is 710.

A millipede can live from 5 to 7 years. They are detrivores, which means they eat dead and decaying plant matter. These little beauties produce new legs almost every time they shed their exoskeletons. They give off a strong-smelling, stomach-irritating chemical when interfered with. If eaten they cause vomiting.

Being vegetarians, millipedes eat plant matter

Some feed on decomposing vegetation and fallen fruit while others will occasionally damage seedling plants by consuming stems and leaves. They eat all kinds of potatoes, flower bulbs, and tubers. They live in the garden in areas of moist mulch, compost, and lawn thatch. The females lay between 50 to 100 eggs a year and live for about 3 years.

Millipedes have a tendency to wander indoors in the late fall, in search of somewhere to overwinter.

BLACK MILLIPEDE (Tachypodiulus Niger) looks like a length of black, armoured pipe and coils stiffly like a watch spring.

SPOTTED MILLIPEDE (Blaniulus guttulatus) has a row of reddish spots along each side of its yellow body.

CENTIPEDES

Centipedes are worm like, with flattened bodies.  They belong to a group called Chilopods. Color can be brown, gray, red, or greenish-blue. with many body segments. Most of the body segments have one pair of legs. Centipedes are fast runners and may vary in length from 1 to 6 inches. They have one pair of antennae or “feelers” that are easily seen. Centipedes have poorly developed eyes and are most active at night. They are predators and feed mainly on insects and spiders.

Best rule of thumb? Never handle centipedes.

Centipedes do have the first pair of appendages modified into claws, which can inject poison through their venom glands, which they use to immobilize their prey. The larger centipedes can bite people and they emit an irritating fluid that can cause an allergic reaction.

Centipedes prefer moist, protected habitats

They are delighted with spaces under stones, rotted logs, leaves, or bark. They spend the winter as adults and lay eggs during the warm months. Indoors they may be found in closets and bathrooms where there is high humidity.

They usually lay 15-55 eggs clustered together, although the eggs of some species are laid alone. Eggs are usually laid in soil and covered by a sticky substance; they hatch soon after they are deposited. The female will usually guard the eggs and the newly hatched young. Young centipedes closely resemble the adults and require 3 years to mature. Centipedes may live up to 6 years.

SOWBUGS & PILLBUGS

Sowbugs and pillbugs (both also known as woodlice) are terrestrial crustaceans, and are related to lobsters, shrimp and crayfish. They are the only crustaceans that have adapted to living their entire life on land and they still have gills.

The habits, biology, and control of sowbugs and pillbugs are similar. Both animals are slow-moving, crawling arthropods. They need a moist environment and are most active at night. During the day they rest under trash, rocks, boards, decaying vegetation, or just beneath the soil surface.

Pillbugs roll up, sowbugs can’t

The main differences between a sowbug and a pillbug:

  • *  The sowbug possesses two tail-like appendages,  seven pairs of legs, and well-developed eyes. They are incapable of rolling into a tight ball.
  • *  Pillbugs or “roly-polys” lack the tail-like appendages and can roll into a tight ball or “pill” shape when disturbed.


In both species breeding can occur throughout the year in mild climates. The female carries the eggs in a brood pouch on the underside of her body, with up to 200 eggs per brood. The eggs hatch in 3 to 7 weeks and the young remain in the pouch another 6 to 7 weeks.  Some species produce only one brood per year, but others may produce 2 or more. Individuals may live up to 3 years.

What they eat

At night they venture out and feed on decomposing organic material. They will feed on the tender foliage, stems and roots of young garden vegetable transplants, seedlings, and bedding plants. They also rasp the outer skin of cucumbers lying on the ground in gardens,  causing fruit to be deformed and blemished.

Mainly a nuisance, pillbug and sowbug control in the garden is not always necessary, as they cause little harm to plants. In fact, most gardeners do not categorize them as pests, but think of them as beneficials for converting decayed vegetation into humus.

However, if you notice pillbugs or sowbugs feeding on tender seedlings, you can refer to our list of Plant Derived Insecticides for controlling them

ORGANIC GARDENING CONTROLS FOR MILLIPEDES, CENTIPEDES, SOWBUGS & PILLBUGS

Our Insect Dust contains diatomaceous earth, which is made up of thousands of little fossilized diatoms that just happen to be extremely sharp. Insect Dust works very well for killing millipedes, centipedes, sowbugs, AND pillbugs. When an insect wanders through the stuff, it is inflicted with numerous little cuts that cause it to dehydrate and die.

There are also plant-derived pesticide formulations with active ingredients such as d-limonene (citrus extract), rosemary oil, clove oil, thyme oil, or sesame oil.  Peaceful Valley products that work on these principles are Orange Guard, BugShooter, and Ecotrol.

Here are a few methods that can be tried to control millipedes, centipedes, sowbugs, and pillbugs in the garden organically without the use of pesticides:

  • *  Reduce moist areas in the garden where eggs overwinter.
  • *  Rake out old mulch under plants and replace it with fresh mulch or straw.
  • *  Move piles of leaves to a compost pile away from areas you want to keep insect free.
  • *  Aerate your lawn to reduce thatch that could provide a damp home.
  • *  Pour wood ash into their nest area to dry out soil and create an uninhabitable area. Be careful because a large amount of wood ash is toxic to your soil and garden.


Chickens are great biological control for millipedes, centipedes, sowbugs, and pillbugs, as well as a wide variety of other pests. Chickens are voracious eaters and spend most of their day wandering around looking for little moving critters they can eat.

MILLIPEDE TRAPS

Check out this site for a fascinating look at millipede trapping.

Step 1  Select a straight-sided and smooth-surfaced container.

Step 2  Select a site as close as possible to a garden light, or place a solar light next to the container.

Step 3  Dig a hole to accommodate the container, a little deeper than soil surface.

Step 4  Place the container in the hole.

Step 5   Mould earth around the lip, sloping down to container.

Step 6  Carefully remove container and wash clean. Replace container.

Step 7  Drown millipedes by filling container with water or, if you keep chickens, throw them in the chicken run where they will be eagerly eaten.

CONTROL MILLIPEDES, CENTIPEDES, SOWBUGS & PILLBUGS INDOORS

A heavy infestation indoors usually indicates a large population outdoors. To keep millipedes, centipedes, sowbugs and pillbugs from coming indoors, move their habitats (compost piles, firewood, and stones) away from the house. Items that cannot be removed should be elevated off the ground. Create a band of gravel between your house foundation and flowerbeds.

All these arthropods require moisture and do not survive indoors for more than a few days. Sweep them up with a broom or vacuum them. To combat serious infestations, seal cracks in your outside foundation, and around the bottoms of doors, and basement windows.

NOT SO BAD

Though they may “freak us out”, millipedes, sowbugs, and pillbugs assist us by eating decomposing matter. The centipede eats aphids and other soft-bodied insect pests.  Unless they are actually damaging your young seedlings, it is not necessary to do anything to control their populations.

Some folks have taken to making millipedes pets!  There is always something new and fascinating when it comes to nature.


Solutions: Earwigs & Sow Bugs

Categories: Organic Pest Control, Diatomaceous Earth, Organic Pesticide, Beneficial Insects


sheila vogel Says:
Jul 14th, 2013 at 7:00 pm

i found two clusters of little tiny looked like baby centipedes all clustered together to look like a big slug. what are these things if they are not centipedes?

Charlotte from Peaceful Valley Says:
Jul 15th, 2013 at 4:28 pm

Sheila, It is hard to say without a photograph, but some species of centipedes do lay eggs in clusters. Perhaps you saw a recently hatched cluster of eggs? One other way of identifying the insects is to consult your local Master Gardeners who are very familiar with the garden insects in your county. Here’s how to find the closest Master Gardeners (volunteers) http://www.ahs.org/gardening-resources/master-gardeners

Heidi Says:
Sep 16th, 2013 at 1:23 am

Very informative. I’m not so freaked out now. We recently bought a house (3 weeks ago), and used lawn weed killer today finally because it’s creeping charlie crazy out there. Tonight it’s going to frost I guess, so I’m not sure which caused the millions of millipedes to run to the patio and shop and even in the laundry room, but I was running around spraying and squishing… now I know they aren’t going to bite us, and I turned on a fan in the shop. Thanks!

Charlotte from Peaceful Valley Says:
Sep 18th, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Heidi, That’s a lot of house guests all of a sudden!

Maia Says:
Sep 23rd, 2013 at 6:48 am

I’m a balcony gardener and have two huge containers for my zuchini. This year, I didn’t have any problem with any sort of pest, thanks to the centipedes that live in there, I guess. Problem is that I found that the population is seriously getting out of control. Can I do anything about that? Do you have an idea?
Any help will be appreciated,
Maia

Charlotte from Peaceful Valley Says:
Sep 30th, 2013 at 11:09 am

Maia, The centipedes should be eating other insects, not your zucchini, so an overpopulation should not harm your garden. Clear the mulch off your zucchini pots so that they don’t have many places to live. If there are not enough insects to hunt then the centipede population will adjust itself.

crystal Says:
Jun 11th, 2014 at 7:51 am

I have a large problem will pill bugs inside my home. I am noticing a smell in my livingroom that is causing health problems and I see mounds of pill bugs when I move my furniture. can they cause allergy problems I have to become worse?

Stephanie Brown Says:
Jun 11th, 2014 at 9:34 am

Hello Crystal,

That does sound like a problem. Since the pill bugs eat decaying organic matter that means their might be something organic decaying somewhere in your living room (perhaps the source of the smell). I would recommend doing some serious cleaning and see if you can find the pill bug food source.

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