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pillbugs

Pillbugs

Most of us will admit that in almost any endeavor, cleaning up, while crucial, is not a lot of fun.

This is also true in the garden where, fortunately, there exists an absolute army of detritivores – those creatures that feed on decomposing organic material and other wastes.

We are familiar with the work of earthworms, millipedes and possibly dung beetles but the most fascinating is the sweet little roly-poly, the pillbug that we know because it will curl into a ball when disturbed.

These little guys include in their menu of rotting material the dung of macro and micro creatures as well as their own. Each time a pillbug defecates, it loses a small amount of copper, which is essential to its life. By consuming its feces, the copper is replaced. And, speaking of adaptive ability, the pillbug cannot urinate, instead releasing the ammonia gas through its exoskeleton.

This information is hardly defined as charming, so consider this: pillbugs mate in the summer and the female carries up to 80 eggs in a water-filled pouch on the underside of her thorax for the three months of her pregnancy. The eggs continue to live in that sac for several days to a week after hatching. Under favorable conditions, whatever that might be for them, pillbugs can live up to four years.

It gets stranger: in addition to their interesting bathroom habits, their early in-the-pouch marsupial behavior resembles that of kangaroos, they breathe through gills like fish and, although they drown in water, they need moist environments for life. This particular requirement mandates that they have redundant equipment for drinking. You guessed it: a pillbug drinks through its mouth and also through special tube-shaped structures on its hind end.

Can it get stranger? Oh, yes.

They are the original blue bloods and the blue is created by the presence of copper ions — remember the pillbugs’ need for copper? When a pillbug is ill, it will turn blue, not because of the presence of copper but rather as the result of a viral infection that causes it to appear blue in reflected light.

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But, saving what I think is the best for last, is the fact that pillbugs and the similar creature, the sowbug, are not insects at all. They are isopods, of the subphylum Crustacea, and that ought to be the give-away clue that pillbugs and sowbugs are more closely related to crayfish and shrimp than any insect.

When you next encounter pillbugs remember they require a moist environment to do their vital work of cleaning up rotting material. This is why we often see them in cool, moist, dark places — under rocks, pieces of board or in the compost pile. Recently I disturbed a family (a horde) of young pillbugs by moving a flower pot.

“Sorry-o guys,” I said. “I’m glad that you are at work and I regret disturbing you.” After all, should I not be grateful for this fascinating and harmless cleaning crew, these cousins of shrimps and lobsters?

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