Dealing With Roly Polies or Pill Bugs in the Garden

by | Apr 12, 2019

Anyone else use to play with these little bugs when they were kids? I remember racing them (snails too) and being fascinated by how they could roll into balls like armadillos. Around here we call them roly polies, but they are also known as pill bugs and a plethora of other names in other parts of the country and/or world. As kids, we were never told that roly polies are bad bugs—-because they aren’t! They play a vital role in the garden as a detritivores.

According to Webster’s Dictionary:


de·​tri·​ti·​vore | \ di-ˈtrī-tə-ˌvȯr  \

Definition of detritivore

an organism (such as an earthworm or a fungus) that feeds on dead and decomposing organic matter

In ideal conditions, roly polies roam the garden looking for decaying leaves and organic matter to consume—basically they are detritus eaters. Their poop would add nutrients to the soil much like worm castings. They prefer moist, wet conditions which makes sense because of their preference towards decomposing material. So, if roly polies are are essentially the clean up crew of the garden, why do I have a problem with them?

Due to the large amounts of rain we have had this past season, it seems the roly polies are out in full force. We had large numbers a couple Winters ago as well. They can easily decimate a seedling in one night. I’ve seen them completely eat my direct sown sunflowers, cucumbers, beans, and lettuces. There are just so many of them that they are no longer playing their role as simply detritus eaters and, if you are in my garden, you can’t go around eating my baby seedlings. Nooo way!

My pest control philosphy

When we had this problem a couple years ago, we had success trapping them. My philosophy against pests in the garden is very much hands-off and conservative. I like to keep things as natural as possible, let nature establish it’s cycles, and let good bugs overtake bad bugs. Often times there are aggressive methods for getting rid of pests that are considered organic, but those methods can wipe out both good bugs and bad bugs—simply all bugs! I like to avoid this as much as possible because I’ve tried to establish a home for my ladybugs, lacewings, bees, and so many other “good” bugs. So, I’ll write about my pest control process and evaluation in another article, but for this post I want to talk about trapping and disposing of roly polies/pill bugs without using any sprays, oils, soaps, etc. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place in my garden for more aggressive pest control methods, but I always like to start gentle and then work my way towards more aggressive approaches. Trapping worked for us the first time around back in 2017.

NOTE: I’m not an expert, so I treated this like an experiment and also provided some information from past experiences. I hope you learn something new like I did!

Methods For Trapping Roly polies

I experimented with two methods—fruit traps and beer traps. This was my first time trying beer traps, and I feel like fruit traps were more effective for roly polies, but the beer traps offered a whole different benefit! Read below for a breakdown and consider which method might work best for you.

Fruit Traps

Precautions: this method involves setting out fruit in the garden. If you are fearful of urban animals being attracted to the fruit (maybe you already have issues) then maybe this method is not for you. It only involves small pieces, so I haven’t found any problems using this method so far.

This method can be done using different kinds of fruit. So far I have successfully tried watermelon rinds and orange slices. At dusk, take your fruit and set it out in different parts of the garden. Roly Polies are very active at night. In the early morning before the day starts to heat up, check under your fruit slices. There should be a congregation of roly polies. To be aggressive, take a shovel and scoop the piece and an inch of dirt underneath into a bag for the trash. Get those guys away from your garden! A more conservative approach would be to lift up the fruit, scoop up any bugs underneath for disposal, and save the fruit for another round.

NOTE: When I’m “on the attack” I like to repeat my method each night for a week. The consistency greatly diminishes the population. The idea here is not to rid your garden of roly polies altogether! Remember, they still play a vital role in the ecosystem. The goal is really to create a balance in the population so they can feed on the available decaying, organic matter and not feel they need your delicate seedlings as a food source.

Beer Traps

Precautions: this method involves putting out small trays of beer in the garden. If you have children or pets that you think might get into it, this method might not be right for you. Just use caution.

You can use any kind of beer for these traps. The edge of your container needs to sit evenly with the soil—I used a shallow dish so I didn’t have to dig down very deep. It’s possible to repurpose old tops from jugs, or we used extra plastic mason jar lids that we had. Sam had purchased so many of those lids a while ago and we don’t get close to using them all.

Take your dish and bury it down until the edge is level with the soil. Pour in some beer and you are ready!

What Did I Learn?

First, both traps worked very well. You’ll see from the photo below that one trap caught multitudes of baby roly polies. 

Second, the fruit traps attracted a much greater concentration of roly polies underneath. They weren’t necessarily on the fruit, but they were all in the soil underneath. Highly effective! After noticing that they were congregating underneath the fruit, I am assuming that the reason the beer traps were not as effective was because the hard plastic doesn’t encourage the roly polies to congregate underneath, so they must fall into the traps in order to work.

Lastly, the beer traps caught more than I expected! They seem to be an effective tool for capturing slugs! Woohoo!

Still Having Really Bad Roly Poly or Slug Issues?

Pests like roly polies are one reason I direct sow a lot less in my garden. By starting my seeds in pots and transplanting later, I am able to greatly reduce the impact of pests in the garden. Check out The Truth Behind Direct Sowing Versus Transplanting for more information on that topic.

Additionally, I have written an article called “My Organic Pest Control Toolkit” that outlines some of the more severe means by which you can deal with pests. I only use these methods as a last resort! Remember, the goal is to have balance in the garden—-not insect free! Click here to read. Coming Soon!

PS: Tag me in your garden photos with #FreckledCA on Instagram!

Meet Randi

Urban gardening is my jam. I’m Randi, California girl who obsessively gardens to grow food and flowers around my urban home. Seasonal, simple living is what inspires me~ I hope it will inspire you too. Join me in crafting a life and home connected to the garden Read More>>>>

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