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What Is a Sowbug?

Updated Oct 17, 2022

Updated Oct 17, 2022

Home > Pest > What Is a Sowbug?

Sowbugs go by many names: woodlice, billy bakers, cheesy bobs, armadillo bugs, chisel pigs, damp beetles, hobby horses, potato bugs, and many more. Interestingly, most of these names are highly misleading. The sowbug isn’t a bug but a terrestrial isopod crustacean that has more in common with crayfish and lobsters than any insect. They’re related to and often confused with another land-dwelling crustacean, the “roly-poly,” or pill bug. It can be easy to confuse these two common pests, and there is a lot of misinformation surrounding them. So to help clear things up, this article will take a closer look at this tiny, heavily armored “bug.”

What Are Sowbugs?

two sowbugs crawling
Image Source: Canva

Sowbugs, or by their scientific name Oniscidea, are terrestrial crustaceans within the order of Isopoda. They’re small, ranging from a quarter of an inch to just over half an inch in length, possess pill-shaped bodies, and are covered in armored plates. Under these plates, they have seven pairs of legs, a small pair of antennae, a set of gills, and short, tail-like appendages. Sowbugs can range in color from dark brown to gray, black, tan, and even rusty orange.

These “bugs” are scavengers and don’t bite, sting, carry disease, or destroy homes or property. They’re considered a nuisance pest because they often wander indoors, drawn toward warmth, moisture, and food. Sowbugs, like pill bugs, eat decaying organic matter, mostly that of plants. While sowbugs have been known to attack and consume live plants, their damage is typically minimal, only posing a risk to very young garden transplants.

Sowbugs need moisture to survive, so you typically find them in warm, dark, damp areas. Outside, they can be found under rocks, mulch, soil, leaf litter, grass clippings, flowerpots, or compost. When venturing indoors, they’ll stick to dark, secluded places like crawl spaces, basements, garages, between walls, and ground-level floors (preferring to hide along windowsills, around doorframes, and under furniture.)

Pill Bugs vs. Sowbugs

Pill bugs and sowbugs are often confused due to their similar habits, appearance, and size. The confusion between the two is so common and frequent that their names are often used interchangeably. However, pill bugs lack the rear end “tails” of a sowbug, and sowbugs have a generally flatter shape. Sowbugs also lack the pill bug’s ability to roll themselves into balls, so pill bugs are the only genuine “roly-poly” of the two.

sowbug vs. pill bug infographic
Image Source: Sam Wasson / House Method Team

How To Prevent Sowbugs

Sowbugs are not a pest that commonly infests homes. Since they need constant moisture to survive, the relatively dry humidity in most houses will have sowbugs drying out after a few days. So, if you’re experiencing sowbugs inside your home, there must be a consistent source of moisture drawing them in and sustaining them. Common problems like leaks, damp basements, or an overly wet lawn can all lead to sowbugs taking up residence.

If you’re experiencing sowbugs outside, they’re typically not considered a pest for lawns or gardens. Like worms, they break down plant matter and organic waste, making them beneficial. However, an overly large number of sowbugs can be an unsightly nuisance and pose a small risk to young plants.

How To Get Rid of Sowbugs

raking leaves in fall
Image Source: Canva

Removing sowbugs comes down to removing moisture, hiding places, and food. The first place you’ll want to look is outside, as indoor sowbug problems are usually the result of an outdoor infestation of sowbugs. Some of the best sowbug prevention techniques are:

  • Keeping a dry lawn: Sowbugs need moisture, and damp ground is like a five-star resort. Furthermore, an overly moist lawn can lead to many other problems, like root rot and attracting other, more damaging pests like termites. So, you should always try to keep your lawn at a constant, controlled moisture level with some of the following steps:
    • Make sure that all outdoor faucets are in good working order.
    • Keep gutters in good condition and free of debris.
    • Keep runoff from gutters directed at least 3 feet away from the home’s foundation.
    • Set sprinklers to allow for 1 to 1.5 inches of water per week, accounting for rainfall.
  • Removing debris and hiding places: Sowbugs hide under logs, dead leaves, rocks, woodpiles, turned-over wheel barrels, etc. Keep your lawn free of these attractants; if you own firewood or compost, keep it at least 30 feet away from your home.
  • Sealing entry points: Sowbugs, like most invading pests, use small cracks, crevices, and gaps in foundations and siding to get inside your home. To help keep pests out, you should inspect foundation cracks yearly. Use silicone caulking for all small cracks and expanding foam for all large holes and gaps. We also recommend replacing the weather stripping and screens on all exterior doors.
  • Checking for leaks inside your home: If you’re still seeing sowbugs inside your home, you’ll want to look for major sources of moisture. Cracked or leaking pipes, faulty HVAC units, damaged fixtures, and inadequate ventilation are all common problems that can lead to sowbug infestations. In worst-case scenarios, you can use a dehumidifier to remove the moisture from the room where sowbugs frequent.

Final Thoughts

While sowbugs can be helpful in the garden by breaking down organic material, they can be an unsightly nuisance to deal with inside the home. Interestingly, we find sowbugs to be a warning sign for homeowners, as their presence, either inside the home or outside, tends to indicate bigger problems. If you have sowbugs inside, you might have a leaky pipe or foundation damage. And if your garden is overrun with them, it might be because your lawn is too wet. As such, while sowbugs might be strange to look at, they can be a good early indicator of other, more pressing issues.

In general, sowbugs don’t warrant the use of insecticide or the intervention of a pest control company. With good pest management practices, like keeping a clean lawn and tidy home, you shouldn’t worry about these tiny crustaceans.

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