Slaters, Roly Poly Bugs, Pill Bugs, Wood Lice – they’re all names for a group of little grey bugs that love our gardens.

Little armoured bodies.
Little armoured bodies.

There are (at least) two species that inhabit Ligaya Garden, a larger grey variety that tends to run when disturbed and a smaller, darker variety which curls up in a ball. There is possibly a third type which is blacker and has yellow markings on its plates. That could be just a different stage of growth of one of the other types, though. Time and research will tell.

This is the type that rolls into a ball when disturbed.
This is the type that rolls into a ball when disturbed.

There’s probably not a garden in Australia that where you can’t see them if you lift a pot or move a brick.

Technically, they’re not bugs but crustaceans. Yes, they’re related to, and taste like, shrimp. A close look at their armour plated bodies will show some similarities.

They’re detritovotes, eating detritus and organic material in out gardens, providing a crucial connection in the web of life that breaks down compost and mulch into substances that can be used by the microbes that feed our plants.

Slaters do like a little moisture and darkness, so a home beneath mulch logs or plant pots are their preferred places of residence.

Only when times are tough or numbers are far too high, do they sneak a bite of our prized seedlings.

They love to live in rocks and mulch
They love to live in rocks and mulch

The oval-shaped flattened bodies of Slaters are about 6 to 12 mm in length and, usually, dark grey in colour. Their bodies have 14 segments, there are 7 pairs of legs and two pairs of antennae.

Slaters have two tail-like appendages called ‘uropods‘ at the end of their bodies which help them to find their way around your garden.

You'll find them wherever there is organic material and a place to hide.
You’ll find them wherever there is organic material and a place to hide.

Like most crustaceans and insects, Slaters grow in stages, moulting off old shells before growing new ones. Young slaters look like adults except they have one less body segment and pair of legs. You can tell female Slaters from males but it needs a good magnifying glass. The girls have small, feather like appendages on their legs. They carry their eggs too, instead of laying them somewhere like most arthropods.

We often find them under dog poo on our gravel paths. They cluster there in large numbers, provided the poo isn’t too wet. I’m undertaking an experiment and have a box full of them in which I am adding dog poo to see how quickly they break it down. That’ll definitely help our land mine problem if it works. Hopefully, they’ll breed up large numbers of babies in the perfect conditions and will be another supply of food for the chickens.

Slaters are quite edible by humans, raw or cooked up in a soup, they taste like shrimp. I’ve tried them roasted and their toasted little bodies add a nice crunch to meals.

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