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Slaters, Roly Poly Bugs, Pill Bugs, Wood Lice – they’re all names for a group of little grey bugs that love our gardens and there’s probably not a garden in Australia that where you can’t see them if you lift a pot or move a brick.
There are two species that inhabit Ligaya Garden and probably yours too. There’s the Common Slater (Porcellio scaber) – larger grey variety that tends to run when disturbed and the Pill Bug (Armadillidium vulgare) which curls up into a ball when disturbed.
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.
There are stories of Slaters eating seedlings. Generally, those stories are false but Slaters will munch on damaged plant material that’s already decaying. This is especially true of soft seedlings that have already been damaged or infected by something, hence the rumours…
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.
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 only 6 body segment and 6 pairs of legs. As they grow and moult, they gain extra segments and legs until they have 7 segments. You can tell female Slaters from males but it needs a good magnifying glass. The girls have small appendages on their legs where they carry their eggs, instead of laying them somewhere like most arthropods. Hatchlings leave the parent and are independent from then on.
Slaters also have two tail-like appendages called ‘uropods‘ at the back end of their bodies which help them to find their way around your garden.
Slaters are detritivores, eating detritus and organic material in our gardens and 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. We often find them under older dog poo on our gravel paths, where they cluster in large numbers, provided the poo isn’t too fresh. I’m trying a boxful that get fed only on dog poo. Hopefully, they’ll breed up large numbers of babies in the perfect conditions and will be another supply of food for the chickens, which absolutely adore them!
Slaters are quite edible by humans too, raw, fried or cooked up in a soup, they taste like shrimp. I’ve tried raw or roasted and their toasted little bodies add a nice crunch to meals but nobody has dared join me…