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Woodlice are everywhere                       

                                           May 2010  


Woodlice are everywhere

woodliceI know they don’t bite but there is something about woodlice that sends shivers down my back.

Now the weather is milder and there is lots to do in the garden, I am constantly coming across groups of these tiny dark little species hiding in leaf litter and other dark damp places. I moved a flower pot the other day to uncover what seemed like hundreds of these weird hard lice.

However, a friend recently lectured me on my behaviour. Instead of screeching in horror and brushing the lice vigorously away, I was told I should welcome woodlice in the garden as they play an important role in the ecosystem.

It seems poor woodlice are very misunderstood! First, they are not insects at all but tiny crustaceans, a land relation of lobsters and crabs. They have seven pairs of legs and their upper surface is covered by a hard, segmented shell. They usually grow to around 10-20 mm (up to ¾ inch) long although some can be quite a bit smaller, and most are a grey or greyish brown colour although you can get paler ones.

Many people do regard them as pests, and the sheer numbers of them that you find in one place can be quite scary, but in fact they do little harm to plants. They generally eat dead, decaying plant material and this is where they can be useful in a garden; they can play a valuable role in breaking down dead leaves and recycling, through their excrement, the nutrients these contain.

During the day, woodlice tend to hide away, mainly in dark, damp places such as under flowerpots or loose bark and in surface layers of the soil. Hiding away is important as despite their hard shells they are a popular food for toads, shrews, birds, ground beetles and centipedes. At night they will become more active and venture further afield.

It isn’t for me, but some people have made a study of woodlice and say there are actually 37 different species that live outdoors in Britain, and another 10 species that can occur in glasshouses. Some species will curl themselves into a tiny hard ball when threatened to protect their soft underparts, just like a hedgehog.

They breathe air through organs called pleopods which are found on the underside at the rear end of the body – and this is one of the reasons why they like to live in damp places as this stops these organs from drying out.

I won’t be doing it, but for anyone who is interested in these very common and harmless little creatures, there are a number of information books and charts available. Visit to find out more.



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