Submitted Date 09/17/2019

It all started with an ant farm. The ant farm was a joke gift from my dad one Christmas. It was filled with green gel and the base lit up so the whole thing glowed. I was the only person in the office with an ant farm on their desk. I've always been the odd one and I'm perfectly okay with it! After hours and hours of watching the ants go about their business, excavating bits of gel and digging their tunnels, I started to wonder about other insects that might be fun to keep. They would have to be fairly harmless. I didn't want to keep termites or roaches. Nothing that would eat the house or become an infestation would do.

I settled on the humble roly-poly. There is a litany of nicknames for these arthropods; sow bug, potato bug, pill bug, and woodlouse just to name a few. Scientifically, they're known as Armadillidium vulgare. Most of these monikers come from the fact that these critters roll up into a ball when threatened, just like an armadillo. Technically, the roly-poly is not an insect, but a crustacean-like crabs and crayfish. In fact, much like their water-dwelling relatives, they have gills although they live on land.

I was confident that, should their terrarium become upended and they escape, there was no reason to panic. Even though A. vulgare is known as a woodlouse, it eats only decaying things. I fed mine dried leaves from the yard. To find their food, the pill bugs use two pairs of antennae. One pair reaches up into the air and the other brushes the ground like a tiny mustache. As a general rule, insects have six legs. That's one way to tell that the roly-poly is not an insect - it has seven pairs of legs. Usually, these landlubbing crustaceans come in a brushed steel gray color, but there's some variation. I initially collected six of these isopods from the wild, all slightly different colors. It was only the gray ones, however, that survived the ensuing battle.

I don't know if they fought because of racial tension or some were just less hardy than others. I only know that the survivors reproduced quickly. It wasn't long before I had upwards of fifty tiny pale pill bugs and had to split the population into two terrariums. That's because one female can lay anywhere from six to 300 eggs! When the eggs hatch, the little ones chill out in their mother's marsupium - a little kangaroo pouch - for a few days until they're ready to venture out. The babies look like itty bitty versions of the adults. Once they mate, the males run off to seek other mates (because they're poly AF) and the female can store up his sperm until she's ready to use it.

The lifespan of a roly-poly is but a few years and eventually, my colony expired. If you're looking for a good social animal for kids to keep, ants may not be as fun as roly-polys are. They're not early as cute, in my opinion. They're quiet, they don't bite, they don't sting, and they don't eat the house. Chances are, your kids are outside playing with them already!


Read more:

Fun Friday: Build a Roly-Poly Terrarium (GoExploreNature.com)



Holy Moly, Roly Poly! (Neatorama)



Armadillidium vulgare (Animal Diversity Web)



*photo via what-when-how



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  • Ceara 3 years, 6 months ago

    I have to say I have never considered keeping bugs (or tiny crustaceans) as pets, but I can see the appeal for some people a little better now. And I learned some new fun facts! Thanks for sharing!

    • Jen Parrilli 3 years, 6 months ago

      Yay! I'm glad you enjoyed the article. I hope you will look at roly-polys differently when you see them outside now. :)