A Pill Bug By Any Other Name

So what do you call them? And if you say you’ve never seen them before or held one (or a couple of dozen) in your hands as a child, well–the pity.

We called them roly-polies. You might have called them pill bugs or sow bugs or wood lice, but they are not bugs nor lice, and they are not even insects. They are more closely related to shrimp and lobsters, and are Crustaceans living on land–the only ones fully capable of doing so.

And judging from the widely-divergent and varied names they have been given, you can assume that these innocuous detritivores are globally cosmopolitan and probably enter the mythology of almost all cultures going way way back.

And here are just some of those names (other lists have even more): they make me smile, for some reason, so I offer them here for your brief enjoyment:

20 Regional Names for Woodlice | Mental Floss

1. Cheesy-bugs or Cheeselogs (England)
2. Slaters (Scotland, New Zealand and Australia)
3. Gramersows or gramfers (Cornwall, England)
4. Butchy boys (Australia)
5. Boat-builders (Newfoundland, Canada)
6. Chisel bobs (England)
7. Woodpigs or timberpigs (England)
8. Monkey peas or peaballs (England)
9. Pishamares (England)
10. Potato bugs or tomato bugs (United States)
11. Sow bugs (United States and Canada)
12. Chuggie pigs, chuggy-pegs or chucky pigs (England)
13. Crunchy bats (England)
14. Wood bugs (Western Canada)
15. Pill bugs or roly-polies (United States)
16. Carpenters (Eastern Canada)
17. Granny greys (Wales)
18. Billy buttons (England)
19. Doodle bugs (United States)
20. Parson pigs (Isle of Man)


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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Yes, we called them roly-polies too…Must have been their name in the deep South. We normally found them under rocks and I always wondered what they ate?

  2. They are macro-decomposers, along with such things as millipedes and springtails (vs micro-decomposers like bacteria and fungi.) They are detritivores, feeding most places on leaf fragments and rotten wood, and maybe on the microbes in this food rather than on the cellulose that is likely not digestible by pill bugs. Now wood roaches–that’s another matter about which I will write in spring when I dust off my microscope again!

  3. We called them roly-polies in east Texas as well. Don’t see nearly as many of them around now as I remember from when I was little.