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A sow bug is an arthropod with a head, thorax, and abdomen (which is common of all insects). At first glance, it may not appear to have three body parts, however, the insect is able to roll up into a ball, making the three segments more obvious. Sow bugs have seven pairs of legs and seven separate segments to its thorax and may be dark gray to white without any identifiable pattern on the outer covering of its body.
Male and female sow bugs can be differentiated by turning them over to look at their undersides. Female sow bugs have leaf-like growths at the base of their legs and specialized brood pouches that they use to hold eggs or developing embryos. The female may carry up to 100 eggs in its brood at one time. It is unusual for a female insect to care for her young as the sow bug does. Earwigs are another type of insect that also care for their young to ensure their survival to adulthood.
Before reaching full maturity, the sow bug isopod will molt up to four or five times. Molting is necessary because insects like the sow bug have an exoskeleton covering the outside of its body. The exoskeleton of an insect is similar to the endoskeleton of a human or an animal. It helps to provide structure and support to the body. The exoskeleton, however, must be shed several times as the softer structures of the sow bug’s body grows. Molting helps the insect to grow into full maturity. The juvenile sow bug looks identical to the adult sow bug except that they are smaller. When they molt, the back half of the body comes off and then within two to three days, the front half comes off. During this time, the juvenile may have two different colors on the top and bottom halves of the body.
Sow bugs eat dead or decaying plants and animals. They are omnivores that may also feed at times on living species of plants. They breathe using gills and so they can only survive in areas with a very high humidity. As a result, you may find them under rocks, in piles of leaves, crevices, or underneath decaying wood. Some sow bug species are nocturnal and only come out at night.
The sow bug can behave timidly and roll into a ball if it is disturbed. They are fast insects, but they can be held in the palm of the hand to be observed. They are mostly harmless creatures that can actually improve the soil somewhat in the areas they inhabit. They also serve as a food source for other animals. In some parts of the United States, the sow bug does have the potential to cause damage by eating live plants. This is particularly true in the southern states where an infestation of sow bugs in a greenhouse can be devastating. Sow bugs can almost always be found under decaying wood or sometimes flower pots. Places where there is plenty of humidity and darkness are ideal. They are attracted by water and shade.