(If you are ready to buy isopods, check out my Price List. Otherwise read on!)
Isopods/pillbugs/roly polies are easy to keep and breed, but unless you are putting them directly into a bioactive vivarium as a cleanup crew, you will need to know how to care for your isopods. Here is all you need to get started:
The first step is selecting an enclosure for your isopods. Isopods require some humidity, but they also need ventilation. One very popular container used as an enclosure for isopods can be purchased here:
I recommend looking for them at your local dollar store or supermarket, where they can usually be purchased very inexpensively. The advantages of the containers above are that they are stackable, can easily be cut or drilled to add custom ventilation for your isopods, and are translucent for easy viewing. The main disadvantage is that they do not have an airtight seal, which can allow airborne pests such as fungus gnats to enter your isopod enclosure.
An alternative isopod housing option that is much less vulnerable to fungus gnats, and is especially suited to starting with a smaller number of isopods, are deli cups with vented lids, such as those sold for use with fruit flies:
Another type of container for your isopods that can accommodate larger cultures than the deli cups, but which has a tight-fitting lid to keep our fungus gnats, are containers like the following. You will need to drill or cut holes for ventilation, and then cover the holes with fine fabric to keep out fungus gnats:
Some isopods require more ventilation than others. Of the isopods most commonly kept, those that require the most ventilation tend to be those of the Armadillidium genus, such as the common roly poly, and the large Porcellio species from Spain, such as Porcellio hoffmannseggi. I find that Porcellionides pruinosus also likes a lot of ventilation, For these species, I usually cut vents in the lid of the enclosure, and then cover them with very fine fabric, such as chiffon.
To see examples of the various types of ventilation I use for my isopods, please reference this video: https://youtu.be/-FmHLIFHGDk
Once you have a properly ventilated isopod enclosure, you will need substrate. The proper isopod substrate is extremely important, as it is their main source of food, water, and shelter. One inexpensive option is to start with a base of coconut fiber (also called coir) bricks that are purchased compressed. They expand upon contact with water:
The advantages of using coconut fiber as an isopod substrate that it is inexpensive, easy to use, and because it is sold in dry, compressed bricks, it tends to be free of hitchhiking pests. The disadvantages are that is not very nutritious for isopods, so it will need other ingredients added, and that it can quite easily become acidic if it gets too wet, which can kill your isopods. I used coconut fiber for years successfully with my isopods, but I have since switched to other substrates that I prefer.
I currently make my own isopod substrate. I base my recipe on Mickie’s recipe, found here on a thread of Arachnoboards.com. There are 4 basic ingredients:
One part organic compost, which I recommend you find at a local garden or hardware store, as it will be much cheaper:
One part oak or alder wood pellets, sold for use with barbecue grills (I get mine at the local feed store):
One part non-toxic hardwood leaves, which have fallen from the tree naturally. I have personally used oak, maple, pecan, callary pear, cottonwood, and a type locust leaves. Before you use the leaves, you should sanitize them. Some people boil them, others bake them at 200 F for 30 minutes or more. Put dry leaves into your oven at your own risk. Collecting your own leaves is cheaper if you have access to them, but you can also buy pre-sanitized oak leaves online:
A small amount of calcium. You can add just a teaspoon or two per gallon. You can use cuttlebone, sold for use with pet birds, or crushed baked chicken eggshells, or oystershell flour:
Soak the wood pellets in water, until they become crumbly, moist sawdust, and then mix the soaked pellets together with the leaves, compost, and calcium source. The substrate should be moist to the touch, but never soaked, if you can squeeze it and drops of water come out, it is probably too moist.
Bark for Cover
Now that you have a properly ventilated enclosure and substrate for your isopods, let’s talk about cover. It is perfectly possible to raise healthy isopods in an enclosure containing nothIng more in the enclosure than I have already mentioned, but some flat pieces of bark will give the isopods a place to congregate, which makes it easier for you to observe and/or collect your isopods. Flat sheets of fallen oak or maple bark can work well, and the isopods will slowly munch at them. If you want a shelter that your isopods won’t eat, you can use cork bark. That is what I typically use.
Feeding your isopods is fairly simple, as they will eat the substrate. However, your isopods will populate your enclosure more quickly if you provide some additional food. Small pieces of fruits and vegetables are good supplements. small pieces of organic squash, zucchini (courgettes), sweet potatoes, corn, and carrots, for example. Popular fruits to offer your isopods include apple, banana, mango, orange, and pear.
You can also offer other foods higher in protein. My isopods devoir these fish food pellets once or twice a week:
They also chow down on Repashy Bug Burger once a week:
Isopods need relatively little maintenance, but there are some maintenance tasks you should perform at least a couple of times a week, in addition to feeding, generally speaking. First, check the substrate. If it is quite damp, do not add additional water, but if it is starting to dry out, add a little water to one side of the enclosure. Leave the other side dry so the isopods can find the level of moisture they require. After a few weeks or months, depending on your population of isopods and size of container, you may need to add more leaf litter and/or more substrate. Every 4-6 months, you can replace between 50 and 100% of the substrate with fresh substrate, being careful not to throw out any isopods with the used substrate, which makes great garden compost.
Breeding isopods is quite simple, as long as you have several males and females, and you are caring for them appropriately. It is a good idea to start out with 10-12 isopods, though you can certainly start with fewer if needed. In some species (such as the giant Spanish Porcellio hoffmanseggi) it is possible to distinguish male from female by the greater size of the male and the length of the uropods, two tail-like appendages. In most species, though, there are structures on the underside of the isopod, modified pleopods, are the most reliable way to discern males. These excellent diagrams can help you understand how to distinguish the two. Isopods reach breeding maturity at approximately 1/3 of their adult size. The females retain the eggs in a pouch, known as a marsupium. When the tiny juveniles, known as mancae (singular manca) are ready, they emerge from the pouch, tiny, pale replicas of their parents.
These are the basics of terrestrials isopod care. Most terrestrial have very similar care requirements, differing mainly in humidity and ventilation requirements, and in the size of enclosure required. For more information, check out some of my videos on isopod care:
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