One of my earliest memories is of Dad popping a tiny round pebble into my hand. It was grey, with stripes radiating out from the centre – odd-looking but not very exciting.
“Watch!” said Dad. And if he hadn’t held my hand steady I’d have dropped it. All of a sudden, it uncurled, put out lots of little legs and marched confidently across my palm. “It’s a pill-bug!”
“Wow!” Surprise turned to wonder, and I’ve been fascinated by woodlice ever since. There are a few different species, all with hard, segmented bodies and seven pairs of legs. The Pill Woodlice that roll up into such perfect tight balls, go by the zoological name Armadillidium, and they really are the minibeast equivalent of the armoured armadillo.
We have many wonderful common names for woodlice too – assorted regional names like slaters, roly polies, chuggy pigs, sowbugs and monkey-peas, reflecting how widespread they are. Now, with the soil still damp and summer just around the corner, is the perfect time to find one. Just turn over a stone or log, or lift a plantpot, and see what’s underneath. If the ground is pebbly, look extra carefully. One of those tiny pebbles might have fourteen legs.
Woodlice are one of the stars of the RSPB’s My First Book of Garden Bugs by Mike Unwin and Tony Sanchez (A&C Black, 2009), which is still one of the best available introductions to garden minibeasts.