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Two Tides Blog

Cold water sea life blog. Gulf of Maine biologists share their experiences and marine musings from Cobscook Bay on the coast of Maine! Sea life photos, science, and aquarium discussion. Comment and share your stories and questions!

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How to: Collect Sow Bugs

 Sowbugs.

Sowbugs.

It was a beautiful April weekend in Eastern Maine. My kids and I spent time sowbugging. Sow bugs are quite common around homes and gardens, but most people do not know that they scavenge the upper intertidal as well. We find them under loose rocks, and I am sure that they are feeding on the decaying seaweed there. Sowbugging is a fun activity - my kids' help. What kid doesn't like turning over stones to find critters? We were able to find thousands in a just a couple of hours.

Here is what an upper intertidal, beach borne sow bug looks like:

 Upper intertidal, beach borne sow bug.

Upper intertidal, beach borne sow bug.


We did decide by direct observation that there were different species or colorations mixed in with our collection. We observed light gray, dark gray, spotted, and even a burnt orange color on some. Large flat rocks in grassy areas just below the high water mark seemed to have the most sowbugs. Other places that had many were flat pieces of bark, boards, and shards of driftwood. Sometimes they were crawling in the depression under the substrate but at times they would be attached like little cows milling around the underside of the rock or board. This we preferred as they could easily be scraped into our buckets.


Initially, we had some troubles finding a good beach location with lots of sowbugs. The first beach we headed to had way too much stormcast rockweed (Ascophyllum). There was literally a 1000' windrow of rockweed that had come ashore 2 weeks earlier on the full moon tide.  This had been cooking (composting) in the April sun and though the top was crispy black just beneath the surface was a black goo of decaying organic matter with lots of white worms and maggots wriggling around inside. It blanketed the rocks and wood along the shore and made it impossible to find ANY life underneath it. On this particular beach, it was much like a blanket of death. Though the seaweed itself was alive, and it supported living things, when it landed on the beach, it killed everything in its path. Curious...we finally sampled a few other similar places and decided to go to a leeward shore (out of the wind cast seaweed). This sheltered cove proved to be just proper habitat for man and sowbug alike.

The catch of the day

 Black, reddish brown, and tan sowbugs.

Black, reddish brown, and tan sowbugs.

Besides sowbugs, we, of course, uncovered many other beachside invertebrates. Springtails filled the rotting rockweed piles - pinging into and out of our buckets as they were scooped up with our quarry. We also found centipedes, millipedes, wolf spiders, worms, and nightcrawlers to name a few. In one cove there were some fire ants, and I managed to get one up under my sleeve. It was not until 1/2 hour later did I feel the pain of three separate bites. Ouch! Besides the specimens found, we had fun clambering along the rocks in the upper intertidal as it is a great place for finding other treasures such as rubber clammers gloves, beer bottles, old line, lobster crates, etc. We have yet to find a pirate treasure, but as far as my son is concerned it is only a matter of time!

Why sowbugs

Sowbugs and pillbugs are a very popular animal to use in terrariums in school classes. At Gulf of Maine, we do our best to supply whatever specimens our customers are seeking. Though we are known very much for our marine life - we have expanded our collecting to offer species from the woods, fields, streams, wetland, lakes, and forest. Live earthworms, crayfish, various insects, lichens/mosses, and are all available. Please contact us if you need these specimens for your classes or labs.

Tidepool Tim