Slugs & Snails

— Written By and last updated by Nancie Mandeville
en Español

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Slugs and snails are much like some insects in their biology. Their damage to ornamental plants resembles that done by caterpillars or wireworms.

Approximately 725 species of land snails and about 40 species of slugs are now known from North America. Most of these have been introduced accidentally. With few exceptions, native species are solitary in habit and do little or no damage. The introduced slugs and snails are usually gregarious and may cause serious damage as they can build up large populations in a local area.

Slugs and snails are usually nocturnal so their damage is noticed before the pests are. They leave silvery slime trails on the ground and over plants. Slugs are able to crawl over the sharp edge of a razor blade without harm. Slugs and snails may consume several times their own body weight each night, so damage can be serious within a short time.

Slugs are apparently not repelled by light but are repelled by rising temperatures. As temperatures rise, slugs crawl down to their hiding places on the soil surface to rest and absorb water through their skin. As temperatures start to fall, slugs actively begin foraging. Slugs may be active during the day after a cooling shower as long as the temperatures decline or remain steady.

Birds, ducks, moles, toads, shrews, various beetles feed on slugs. There are also some flies and nematodes that parasitize slugs. Dry weather may kill up to 90% of slug eggs and young per year.

You have a few non-toxic options for control of snails & slugs. One is to put stale beer in a dish and sink it in the ground with the top of the dish level with the soil. The yeasts in the beer attract the slugs & they crawl in and drown. The second non-toxic method is to place a board on the ground where you are seeing damage to plants. The slugs will crawl under the board in the heat of the day and you can pick them & destroy. Copper sulfate is toxic to slugs and they will not crawl across a barrier of copper metal or wooden surfaces treated with copper sulfate. Metaldehyde is a poisonous bait whose toxic effects seem to be primarily due to dehydration because it causes excessive mucus production (mucus is 98 percent water).

Like any other pest in the garden, scouting and catching the problem early gives you the best chance for managing it.