How to Get Rid of Slugs with Diatomaceous Earth

Robert Pavlis

Slugs, slugs, slugs – everybody wants to get rid of the slugs and there are all kinds of methods that are reported to work. I have already reviewed several of these including:

What about diatomaceous earth? Apparently, the sharp edges in diatomaceous earth cut the bellies of slugs, and they bleed out and die. Diatomaceous earth is used effectively for controlling insects, so maybe it works on slugs. Time for an experiment.

Diatomaceous Earth - diatoms
Diatomaceous Earth – diatoms

What is Diatomaceous Earth?

Diatomaceous earth, also known as DE, diatomite or kieselgur/kieselguhr, is a soft silica-based rock with particle sizes in the range of 10 to 200 micrometers, or a fraction of a millimeter. The rock consists of fossilized diatoms which are a form of hard algae.

DE is available in two different grades; a food grade and a pool filter grade. For horticultural purposes you should always use the food grade or a product marked for pests. The pool grade is processed differently and will not work.

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In horticulture, diatomaceous earth is used as a pesticide. When it is applied to insects, it removes their waxy protective coating, and may cause scratches in their exoskeleton, leading to dehydration and death. If it can kill insects, it might also work on slugs? A lot of information on the internet certainly says it works.

It is claimed that the sharp edges of the diatoms cut the foot (ie the bottom) of the slug, and the slug either bleeds to death or dehydrates due to a loss of moisture.

Warning: slugs and snails were hurt in this experiment and were eventually killed!

Slug Control – Experiment Setup

The experiment is designed to test two things:

a) will slugs (and snails) cross a line of diatomaceous earth? If it were placed around a plant, would it stop the slug from getting to the plant.

b) if a slug crawled across the diatomaceous earth, would it get cut so bad that it dies?

Testing (a) above is fairly simple. Make a ring of diatomaceous earth, and place a slug in the center of the ring. See what happens. If they won’t cross the DE, they will remain inside the circle.

Testing for (b) is a bit more difficult. What do cuts on a slug look like? Do they bleed? I am no slug expert, and don’t have a good stereoscope to check for cuts. I decided I would take a different approach. Let the slug crawl over some DE, and then see if it dies. I don’t really care if they get cuts, or how many cuts they get. As a gardener all I care about is that they die from the exposure.

Collected slugs and snails were kept for a few days in a plastic container with water and some decomposing fruits and vegetables for food. They seemed quite content in their surroundings and were eating well.

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Do Slugs Cross Diatomaceous Earth?

The pictures below show some tests to see if snails cross the DE. The experiment was also carried out with slugs and no difference was found between slugs and snails.

When they are placed in the circle they start to crawl and soon reach the DE. Their upper and lower tentacles reach out to sense their surroundings. The upper ones have eyes but they only see light and dark. The lower ones are sensitive to smells. Both are also sensitive to touch.

As the tentacles came close to the diatomaceous earth, they immediately withdrew. Since both types of tentacles withdrew, it seems logical to conclude that they did not like the feel of the DE. Maybe they can feel the sharpness?

In any event, the snails never crossed the DE. When they got close, they turned around and tried to escape by a different route. They did however get some DE on themselves while trying to cross.

Slugs and Diatomaceous Earth 4
Snails trying to cross a ring of diatomaceous earth

The slugs were returned to their plastic home for 48 hours to see what effect the DE had on them. As you can see in the picture below, there were no short term effects.

Slugs and Diatomaceous Earth 6
Same snails, 48 hours later, completely unaffected by the diatomaceous earth

The test slugs and snails in this trial would not voluntarily crawl over the DE. Provided it is dry and the band of DE is wide enough and thick enough, the DE will prevent the slug from reaching the plant most of the time. In one trial, a snail crawled over another snail, thereby completely missing the DE – he got away.

Does Wet Diatomaceous Earth Work?

Both the packaging and information on the net says that DE is only effective when dry. I repeated the above experiment after dropping some water on the DE. They had no problem walking on wet DE.

Snails on wet diatomaceous earth
Snails had no problem crossing wet diatomaceous earth

Does Diatomaceous Earth Kill Slugs and Snails?

Since the slugs did not cross the DE, I had to find a different way to expose them to diatomaceous earth. I simply picked one up, and dropped him or her (they are hermaphrodites) into a pile of DE. It was forced to crawl on the DE and it got quite covered in the stuff.

It clearly did not like this experiment – did I hear small sequels as the DE cut its belly? I’m not sure.  It kept retracting its various body parts, trying to get away from the white powder. Eventually it did get off the pile.

Poor thing! I just picked it up and put it right back on the pile. This time it took longer to get off the pile. The snail did seem to be in some distress or maybe it was just unhappy with its situation. By the time it get free of the DE for the second time, it retracted into it’s shell and just laid there. I figured it was a goner.

Slugs and Diatomaceous Earth 1
Snail, unwillingly playing in diatomaceous earth

The slug was returned to its plastic home for 48 hours. I expected it to die from its lacerations, but as you can see in the picture below, it was fine. You can still see some of the diatomaceous earth on his shell.

Slugs and Diatomaceous Earth 5
Snail 48 hours after exposure to diatomaceous earth – alive and doing well.

I repeated the experiment with a slug to see if there was a difference in survival rate.

Slugs and diatomaceous earth
Slug, unwillingly playing in diatomaceous earth
Slugs and diatomaceous earth survival
Slug several days later doing just fine. The shed DE is still visible.

Clearly diatomaceous earth does not kill the type of slugs or snails being tested here. Maybe they will die in a couple of weeks, or months from infection or chemical exposure, but as gardeners, if they don’t die fairly quickly, then DE is of no use to us for killing slugs. Diatomaceous earth did not kill slugs in this test.

Diatomaceous Earth Does NOT Cut Slugs

Ever since I read that the sharp edges of DE cut the bellies of slugs, I had my doubts. Slugs are used to crawling all over things. In my post Eggshells Control Slugs – Do They Really Work?,  you can see a video of them crawling over knives and raiser blades. Why would a white powder hurt them?

To understand this better it is important to understand slug slime. Reference 1 and 2 can provide some details, but in short, the slime protects the foot of the slug from cuts.

While watching the slugs, I noticed that where the slug touched the DE, the DE turned from white to gray. After a few minutes it turned back to white. The gray color is an indication that water/slime had been transferred to the DE. The slime from the slug is making the DE wet and ineffective.

I don’t believe that diatomaceous earth cuts slugs – it is another myth.

Does Diatomaceous Earth Deter Slugs?

I believe it does to a certain extent. If you surround your plant with a line of DE that is as wide as the biggest slug foot in your garden, it will prevent them from getting to your plant. But….. there is always a but.

Rain will wash the DE away and wind will blow it away, so it needs to be applied regularly. When wet, it stops working and slugs like wet places. So don’t apply it after watering or after a rain – you need to let the soil dry out first.

It is not cheap. I don’t think that it is an economical way to keep slugs away from a number of plants. Saving one or two special plants – Ok, but if you try to protect your collection of 40 hostas, you better have lots of cash.

There is one fundamental problem with ringing your plants with DE to keep slugs out. You have to make sure the slugs are not inside the circle, before you put the DE on the soil. If they are, you are caging them in and forcing them to eat the plant you are trying to protect.

Bottom line – DE works to deter slugs, but I question if it is a practical solution for anything more than a couple of plants. In any event it does not kill the slugs.

Slug Sex

What has this got to do with DE you ask. Nothing. But the following video is so cool you have to watch it.

YouTube video

Apparently this video has been blocked in the UK, which is odd since the BBS has share enabled on this video, which means they authorize people to share the link. If you can run the above, here is the link “https://youtu.be/wG9qpZ89qzc”.

References:

1) What is The Slime That Comes From Snails and Slugs? : http://animals.mom.me/slime-comes-snails-slugs-5801.html

2) Slugs – Interesting Facts, Mucus Slime, and Pest Control: http://hubpages.com/hub/Slugs-and-Slug-Slime

3) Photo Source: pali_nalu

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

36 thoughts on “How to Get Rid of Slugs with Diatomaceous Earth”

  1. Great articles on getting rid of slugs. It’s not the first time I have heard of using ammonia. My problem is finding ammonia. Anything I finde at Home Depot, Canadian Tire, Lowes, etc. are cleaning products. Can you tell me where I can get ammonia here in Ontario? Thanks!

    Reply
  2. I am so getting the slugs that have invaded my basement exterior doorway. Ammonia, here I come! They are coming from our French drain. They apparently love it in there! Ew!

    Reply
  3. DE does not actually cut any bugs. The process by which it works is that it enters into the joints of the exoskeleton of insects and wears around the waxy substance that lubricates those joints, thus creating raw spots and dehydrating the insects over time. DE is great to use on beetles and other insects with specifically jointed exoskeletons, but it does not work on caterpillars, slugs, etc., except perhaps as a mild deterrent as noted in the above article. DE also takes time to work. It is not an instant killer of insects.

    Reply
    • That seems to be the most accepted explanation, but I have only ever seen one study that came to this conclusion. If you have links to studies I’d like to see them. I’d also be interested in data on how long it takes to kill the bug.

      Reply
  4. I just found this page, it is full of information that I can’t get enough of. I love when someone actually busts the myths around gardening. I will be checking out more or your content very soon.

    Reply
  5. I`ve found that sugar-water and about 5% borax by volume placed in low containers,(like small butter tubs), kills slugs big time. I use a hot 16-penny nail to poke 4 equidistant holes under the brim and place the lid on the container of mixture. I put them in the rock gardens. Dead slugs in container are pretty nasty. Mixture also kills about any bug that ingests it,(ants, roaches, etc.).

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