Invasion of the Creepy-Crawlies

By Scott Shalaway
ONE OF MY earliest memories as a boy is getting ready for a bath and finding a two-inch long hundred-legger in the tub. My reaction was to catch it and put it in a jar, but mom grabbed some tissue paper, squished it, and flushed it down the toilet.

If she had just scooped it out of the tub and let it roam the house, we would have been better off. Centipedes (2,500 species worldwide) are predators that eat all kinds of household pests. Common house centipedes, the species that appears in bath tubs or on the kitchen floor, eat all kinds of household insect pests, including cockroaches. Giant tropical centipedes, which may measure more than 6 inches long, sometimes eat small lizards and mice.

A more recent memory of a many-legged creature dates back only a few years. It was a particularly wet September, and screams from our dirt-floor basement caught my attention. I expected to find a long shed snake skin hanging from the rafters, because this happens once or twice each summer and I try to remove them before anyone else notices. But when I got down to the cellar, I immediately saw the source of the terror. OK, it wasn’t terror or even fear — it was disgust.

On the damp floor in several spots lay masses of small dark “worms.” My wife was clear: “I don’t care what they are, and I don’t even want to know. Just get rid of them. NOW!”

Linda didn’t even stick around for my interesting explanation. I’d never seen an invasion of house millipedes. There were thousands of them, and home invasions during wet fall or spring weather are not uncommon, especially in older homes with unfinished cellars.

Millipedes (10,000 species) are harmless vegetarians that typically stay in dark, damp places. They eat rotting organic matter and usually remain under rocks, logs or leaf litter. During wet periods in fall and spring, they sometimes make sudden mass migrations and occasionally find their way into cellars that are less than tightly sealed. When conditions dry up, they curl into a tight ball and die.

I knew better than to let nature take its course. That might put the basement freezer off limits for days. So I grabbed the vacuum and collected thousands of the home invaders in a matter of minutes. Sanity was quickly restored.

Centipedes and millipedes are common backyard and even household invertebrates. They are arthropods, invertebrates that have “jointed legs,” and are related to insects, spiders and crustaceans.

The centipede body consists of a head with chewing mouth parts and a single pair of long antenna, and a long, flat, slender lower body consisting of a variable number of segments, each bearing one pair of legs. Though centipede literally means “hundred legs,” the actual number varies from as few as 30 to as many as more than 300.

Centipedes hunt at night for earthworms and small insects. They subdue their prey with venom injected from a pair of pincer-like fangs that are actually modified legs on the first body segment behind the head. The only way a person might be bitten is to grab and hold a centipede, and even then the bite, if it even breaks the skin, might resemble a modest bee sting.

A millipede’s body is similar to a centipede–a head with chewing mouthparts and one pair of short antenna and a many-segmented lower body. Most millipedes are cylindrical and are often called worms. Each body segment bears a pair of legs, but a hard shield of fingernail-like material covers every two segments so it appears that each body segment has two pairs of legs. Though the name millipede suggest they have a thousand legs, some have as few as 80 and others as many as 650.

Millipedes do not bite, but if handled, they may release a fluid that can irritate the skin.

Bottom line: centipedes and millipedes are harmless invertebrates that occasionally venture indoors, but rarely warrant chemical control. –Pittsburgh Post Gazette