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Everyday Nature: How I Came To Love House Centipedes

February 8, 2013

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Centipede by Flickr user Rob Swatski via a Creative Commons Sharealike license.
Centipede by Flickr user Rob Swatski via a Creative Commons Sharealike license.

I’ve been called a lot of strange things in my life, but I never thought I could be called a nematode-lover.

I certainly never envisioned a day when my wife would start referring to house centipedes – those terrifying huge invertebrates that seem to have a million legs and run at top speed – as our “honored guests.”

We’re definitely not “bug people,” so what turned us around?

As an ecologist, I can appreciate that even unlovable critters serve valuable functions in nature like decomposing organic matter and  keeping the populations of other organisms in check.

Then again, I never thought the indoors had room for biodiversity or strange “guests.” Living in the aptly named “eco-house” in college (where a dirt floor basement and holes in the walls contributed to hefty populations of slugs, moths, flies, and more) forced me to get used to it, but it certainly wasn’t my ideal living situation.

So you can imagine my unhappiness when I discovered several years ago that I’d moved into a condo chock full of house centipedes.

Then the ecologist in me started wondering why they were there, and what would happen if I successfully got rid of them. I knew that getting rid of wolves in Yellowstone led to a number of problems (e.g. higher elk populations started to wipe out cottonwood groves), and that the centipedes wouldn’t be there if they weren’t finding something to eat.

It turns out house centipedes actually eat cockroaches, ants, bed bugs, moths that can eat clothes, and other household pests.

We don’t keep a pristine house, and living in a condo there are always cockroaches and ants somewhere nearby, waiting to strike. When we realized that these beasts were our front line against even more unsavory bugs, our attitudes towards them changed; after all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

No more vacuuming them up, and no more trying to bring the humidity levels low enough to make them unwelcome.

nematode

A Few Million Nematodes

When our household worm compost bin (another adventure in urban ecology) got infested with fruit flies, we naturally wondered about biological controls.

While there were many species of mites, springtails, and other tiny bugs in our bin, we were missing predators.

I ordered a few million nematodes (a kind of tiny roundworm) by mail. Within a few weeks (long enough for the adult flies to die off and their larva to have been eaten) we had a fly-free bin. To this day, I smile when I see the tiny little white thread-like nematodes patrolling my compost bin, looking for new larvae to eat.

My wife has made it clear that bringing in spider eggs from outside to take care of the occasional housefly is going too far.

But we’ve learned that whether we like it or not, we do share our homes with a variety of other creatures.

Rather than dive into a spiral of ever-increasing applications of poison or traps, we’ve been learning to love our allies, no matter how creepy they may be.

(Photos: Centipede by Flickr user robswatski under a Creative Commons Sharealike license; nematodes by Jon Fisher/TNC under a Creative Commons Sharealike license). 

 

Jon Fisher

Jon Fisher is a senior conservation scientist for the new Center for Sustainability Science at The Nature Conservancy. He is leading efforts to put rigorous science front and center in our sustainable agriculture work, and finding ways to improve sustainability through corporate practices and public policy. More from Jon

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16 comments

  1. Can’t imagine I’ll ever use the word “love,” but I’ve moved from a catch-and-release model to just shooing them out of the way while sighing and shaking my head.

  2. I have prevented vacuuming spiders on the roof edges and it did decrease the number of mosquitoes during rainier summer months.

  3. This is why we just shoo spiders out of the way when we find them around the house (or get out of *their* way), and we encourage birds to nest all around the garden. Never a problem with cockroaches or pest insects.

  4. Great piece! My wife and I recently moved out of a place that had a fairly substantial population of house centipedes. I don’t think I ever reached the same level of acceptance that you did. However, a part of me realized that, in my attempts to eliminate the centipedes, I was shooting myself in the foot as we also had an out-of-control population of cellar spiders and good numbers of cockroaches. I’m sure the centipedes were helping to keep the numbers of these other undesirables at bay.

  5. Saw one the first day I moved into my room. Less than a month later (tonight), I flick on my light switch tonight just in time to catch one scurrying across my sheets! My natural reaction is to take out threats, so that centipede is no longer with us, but I couldn’t help but think “What was it after that I DIDN’T see”. I’m crossing my fingers for nightmares :/

  6. Well I just experienced one climbing over my face and I happen to pull it.When j switched on the light is when a realised its a bloody centepede .Well we have a baby and we sleep on the floor so my immediate reaction was to kill it ..Bam!

  7. thank you for this post. I’ve always wondered where and how these come into my apartment. Knowing these are humanly harmless, I will welcome them as guests.

  8. I had no idea my off the cuff reply would lead to such a lovely story about centipedes. Please note that the folks who have genuine phobias were not meant to be lumped in with the ordinary and unwarranted fear of snakes. I myself suffer from a completely paralyzingly irrational fear of cockroaches. I haven’t had any for years so lucky for me. I have snakes in the house however and they are welcome but I usually put them outside because they are much happier in the fields and woods around my house. I hope they will take care of the field mice before they come in the house. I also have cats and dogs who might Kill the snake. They are also part of the house Eco system. Corn snakes area favorite. By hey are very common under my porch and lovely.

  9. I try really hard not to hate these guys, but for whatever reason they allways..ALWAYS wind up jumping on me from the ceiling mostly on the head :( The most recent time I granted it immunity and WHAM less than 5 minutes later with lights off it lands right on my hand !

  10. Hi – I’d like to get some house centipedes to control other bugs in my raised foundation duplex in Los Angeles. I’ve seen them in other LA homes so that means it’s possible in this area. How do I get some? Is getting them as simple as trapping them where they live? Beyond that, I’d need to know more about their requirements, monitor that they haven’t died off, and not feed them too well so they stop eating my pests. Thanks

    1. Hi Mark, interesting question! I don’t think you can buy them but perhaps you could post something to your local freecycle or craigslist group asking others to trap them for you as a start. I don’t know how to distinguish them by gender so it would probably take a while to get a breeding pair. You could also look at recommendations to control them and do the reverse (like make sure you have good damp, cool, hiding places): http://ento.psu.edu/extension/factsheets/house-centipedes

      I’d be curious to hear if you’re successful or not, good luck!

  11. I’ve been keeping my pet house centipedes around for the past couple of years after I did a bit of studying on them. I mostly was wondering if they were a biting danger to humans, but I found out they aren’t and are excellent at pest control. The centipedes really don’t want any interference by people, so our mutual habitation is mutually beneficial!

  12. I too like the house centipedes I have. Though mine do not look like the house ones shown on the web. Cute small things with really long legs and light colored, Mine are scarier. Bigger, black or near so. Look at a few pictures of cave centipedes and you may see the some that look like the ones I have. Fast? Oh yes! Can wipe out say 10 cockroaches and leave just legs behind. Seen this on a shelf inside a kitchen cabinet. Oh yes these critters have full range over all the house. How they look like cave centipedes I do not know. Unless they have lived in this house for over 100 years. My house was built in 1889. Maybe they just evolved this way. Don’t think they ever leave the house. Many of the bugs in here never leave. Spiders I have you will see on TV nature shows showing spiders of the wild fighting. Yesrd , got those same ones. Like Daddy Long Legs but with a bigger elongated body. If you touch just barely or wind move their web, they will gyrate around moving the whole web. Also have some spiders, not sure what kind, that eat sow bugs or pill bugs. They will kill about 100 or more and pile up the bodies wrapped in webs, under my computer for one place. Supposedly nothing much eats sow bugs as they taste so yucky. Only one or two species of spiders with eat them. Guess I have some of those spiders too. Had one sow bug live in my basement for maybe 4 years. It was smart and didn’t get eaten. It grew big and turned a mahogany wood color. Quite nice looking fellow. When it rains a lot in Spring, my basement becomes a Noah’s Ark. Thousands of sow bugs and maybe 100 outside centipedes invade downstairs. Hard to walk down there then without killing something by walking on it. I your careful you can get around.

  13. Do they damage paper at all? I know that moths and silverfish do, and house centipedes eat them.. But do the house centipedes eat paper? Sounds like a ridiculous question, but I have a ridiculous-sized comic book collection.