Posted 8 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022

Bug Hartsock with their artwork "Neon Centipedes," created on an iPad.

Biology grad student say to keep your friends close and your centipedes closer

By UW-La Crosse Biology Graduate Student Bug Hartsock

I want you to picture yourself at home, cozy, maybe with a favorite book in hand or a show on. It’s late but not so late that you have to go to bed. You’re getting ready to settle in when you see it. Right across from you, behind the TV, is an enormous centipede. It’s crawling up the wall, its thirty long legs moving in tandem. It has to be at least the size of your hand and you have no idea what crack it crawled out from or where it will hide again once it’s gone. You scramble to find a shoe.

But wait!

Meet the house centipede — a terror of homes everywhere. But like many a movie monster, this small animal is a misunderstood soul. Though you aren’t required to love the house centipede, I do hope you can gain a certain appreciation. They’re an uninvited house guest you very well may have run into. But as far as roommates go, they aren’t the worst.

House centipedes are scientifically known as Scutigera coleoptrata. They originated in the Mediterranean but at this point can be found nearly anywhere there are houses. They’re incredibly fast, light brownish centipedes absolutely covered in legs. If you look closely, you’ll see three stripes running down their back and a pair of well-developed eyes looking back at you. And they’re not particularly large as far as centipedes go, though your brain might tell you otherwise.

Here is the crucial thing about house centipedes — they are predators and picky ones at that. Unlike other centipede groups, house centipedes are only happy to eat live prey. And that prey is everything you don’t want in the home. They’ll gladly chow down on bed bugs, termites, and cockroaches to name just a few. I can personally speak to the last item, as the ones I keep are fed cockroaches (which don’t last long in the enclosure with them). And they’re miniature cowboys, using their long legs to literally lasso prey. A nocturnal schedule also means you hardly see them active during the day. While you sleep soundly, they’re doing pest control work.

Now, any good roommate is also expected to clean up after themselves, and house centipedes are no exception. They’re wonderfully clean animals, grooming every leg and antenna one at a time. And like us, sometimes they need a little self-care. They exhibit this grooming behavior more often when stressed, using their forcipules to get everything perfectly clean.

An illustration of a house centipede drawn by Bug Hartsock using Procreate.

Forcipules, however, are where people start to get worried. These paired appendages sit near the head and are modified legs with venom glands inside. Do house centipedes bite? Not technically, it’s more of a stinging grab (since the forcipules aren’t a part of the mouth). But even more comfortingly, they’re very shy to do it unless you’re a cockroach. I work with them every day, and if house centipedes are the terror of the home, I am the terror of house centipedes – picking them up barehanded, bothering them, moving them from container to container. Not once have I been stung, and I imagine you won’t be poking at the centipedes in your home nearly as much as I do. These little guys are much more inclined to run away or even drop a few limbs before stinging. And if you somehow manage to convince one to do it, it’s nothing significant in either the medical or pain department.

You’re back in your cozy chair. You still see the centipede. She’s a beautiful female with hind legs as long as can be. You close your eyes, relax, and open them to find she’s left, off to find the insects you don’t want to have around. Or at least I hope you consider this response, since you are better off with these harmless, marvelous housemates.