Long-legged House Centipede

It simply amazes me how many southern bugs are nasty. Bugs in the South are bigger and they all seem to either bite or sting and it’s never just a little pinch. Our one acre had produced scorpions, assassin bugs, saddleback caterpillars, black widows, and cow killers.

When you live in the South, bugs just go with the territory and if you don’t bother them, they generally won’t bother you. None of the really nasty bugs had ever actually bitten or stung us and after awhile you start losing the fear.

Scutigera coleoptrata house centipedeOne night I woke up in the middle of the night needing to go to the bathroom and when the bathroom light spilled into the bedroom, I saw what looked like a very big bug on the ceiling. I couldn’t tell what it was but I was concerned that it might be a scorpion. I’d heard many stories of scorpions falling from the ceiling onto people’s beds while they slept so my heebie jeebie alarm went into high gear.

We turned on the light for a better look and even then we were not a hundred percent certain. It was either a scorpion or a centipede and possibly a second bug next to it. Southern centipedes are scary creatures. They have extremely long legs and they move at lightening speed but as far as I knew, they were harmless to humans.

There was no doubt that we needed to get the bug off the ceiling but we argued back and forth as to who was going to do which part of the dirty deed. We needed a swatter to knock it off the ceiling and a killer once it fell and we both wanted to be the swatter. In the end, Bear drew both short straws and I stood back watching from afar.

The bug was maybe three feet over from the bed so it was pretty safe to knock it down. He swatted at it with a t-shirt and it started running across the ceiling toward the bed. It was definitely a centipede and it was directly over the bed when he threw the t-shirt at it in frustration over being pulled out of a sound sleep. This time he hit a bullseye and the centipede fell onto the bed, unharmed, and ran down behind the pillows.

We have a waterbed and as far as I could tell, it ran down into the crack between the mattress and the frame so now it appeared that the centipede was in our bed. We searched high and low but the centipede wasn’t coming out of his hidey hole.

I’d always believed that they were harmless to humans but I needed to convince Bear so I looked it up on the internet and what I found pretty much guaranteed that neither of us would sleep any more that night.

Our centipede was a Scutigera coleoptrata, commonly known as a house centipede. While the term “centipede” would give the idea that he had 100 legs they actually have about 15 pairs totaling 30 legs. House centipedes grow up to an inch and a half long but their legs make them appear much larger.

On the plus side, the house centipede is a predator whose prey includes bad bugs such as silverfish, cockroaches, carpet beetle larva, bedbugs, ants, flies, wasps, moths, crickets, earwigs, firebrats and spiders. They are considered beneficial insects for doing their utmost best to rid your home of these bad bugs.

On the minus side, the presence of house centipedes usually means that you have a problem with one or more of the bad bugs. In addition, house centipedes are venomous. The front legs are actually “modified legs” which can sting and these centipedes can also bite.

House centipedes are amazingly fast and can reach speeds of up to one mile an hour. Their speed allows them to outrun other bugs, pounce on and then lasso their prey with their long legs. They can then inject the venom.

Their legs are so agile that they can catch and hold more than one bug at a time. If they themselves become prey, they have the ability to detach their legs in order to escape. House centipedes will even feed on wasps, moving in to inject their venom and then darting off at lightening speed to wait for the venom to take effect, staying at a safe distance so they themselves don’t get stung.

Outdoors they live under rocks, in woodpiles, crawlspaces, compost and other damp locations. Indoors they can be anywhere though they prefer basements and bathrooms. Scutigera coleoptrata can live their entire lives indoors and can live up to seven years in a hospitable environment.

In spite of their ability to bite and sting, house centipedes are generally considered harmless to humans as more often than not their jaws cannot penetrate human skin. Only a very large adult can actually inflict a bite. However, there are exceptions and the bite or sting is described as being similar to a bee sting with localized pain and mild to severe swelling. Most stings happen when people either handle them or step on them.

I felt bad for the times we had told our dog to “go get the bug.” She did play with the house centipedes briefly but after the first couple of times she wanted no part of them. I’m guessing she met with a bite or sting. While it would have been painful it poses no serious danger to cats and dogs, no more than a bee sting would.

I believe there’s a lesson to be learned. Trust your dog. If a dog doesn’t want to mess with a particular bug you shouldn’t be messing with it either.

The long legged centipede is featured in the book “The Wizard of Awe: An Acre of America Backyard Nature Series” which is a back yard nature travelog with photos and stories. The Wizard of Awe is available on Kindle and paperback.

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