We've all seen them. They're long, skittery and were probably last seen climbing up out of your bathtub drain or hanging out in your basement. Most commonly referred to as "those bastards with all the legs," their actual name is the house centipede -- and I don't know a single person who can see one without trying to climb inside their own face-meat in horror.
Just the other night, I was snuggled in my bed writing, as one does. I just moved into my place a week ago, so I've been sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Suddenly, movement caught my eye.
It was a house centipede. In my bed. Hanging out and going for a jog on my sheets like it was trying to get in shape for pumpkin spice latte season.
I didn't even scream. I just yipped "NNNNNOPE," Aisha-Tyler-on-"Archer" style, and lunged across the room for the nearest blunt instrument, which happened to be a tennis shoe.
The poor thing never even saw it coming. I'm not a particularly fast mover and normally I try to relocate bugs instead of killing them, but when it comes to unexpected bedfellows, I revert to my predatory instincts. Before it could even appeal to my vegan instincts, I'd smushed it into my sheets like I was wielding the fist of an angry god and it had built itself another idol.
"OK," I said aloud. "OK, OK." It was just a fluke, I thought. Just a random bug that got in from my open window. Nothing to worry about.
That was, of course, when I saw movement from the corner of my eye. I froze. Maybe it was a piece of fuzz? Or some sort of tiny Ryan Gosling?
Nope. It was another fricking house centipede. In my bed. Again.
I spent the night on the couch.
After the house centipedes effectively drove me from my bedroom, I knew I had to do something. I couldn't spend another night on our futon jerking awake every time somebody got up to go to the bathroom. Plus, evolutionary pride was at stake. They are arthropods, and I am 67 inches tall. I could not concede my new place of residence to their domination, even though they terrified me.
So I decided to adhere to the old adage and get to know mine enemy. Instead of actually going to sleep that night, I looked up everything I could about my tiny, many-legged nemesis. And, as cliche as it sounds, learning more about the house centipede made me less frightened of them. While they may not be my brethren, I may now accept them as my ally, and here is why:
1) They groom themselves, like tiny kitties!
OK, so not exactly like tiny kitties. But house centipedes take a lot of pride in their legs, apparently (as most creatures would with 15 pairs of them). After meals, they carefully drag their mouth forcipules over each leg from base to tip, curling around so they can reach them all. If a leg is missing, they try to clean it in its correct order -- and if you interrupt them (e.g., by screaming), they testily wait until you leave them alone and then resume their task exactly where they left off.
2) They're big on midnight snacking
Centipedes are mostly nocturnal hunters, which explains why we mostly encounter them when we're too sleepy to think calmly about the fact that a zillion-legged thing is springing across the bathroom wall. They eat all sorts of stuff -- termites, cockroaches, silverfish, ants, spiders -- as well as bed bugs, which makes me wonder whether they've ever been posed as a natural solution to New York's pest control problem. They also hunt their prey by leaping upon it or using their back legs in a technique described as "lassoing." Giddy-yup, Centipede Cowboy!
3) They can put Usain Bolt to shame (considering their size)
You probably already gathered this one. Those little jerks are fast. But did you know they've been known to reach speeds of 16 inches per second? When I set up my bed frame the day after the Encounter (because nothing motivates one to brave IKEA instructions like a centipede party), my housemate tried to comfort me by saying "Well, at least you know they can't get to you now!"
I looked her in the eye. "No," I said. "It'll just take them two seconds longer."
4) Luckily, they're effectively harmless.
If you're like me, you spent most of your time as a child reading National Geographic until you wanted to throw up. Of particular revulsion to baby-me was the fact that Scolopendra, house centipedes' bigger, nastier cousins, can poison people just by walking on them thanks to its venom-tipped claws.
House centipedes, however, are nothing like that. (Thank Christ.) Though they can occasionally produce allergic reactions, most centipede fangs are too small to pierce human skin, which for some reason makes me feel very tender toward them and their inevitably failed efforts to destroy humanity. If they do bite you, you'll probably just feel the same level of pain as a bee sting. This is fortunate, because…
5) Some people in Japan reportedly keep them as pets.
They're known as "Gejigeji," they can get upsettingly large, and according to some bloggers, some people in Japan really do keep them as pets. I guess it's no weirder than having a tarantula. Because of their pest control properties, they're actually incredibly useful to have around the house. Presumably people who keep them as pets don't just let them go on walkabout, since I doubt they come when they're called, and posting MISSING signs around one's neighborhood for Delilah the Scutigera coleoptrera could only end in tragedy.
I hope that, if nothing else, this primer on house centipedes made you a little less vulnerable to the soul-clenching nausea that occurs upon spotting one in the laundry room. I myself will do my best, the next time I see one in my bed, to refrain from any shoe-related violence and instead calmly remove it to the outdoors (I'm not quite to the point of embracing them as pets yet).
If you just can't bring yourself to accept them, don't worry -- you're not alone. In 1902, C.L. Marlatt, an entomologist with the USDA, published in Circular about the house centipede: “It may often be seen darting across floors with very great speed … often darting directly at inmates of the house, particularly women, evidently with a desire to conceal itself beneath their dresses, and thus creating much consternation.”
Much consternation, indeed.
Sometimes Kate has centipede-related meltdowns on Twitter: @katchatters