UNPOPULAR OPINION: I Love House Centipedes

Many people really really really don't like house centipedes. But I love them. And it makes me sad when other people hate them and even kill them simply for looking weird.
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Melissa McEwen
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Many people really really really don't like house centipedes. But I love them. And it makes me sad when other people hate them and even kill them simply for looking weird.
Hanging out with the centipede collection at Cristian Martínez’s lab at UIC.

Hanging out with the centipede collection at Cristian Martínez’s lab at UIC.

I was doing yoga when I saw something scuttle furtively across the floor. She was tiny and had a multitude of legs. She seemed lost. So I caught her and gave her a bit of water before setting her free to scuttle somewhere dark, where most of her kind -- the house centipedes -- live.

This isn't everyone's reaction. Many people really really really don't like house centipedes, even many otherwise bug-loving people. But I love them. And it makes me sad when other people hate them and even kill them simply for looking weird.

Sure they have a lot of legs, but what's so bad about that? I like to describe their legs as "fluffy" and "undulating" rather than creepy. And they need those legs do to things like "lasso" five flies at one time. Those are flies that won't be buzzing around your food anytime soon. As hunters, their skills are unmatched, they are even able to take out wasps by stinging them and then waiting for their poison to take effect.

While house spiders do some of the same things, unlike spiders, house centipedes don't clutter your dwelling with messy webs. In fact house centipedes are pretty neat creatures, grooming themselves like cats by bringing their legs to their mouth, though it's certainly a lot more challenging with all those legs!

As efficient top-notch predators, house centipedes are capable of stinging, but I've never seen any properly documented case of them causing any actual damage. Dogs, supposedly "man's best friend", kill 20 to 30 people a year. House centipedes are too busy hunting down pests like roaches and basement crickets to bother people. That said – don't pick them up with your hands, as their bites do hurt. I'm sure panda bites hurt too.

My cute little yoga friend enjoying some water before being set free. It’s so hard to take pictures of them without them running away.

My cute little yoga friend enjoying some water before being set free. It’s so hard to take pictures of them without them running away.

I talked with the closest expert I could find, PhD candidate Cristian Martínez, who was willing to endure an entire conversation about them. He collects the ones he sees, meaning he preserves them in alcohol. Which is sad, but it's for science. 

He told me that house centipedes are known as "synanthropes"– an animal that lives in association with humans in artificial habitats. Long ago their Mediterranean ancestors were stowaways, and they've since spread around the world. Martínez believes they wouldn't survive long in places like the United States without the benefit of human dwellings. They depend on us and we depend on them for their pest-control skills.

When I go out on dates, sometimes the topic of bugs comes up, usually because they are a hobby of mine. I'm a regular poster on Reddit's awwnverts (cute invertebrates) as well as bug ID sites and over the years have gotten a bit into amateur macro photography.

I was on one date that was going well until we started talking about bugs. He became visibly upset and said he had to go. Another date told me he believed bees enjoyed attacking people (not true at all). None of them get a second date. One said he told me he was mostly OK with bugs, but singled out poor house centipedes for extra hatred. I don't think I could cohabit with someone who would squish my tiny roommates.

It's especially sad since these are long-lived, at least for bugs, not mature enough to mate until they are three years old. And what's really cute is how they mate– encircling each other in a dance of sorts. Some say they can live to be about seven years old, but that's based on conjecture– honestly, we don't know how long they live. Despite the fact they live in almost everyone's houses, much of their lives remains a scientific mystery.

As for my little yoga buddy, as long as people leave her alone she has a long life ahead of her. But I'm unlikely to see her again unless she is thirsty. You see, house centipedes prefer to stay in the dark and under things, but sometimes they really need water since their respiratory system leaves them vulnerable to dehydration. That's why if I see one venturing into the light, I know they are just desperate for water, not trying to scare people.

So next time you see them, leave them alone, or better yet, be a good roommate and mist them gently with water. They might not be able to thank you in any traditional way, but they'll happily eat any roaches, silverfish, ants or other bugs that actually can cause problems.