The hundred-legged one

House Centipede

What is it about invertebrates that creeps people out so much? Cockroaches are the stereotype of unclean dwellings, and used dramatically to draw shivers from an audience, but really the insects probably have little to no interest in you personally. A spider crawling out of a drainpipe can prevent someone from stepping into a bathtub (no way was I climing in until it was taken outside or flushed down again), but the chances of it crawling on you, much less biting you, are pretty slim.

My personal insect-phobia, the one that will cause me to throw a garment into the air shrieking should I discover one hiding inside a seam, is earwigs. Creep. Me. Out. I’m not sure why, although perhaps it goes back to my childhood and having earwigs occasionally climb into clothing while it was drying on the line outside (I should note I was never bitten by one, but that didn’t reduce their creepiness). They particularly favoured the lining of bathing suits, for some reason. I’m also not terribly fond of silverfish, though that doesn’t have any childhood encounters tied to it. The rest of the groups I’m generally okay with, although spiders are better if they’re at a distance.

One guy I know revealed that he’s creeped out by leeches. Another guy said his was house centipedes, which was also my sister’s when I asked her. A couple days ago we had one of these show up in our bathroom sink (the photos in this post are of this obliging individual). I have to admit they’re fairly creepy crawlies, as creepy-crawlies go. Up to two inches long, with giant long legs that spread out in a large oval shape, long antennae and rear legs, and they can dash across a wall at lightning speed. They’ve never really bothered me, but perhaps that’s because I have all of my energy invested in earwigs.

House Centipede

Centipedes, unsurprisingly, get their name from their many legs (cent = hundred, pedes = feet). Millipedes also take their name from their many feet, but the “milli” means thousand. You can tell the difference between centipedes and millipedes because the former are usually flattened with just one pair of legs per body segment, while millipedes are rounded and have two pairs of legs per body segment. Millipedes have a defence mechanism of curling up into a spiral when threatened, while centipedes, which don’t have the same strong upperside, instead run away (and I challenge you to try catching one!).

There are a number of different species of centipedes in North America, but the house centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata) is the only one from the order Scutigeromorpha (the group is also called house centipedes; since the North American species is the only one on the continent, it can get away with using the group name as the species’ common name). It’s actually not even native to North America, but was instead originally from the Mediterranean and has since spread (hitching rides with humans or their cargo). It can now be found here as well as in Europe and Asia, and a few spots in Africa, Australia and New Zealand. In Japan, they’re reasonably popular and Wikipedia suggests it can often be found for sale in pet shops.

House Centipede

Millipedes are scavengers, eating detritus and dead material. Centipedes, including the house centipede, are predators, eating insects and arthropods commonly found in a household environment, such as spiders, ants, silverfish, cockroaches, termites and bedbugs, and as such could be considered beneficial bugs to have around. They kill their prey by injecting venom through small “fangs”, the same way spiders do. Although it is technically possible to be bitten by a house centipede, you would have to be intentionally or accidentally handling it, and even then it probably wouldn’t feel like much, as their fangs are too small to puncture most skin. The biggest house centipedes might be able to inflict a good bite if presented some soft skin, which would feel a bit like being stung by a bee, and would similarly subside after a few hours (also, a small number of people may be allergic to the centipede’s venom like some people are to bee stings).

Although they can be found almost anywhere in the house, they prefer damp locations, such as basements or bathrooms, or overwatered houseplants. Outside they can be encountered under rocks, in wood piles or in compost heaps. They’ll happily overwinter in your house, and are commonly seen in spring (or in mild spells mid-winter) when the weather begins to warm.

House Centipede

House centipedes start out with just four pairs of legs when they hatch, but go through a series of larval stages (“instars”) where they shed their previous exoskeleton (their hard outer shell – insects wear their skeleton on the outside and attach all their muscles to its inner surface, compared to vertebrate animals whose skeleton is inside with the muscles affixed to the outside). It may take them up to three years to reach full size, where they’ll have 15 pairs of legs (centipedes can have anywhere from 15 to 100+ pairs of legs, but the number of legs is always odd). Once full grown they can live up to seven years.

Adults have compound eyes, like many insects (though we tend to think of flies first), and so have excellent vision (also helpful, in addition to their speed, in evading capture). They’re the only group of centipedes to have this feature. They have three modified feeding appendages, “toothed” mandibles (visible in the above photo as a sort of beak-like shape under the face), a pair of maxillae, and a pair of leg-like palps (visible in the previous photo as . The mandibles “chew” the prey while the other two appendages manipulate it. The “fangs” are found on the first body segment, behind the head. I kind of think it looks like a grasshopper head, and if you couldn’t see the rest of the body you might almost believe it was related to this much less creepy crawlie group.


Author: Seabrooke

Author of Peterson Field Guide to Moths. #WriteOnCon Mastermind. Writer of action/thriller SF/F YA. Story junkie. Nature nut. Tea addict. Mother. Finding happiness in the little things. Twitter: @SeabrookeN / @SeabrookeLeckie

21 thoughts on “The hundred-legged one”

  1. Wow! I’m so glad I found your site. I lived in Fla. for 10 years and never seen an insect like this one. Although I am familiar with earwigs and had to endure the creepy warnings my great-great aunt always gave. So these guys are related to centipedes. I figured as much but didn’t know they were a subspecies of that order. Compared to the well known centipede they almost look like a cross between a cockroach and cricket. I’ve been seeing them in my NJ apt. for some time now during the night hours, but because of them speeding by I never had the chance to see one close up. I just managed to see one close up last week at my mother’s house in the bathroom. I wanted to find out what it was but put it off. So the dead one by my bed reminded me. So now I know. Didn’t know that they had venom as well. I ‘m sure that you know that centipedes have venom too. And I don’t think anyone would want to catch one. I saw a documentary where one was hunting after a baby gator. A baby gator? Now that’s hardcore.

  2. Glad you found the site useful, Kuguru! It’s interesting how easy some things are to overlook or miss. I did know that centipedes have venom, which is one of the reasons their bite stings so much, but I had no idea that there were any capable of (or interested in) taking on a baby gator for lunch.

  3. i have these things running around my house late at night and they freak me out! the first time i saw one we were down stairs in my lving room and it ran across the floor. i freaked out it was all creepy and crawly.

  4. They are pretty creepy little critters, Ainsley! I was pretty startled the first time I saw one skittering across the wall, too.

  5. omg…..I see them rarely in my house because we got our house built so we had to get the basement done on our own becuz it was all drywall and concrete and the biggest one I have seen isvsomewhere as we speak and I can’t find him cuz he ran from me last night and I ran from him so I’m scared to even go down there cuz he ran right for me then made a uturn and went undercclothes idk wat to do

  6. I Live In Il And Havent Seen A House Centipede, But Have Millions Of Earwigs IN My House They Are Very Weird Looking. I even Found Out That they Shed Their Skin Thats Reall Really Gross!!!!!

  7. Thanks, Killerbrush!

    They’re certainly crazy bugs, Bri – definitely disconcerting and even a bit frightening at first, but really generally harmless. Hope he turns up so you can toss him outside where he’d be better off!

    Earwigs are my all-time least favourite, Angel. I can totally understand your reaction to their shed skins!

  8. OMG, so happy to come across your site! I’ve been wondering what these awful buggers are. We moved into a townhome 6 months ago and I see them on the bricks outside and in my basement. I HATE THEM! It’s their nasty legs, the speed, the markings, the way they move.. my mother actually named them Frilly-pedes because she thought their legs looked “frilly” so that’s what we’ve been calling them! To my ultimate dismay and horror… I went into my basement the other day and saw a baby one run across the floor and another in my bathroom, the buggers are breeding!! This makes me not want to do my laundry, they’re usually too fast for me to get my dustbuster and vaccuum them away and by the time I get something to smoosh them they’ve disappeared.. I wish I knew how to get rid of them but I doubt it will happen… ugh!! I hate bugs. Oh and we get ALOT of earwigs here too they creep me out also…
    Anyways thanks again… not sure I wanted to read the part about how they can live 7 years tho:S Harmless or not I wish they didn’t exist!!!

  9. My wife and I just refinished our basement. I think we disturbed a family of these creepy things. Some are small but some seem like a foot long. They scare the hell out of us! But most websites seem to think they are beneficial because they prey on other critters. What should I do kill them or leave them alone?

  10. OMG!! I have now encountered 3 of these monsters and I want the rest of them gone!!! While my husband wrote a song in honor of the 1st one (“Bug in the Basement”), I want to kill them all!!! PLEASE tell me how or else I will need to move out!!!!

  11. i hate those things; they give me the creeps. they are easy to kill, but hard to catch. i had a huge one hovering over my bed about 4:30 this morning. i have my usual system of getting rid of them. i threw a damp towel up at the ceiling to knock it down then wop ’em with a broom. my plan didn’t work so good this time around; when it fell, it scurried up under my bed…i slept on the couch…

  12. we live in a basement, and these creepy dudes have been skittering all about for months now. we have seen baby ones and some that are huge and fat. they seem to float across the floor, and so we have taken to calling them ‘magic carpets’ due to the resemblance. my girlfriend wants me to save them all and even let one stay under my bed! i’m pretty sure it bit me. i just want them gone forever, but when i heard they were shy and lonely, i guess maybe they just want friends. what to do

  13. If a big one bites you on the doodads, it’s all over. Just give up. Don’t struggle. Rest in peace.

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