My former jobsite is reputed to be one of the country’s most haunted places. Was I afraid to work at night? The truth? Yes. But I did not fear the nighttime museum. A full-bodied apparition would be welcome compared to the real-life bane of my existence: the house centipede, scientifically known as Scutigera Coleoptrata (as in, It’s scootin’, gerroutofhere, this ain’t the Cleopatra of bugs!).
A bug-lover since childhood, I rescue spiders and right overturned beetles. But when I see a baby centipede in the bathtub, I think, quick, wash it down the drain while the bastard’s tiny.
Many years ago, shrieks filled the dorm room next to mine. My friend had killed a centipede. Nothing was left but a juicy smear of tangled legs, but someone more levelheaded had to fold the departed into a Kleenex and bear it away. My friend got a near-perfect score on her SAT’s and later graduated from Princeton, but I don’t think she’s made a more apt verbal description than the one she gasped that day: “It’s just so leggy! So LEGGY!”
Once, I opened a door at work and a centipede that was hiding on the door frame fell on my face. I was never the same after that.
Broadcast that you saw a centipede and everyone in a twenty foot radius will share the horror of their latest encounter.
“Love your enemies”, the Bible says. I’m sorry, this is an impossible case. But would it help to know my enemy? I began a desensitization campaign of sorts. When I came across a ‘pede, I got within a few feet of it and forced myself to look at it: the cunning brown plates of its small body, the crisp feathery span of its rippling legs, and – YAAAHHH! That sucker can MOVE! Run! RUN!!
Ok, maybe a more academic approach. Several prominent American universities have entomology web pages devoted to Scutigera. Ohio State University advises that “they are sometimes seen running rapidly across the floor with great speed, stopping suddenly to remain motionless, then resuming fast movements.” Never mind that this sentence has more redundancies than a you-know-what has legs; the last part is what will really chill your blood: ‘pedes “occasionally [run] directly toward the homeowner in an attempt to conceal themselves in their clothing.” It’s ok if you need to go lie down and breathe deeply for a moment (check the bedclothes).
“Centipede” is a misnomer. The average house ‘pede has only about a third of the legs its name implies: fifteen pairs, though it hatches with only four pairs, and through several larval stages, gains a pair of legs with each molt. Its front-end legs, horrifically long, are specially adapted into sensitive antennae with fourteen segments that can detect not just objects but smells. Hold on to your hats…Its jaws are another modified pair of legs which connect to poison glands. Its fearsome long hind legs are merely an evolutionary adaptation that makes its hind end hard to distinguish from its front. Multiple sources describe the ‘pedes using their legs to “lasso” prey, and apparently they have also been witnessed using their legs to “beat” their prey. Scutigera can run sixteen inches per second (that’s .9 MPH). This means that a centipede which is a mile away right now can be here in about sixty minutes.
Some woefully misguided scientists allege that the house centipede is “beneficial” to man because it eats cockroaches and spiders, and its bite is no worse than a mild bee sting. Let me tell you, I’m not putting up with the most horrific of bugs just because it eats other, less ugly and brazen bugs, and doesn’t bite unless “carelessly handled”.
Thought to be indigenous to the Mediterranean, Scutigera now makes itself at home across Europe, Asia and North America, a range which, tragically, includes my bathtub. The first ‘pede invaded Pennsylvania in 1849 (how did they know it was the first??) Just as I had discovered a new reason to move to my husband’s homeland, I learned the house ‘pede scurries in South Africa, as well.
Scutigera, I’m sorry to say, can live up to seven years. Females have been known to lie curled protectively around their eggs for weeks – who knew the ‘pede was so maternal? This creepy land- scuttler is cousins to lobsters and shrimp. Perhaps by the time I order my next bisque, I will have been able to put that out of my mind.
I read that the house centipede cannot survive a Pennsylvania winter outdoors, and it is possible to rid your home of centipedes. Just don’t pile grass clippings or compost against the cracked foundation of your house. Then soak your yard with pesticide in a band extending five to fifteen feet around your house, spraying the siding and doors all the way up to and including the first floor windows. Repeat weekly. Being bathed in pesticide is a small price to pay for getting Scutigera to scram.
I may be clutching at straws here, but there is some good news. ‘Pedes don’t usually populate a place in large numbers. They don’t come up drainpipes, apparently. And they don’t chew the drapes.
There is still more good news, and that is that you probably don’t live in Venezuela. There exists a video of a creature called the Giant Bat-Eating Centipede. And I have watched it so you don’t have to. This meaty, translucent king of the ‘pedes, over a foot long, crawls up the sides of Venezuelan bat caves at night. “It has the muscular strength of a small snake,” says David Attenborough with his trademark breathy, genial drama. The Giant then hangs its upper body out in midair until an unwary bat flies too close. “It will take it an hour or so, but it will eat all of the bat’s flesh,” Attenborough intones fondly.
After this film, I had to recuperate by watching videos of women leashing their large, untrained dogs to lawn chairs and then sitting in the chairs just before the dog sees a squirrel. Thanks, YouTube!
I went to bed feeling optimistic that my new-found knowledge will usher in a new era of tolerance for my apartment’s leggiest little denizens.
3am. YAAAAHH!! A centipede has crawled down the bedroom wall and dropped onto my face! I’m up like a shot, heart pounding, hands feverishly flailing the sheets. No creeping battalion of legs meets my panicked fingers. Wait, how did I see the centipede on the wall with my eyes closed? How did I feel its drop in my sleep? It’s only a Scutigera nightmare. I brought it on myself, but at least now I’ve come to my senses. Has all this knowledge only strengthened your dread of the fearsome centipede? Let me know how it goes next time you step into the basement. I’ll just wait up here.