Michigan house centipedes: Why you shouldn't kill them

Put the flamethrower away, guys

You've probably seen those creepy, crawly house centipedes darting around your wall. Should you be very, very afraid?

The quick answer is no -- not at all. The house centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata) is harmless.

I know what you're thinking: "Ken, I don't care if it's harmless, I'm stomping on it and burning its body to ashes."

Well, first, that seems aggressive. But I get the point. It's a common instinct to kill an insect with this many legs as quickly as possible. But hear me out! It could be protecting you from spiders (even worse!).

And no, I'm not being held hostage by a bunch of centipedes.

Here's some info from the Michigan State University Plant & Pest Diagnostics team:

Although this very agile and fast moving, longlegged critter has an unnerving appearance as it darts over walls and floors, it should be considered harmless and no cause for alarm. It is the only centipede found in Michigan that is capable of reproducing indoors. It prefers homes with damp basements or crawlspaces.

The house centipede should be considered a beneficial organism as it feeds on spiders, insects and other small arthropods.

There are only a few reports of this animal biting people, usually when handled or stepped on with bare feet. The bite can be as painful as a bee sting in some cases. If bitten, the wound should be cleaned and antiseptic applied to prevent secondary infection and ice applied to reduce swelling.

When necessary, they can be controlled by treating basements, particularly under appliances a residual insecticide registered for use inside homes such as cyfluthrin (sold as Bayer Advanced Home Insect Control for homeowners or Tempo for commercial applicators) or one of the Ortho products.

So, yes, centipedes can bite, in rare cases, but they're mostly patrolling your house for smaller things. Here's more from the Western Exterminator Company:

Lots and lots of legs

The first thing you notice is that the house centipede has a lot of legs. The very name “centipede” hints at that since “centi-” means “hundred.” Although it looks like it has a hundred legs, the fact is that the house centipede has 15 pairs of legs. It also has two very long antenna on its head and two long appendages on it’s rear-end. Most house centipedes are yellowish-gray and have stripes down the length of their body and across their legs, too. 

There are several reasons for all of those legs. First, it helps make house centipedes very fast. Since they are both predators and prey, this helps out a lot. They can travel 1.3 feet-per-second, which means they can usually get away from predators and easily catch up to their intended meal. Second, those appendages both fore and aft mean it’s hard to tell which end is the front, which can actually deter predators.

Legs for venom and legs for feeding

Two of the house centipede’s legs, located right near the head and near the mouth, have been modified to carry venom. Technically, this means that house centipede sting their prey rather than bite, but why quibble? Their venom is potent for smaller insects such as silverfish and termites. They are also capable of holding multiple preys in their legs and if they get any of their legs caught, they can just break them off and scurry away. 

House centipedes are active hunters, since they don’t build webs or traps. They seek out their prey and either use those legs to jump on the intended prey or wrap them around it in a technique that experts have come to call “lassoing.” Some observers have even noticed house centipedes using their legs to beat prey into submission. 

House centipedes are nighttime hunters, mostly. As you can see from their head, they have two very well-developed eyes and, for an insect, have pretty decent vision. Despite this, it’s those long antenna that they use primarily for hunting. House centipede antenna are so sensitive they can pick up smells as well as vibrations and other tactile sensations. It’s like combining your fingers with a nose. 

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