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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Number 214: Ogden Nash "The Centipede"

The Centipede

I objurgate the centipede,
A bug we do not really need.
At sleepy-time he beats a path
Straight to the bedroom or the bath.
You always wallop where he’s not,
Or, if he is, he makes a spot.

-- Ogden Nash

Hap Notes: Here, in spite of the poem's humorous content (well, humorous to us, not centipedes) are some sharp observations about the "creepy crawly" thing we call a House Centipede (or more exactly Scutigera coleoptrata.) Nash is right, they are nocturnal- you won't often see them in the day time. And they like moist areas- if you hate seeing them, run a dehumidifier- they hate dry air. They need moisture to live and will dry out and die if it is not around (so they leave to find a moister area.) I don't think they can swim, though. (The masthead picture is a close-up of one. They are sort of beautiful, I think. Creepy, but beautiful.)

Okay, the "bad" news about centipedes in the house is that they can live to be 3-7 years old. Once you find them- they ain't goin' anywhere. They lay eggs in the spring and can have 60-150 little centipedes although they don't start laying eggs until their third year- they're late bloomers, sexually. (Also, they don't really "have sex". They dance around each other a bit. The male lays down his sperm and the female, if she wants to, surrounds it. They touch antennas for a moment. That's it. That's all they get from the reproductive deal. She doesn't even get dinner out of the deal and then she curls around the eggs to protect them until they hatch.)

"Centipede" means one hundred legs although most house centipedes probably have around 30 legs or 15 pairs (centipedes generally have an odd number of pairs- 7,9,11,13, 15.) All those legs come in handy because they are very fast and can move up to 16 inches per second. That's why "you always wallop where he's not." Each segment of the centipede contains a leg on each side.

They can detach or lose a few legs without being harmed and can grow to be almost 2 inches long. Pretty short by human standards but when you see one in the bathroom they look monstrous. They can withstand a pretty long fall so just brushing them off a counter top probably won't hurt them. It's the exoskeleton that is so brilliantly protective.

The do have a "bite" or "sting" but their jaws are usually too weak to break human skin. Those who have been bitten compare it to a bee sting. My suggestion is to just not pick them up. They squoosh very easily with a wad of bathroom tissue. (Hence Nash's line about leaving a spot.)

Here's the "good" news. The house centipede mainly feeds on bedbugs, spiders, cockroaches, silverfish and ants. They can see but not particularly well and count on their antenna for smell and feel. Also they can eat one bug while holding on to another one. They jump on their prey and use their legs with a process often called "lassoing." I don't believe they have rodeos, though, more's the pity.

There are more than 8,000 species of centipedes and there are fossil records of them dating back 430 million years. Only 3,000 of the species has actually been studied, however.

Centipedes are actually not insects, by the by. They are chilopoda and are more related to shrimp. lobsters and crabs.

If all this is creeping you out a bit I will answer a question which might help you: why do insects run toward you instead of away from you when you encounter them on the floor? Because you aren't thinking of this from the insect point of view.

Insects (and other creeping crawling things) are looking for a dark place to hide. (I have often noted with some snotty human amusement that insects will hide on the black tiles of the black and white tiles on the floor in my bathroom). So you are huge- they see you in the same way you would see something that was approximately 750 times taller than you are –you are like a skyscraper to them. They head for the darkness- the crevice under your feet. When you move- they're freaked- go to the dark! So they find the closest dark place which is often UNDER you. They aren't charging you- they're trying to hide from the giant slowly-moving skyscraper thing making all the vibrations. They don't connect "under you" with you. (Also, wouldn't it be smarter to "ride" the moving thing than be exposed to it?)

So centipedes may not be a bug we "really need," as Nash says but really, they do eliminate a lot of so-called pests we do not like. It's 'Morton's Fork'- a choice between two things equally unpleasant.

Here is where we have talked about Nash before:

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