I am okay with bugs. For the most part, I find them fascinating. I collect them, look at them through a hand lens or a microscope and then, depending on whether they are beneficials or pests, free them or feed them to my chickens. Centipedes have always been an exception, until recently.
So what are centipedes?
Centipedes are not insects. Insects have three main body parts and three pairs of legs. Centipedes are arthropods with segmented bodies and many, many legs. In fact, their name is Latin for hundred and foot, but they can have more or less than one hundred legs. With all those feet, centipedes can move pretty darned fast. Can you imagine keeping track of all those feet? In 1871, Katherine Craster wrote The Centipede’s Dilemma:
A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, "Pray, which leg moves after which?"
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.
There’s nothing like overthinking to mess yourself up, right? Well, centipedes have evolved to grow each new set of legs a little bit longer than the pair in front. Scientists believe this is so the insects don’t trip over themselves, but the centipede’s first pair of legs evolved in a completely different way. They are venomous graspers, called maxillipeds, which are used to hold and inject their prey with paralyzing venom. Luckily for us, most centipedes are too tiny to pose a threat to gardeners in the field.
Centipedes have long, generally flat bodies with lots of legs, a pair of rear legs that look like a forked tail, and a body part found only in centipedes and no other creature: forcipules. Forcipules are modified front legs that look and act more like pinchers. Most centipedes are blind. Their highly effective antennae have 14 segments that seem to make up for being eyeless. They can discern light and dark, but that’s about it. Most species of centipede hear and feel vibrations through their antenna.
Centipedes can be pale gray, but mostly they are dark red or brown. Scientists estimate that there are 8,000 species of centipede, each with their own description. Only 3,000 species have been found so far and they are everywhere. There are even centipedes within the Arctic Circle.
There are five orders of centipedes:
Each order can have a wide range of types, sizes, and colors.
Don't confuse soil centipedes with garden centipedes. Garden centipedes, also known as pseudo centipedes or symphylans, are not true centipedes. In fact, they are only distantly related. Garden centipedes are smaller than true centipedes and they are not venomous.
Centipedes in the garden
Centipedes hide in leaf litter, under stones, and in logs. They lack the waxy cuticle, or outer layer, that most insects and spiders have, so centipedes lose water very quickly.
Being carnivores, centipedes will spend their nights looking for insect larvae, soil-dwelling mites, baby snails and slugs, and worms. This puts them firmly in the category of beneficial insects, in my book.
If food becomes scarce, centipedes may also begin feeding on the roots of cabbage and other garden favorites, but this is usually the work of millipedes and not centipedes.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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