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.
Many years ago, I lived on Oahu, where centipedes get really big. When I say really big, I mean up to a foot long and over an inch wide! If that weren’t enough, centipedes can deliver a venomous bite that is said to feel like a bad bee sting. These prehistoric monsters will actually raise part of their body up, weaving in the air threateningly, and then chase you down a hallway. And they are tough! You can’t kill them by stomping on them in your sneakers. You need a hammer or a heavy duty coffee cup. Believe me, I speak from personal experience. The giant centipedes of the Amazon (Scolopendra gigantea) actually feed on lizards, mice, and even birds and bats that are caught in flight! Centipedes give me the heebeegeebees!
The tiny centipedes in my garden, however, are an entirely different story.
So what are centipedes?
Centipedes are not insects. Insects have three main body parts and three pairs of legs. Centipedes have segmented bodies and many, many legs. In fact, their name is Latin for hundred and foot, but they can have many more or less than one hundred. 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 can be pale grey, but mostly they are dark red or brown. Scientists estimate that there are 8,000 species of centipede. Only 3,000 species have been found so far and they are everywhere. There are even centipedes within the Arctic Circle!
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. They also do not have eyes in the proper sense. They can discern light and dark, but that’s about it. Most species of centipede hear and feel vibrations through their antenna.
There are five orders of centipedes:
Centipedes in the garden
The beloved garden centipede is completely blind. Its highly effective antennae has 14 segments that seem to make up for being eyeless. Being carnivores, your garden 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, garden 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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