My Wife Finds A Basement Visitor

One of the best parts of a happy marriage is being periodically reminded that you’ve found just the right partner.  My latest example of that came this weekend, when my wife came up from our basement with a jar containing a beautiful inch-and-a-half-long house centipede.  Kim had been doing laundry and spotted it on the floor.  Instead of stomping on it, she trapped it and delivered it to her crazy photographer husband.  I sure do love that woman.

House centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata)

Since house centipedes are fleet of foot (feet?) and can have a pretty painful bite, I had to come up with a creative way to photograph this one.  I needed to get close to the centipede without it getting away (and/or scurrying up my arm) but also didn’t want any glass jar walls or other obstacles between my camera and my subject.  My eventual solution was to put the centipede in a shallow but slippery white porcelain serving bowl from our kitchen.  The little critter couldn’t quite climb the walls, but I could still point my camera right in its face, especially when it stopped and faced upward on the side of the bowl.  I placed the bowl on my dining room floor in a beam of late afternoon sunlight from the window and clicked away with my camera.  (I’ll add the white serving bowl idea to my other homemade photo studio options, which include an old wheelbarrow.)

House centipedes are native to the Mediterranean region of the earth, but have spread across much of the globe, often cohabitating with people.  They can live outside, especially in moist places under leaf litter, rocks, or other cover, but don’t do well with cold winters.  In places where temperatures dip below their comfort level, house centipedes tend to make their way into warm basements like ours.

As predators, house centipedes have a wide range of prey, including crickets, silverfish, earwigs, and spiders.  They have modified front legs called “forcipules” through which they inject prey with venom.  Because the venom comes from forcipules instead of actual mandibles, it is considered a sting, rather than a bite when the skin is pierced and venom injected.  I bet most prey don’t care much about the distinction.

This cropped image shows the sharp brown-tipped forcipules used to inject venom into prey.  They are right behind the spiky maxillae, and while they look like fangs, or mandibles, the forcipules are technically modified legs.

House centipedes have 15 pairs of legs at maturity, but start out with only 4 pairs when they hatch from eggs.  As they grow and mature, they add about two sets of legs every time they molt.  The rear-most legs of females look like giant antennae, growing much longer than their other pairs.  While I was playing with the my photo subject (before I figured out the serving bowl strategy), those long rear legs accidentally got caught between the rim of a jar and the floor, and they popped off.  They twitched for a minute or two afterward, which I assume could distract a predator and give the speedy centipede time to escape.  The twitching legs distracted me too, but I still managed to keep the jar firmly over the centipede.

House centipedes are nothing to worry about, probably help keep other basement-dwelling insects under control, and will usually try to stay out of your way.  Since my serving-bowl-photo-studio design kept the centipede at a safe distance from me, I didn’t have a chance to test the severity of its bite/sting, but a little research makes it sound like it feels similar to a bee sting.  I’m happy to trust the internet on that, I think.

Face to face on the inclined edge of a white serving bowl…

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
This entry was posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to My Wife Finds A Basement Visitor

  1. Linda Jarsky says:

    People rent out their goats for weed control. Perhaps you could offer a herd of these for household insect control. In time, you would note distinguishing features and traits and give them names. But like the dog who was indifferent to explosives, you must anticipate some slackerpedes.

    I enjoy your posts. As I have noted before, my grandfather Harry Bates ran the Turkey Creek place through the mid-60’s before he died under a tractor. So sad to me that the pines are gone.

    Anticipating a Mari Sandoz winter?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks Linda. I’ll consider the idea… : ) And slackerpedes is funny. Hard to know what the winter will bring. We’re on the boundary of where the La Nina effects can be reasonably predicted. We’ll see, I guess.

  2. marianwhit says:

    Eat silverfish???/ Bring them on! Like the iridescence.

  3. Dick Todd says:

    Great job, I also use an old wheelbarrow for some subjects.

  4. Kathy Olson says:

    So did you let back in the basement to live out his life?

  5. Kelly H. says:

    Chris,
    One technique I have used to photograph very active insects is to place them in a container in the refrigerator for about an hour. Once cooled, they can be positioned quickly either in an indoor place suitable for the photo, or taken outdoors in the yard and positioned in a more natural setting. You usually only have a minute or two at best for the photos before activity picks up, but it does usually allow for some good shots. Definitely get the spot and everything set up before bringing them out. Thanks.

  6. Wonderful story and photo. You’ve probably answered this before but what lens do you use for these macro shots? Also, I assume you use a tripod for I’ve tried holding still for some of my close shots and it hardly ever works.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Hi Rita,
      Thank you. Yes, I use a tripod for this kind of photography – it helps deal with shallow depth-of-field and also helps make sure I get the composition I want. Moving insects are more difficult, and I sometimes handhold when photographing bees moving between flowers, etc., but whenever I can use a tripod I do. I use a Nikon 105mm macro lens on a Nikon D7100 camera at the moment.

  7. Dave Gruendel says:

    Any comment on the appearance of the eyes in the second photo? Is the surface smooth or rough? Are those multiple lenses, multiple facets, multiple reflections, or something else? (In case it isn’t already evident, I know very little about small creatures like this).

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Hi Dave,
      Good questions. This kind of centipede has compound eyes, with multiple facets, or optical units, so the rough texture you see is because of that. Many familiar insects (dragonflies, butterflies, grasshoppers, etc) have that kind of compound eye, which brings in many images at the same time. Don’t ask me how those images are translated into useable information – it seems crazy – but it seems to work for them. From what I understand, centipedes have fairly poor eyesight, even those with compound eyes (some kinds of centipedes don’t have any eyes at all!)

  8. James C. Trager says:

    Chris – “Oh Kim, you brought me a centipede. This is the most romantic gift I’ve gotten in a long time.” …
    As you can imagine, I wholeheartedly approve.
    Nice essay!

  9. marknupen says:

    Very nice photos! I have not been able to get that close with the same critters we have in the house. I have generally left them alone in the basement because I Presumed they helped Control the other critters down there, HAH!

  10. Rick Champeau says:

    Both my wife and I enjoy the prairie area in our backyard as well as the insect life especially the monarchs.
    But.. my wife wouldn’t have allowed the use of one of her kitchen bowls for the insect photo session. If she knew I used one it would never again be allowed for human food consumption and thus would have been relegated to my basement seed germination area .. or my garage small engine oil change area. Anyway I commend her love (and yours) of all things insectivorous whether outside of in.

  11. Scott says:

    Soon after we moved to Florida, my wife called me at work to tell me that she had put a glass over a scorpion on the bathroom floor. I had never before seen a scorpion in Florida so I said, “Alright. Leave it alone until I get home…” Silently, I added to myself, “…and I can see what it really is.” Sure enough, when I got home, there was a scorpion under a glass. Kudos to my wife for not freaking out or swatting the scorpion with a rolled-up newspaper. (We relocated it outdoors, away from the house.)

  12. GARY D DUNSMOOR says:

    Fascinating, thanks for all your posts. Wish I would find these little friends in my basement, but it would have to be before my wife found them.

  13. brucemohn says:

    White porcelain dish sounds like a great idea! I used to put them in Petri dishes in the lab and look at them under a dissection scope. Mine had purple hints in their stripes.

  14. Pat says:

    Thanks to you and your wife! I’ve never seen this critter before. Wonder if they have something against northern Illinois.

  15. Patrick says:

    Yep, we have these. Never seen them catch anything though, so I’m a bit skeptical of their utility for
    bug control compared to spiders….

  16. I find these centipedes lovely and am always happy to come across them. At our house we call them “Creepy Crawlies” but my daughter and I are the only ones that like them. It is good to learn more about them!

  17. This brings back memories. As a student at UW-Madison in the late 80s, big brown centipedes would sometimes be found walking across the carpet in our rental house. Though I am a buggy gal, it was very surprising, and creepy, to be laying on the floor studying when you suddenly felt something was amiss and looked up to see one of these undulating crawlies coming right at you from a few inches away!! The thought still gives me the creeps tho I’ve never seen any more.
    And – speaking of spouses bringing you great gifts…My husband brought me an owl pellet from a meeting he recently attended!! I can’t tell you how excited I am about this. I got all squiggly right now thinking of it! (it was one of those that you can buy from a science house.) He brought chocolate, too, but Pffft for that.

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