Queen's University — Since 1873
19th January 2007

The Ghettobug: your protective predator

If you live in the Ghetto, you’ve probably cringed at their twisting antennae and recoiled in horror at their ridiculous speed.
If you live in the Ghetto, you’ve probably cringed at their twisting antennae and recoiled in horror at their ridiculous speed. (Supplied)

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The Ghettobug:

Species name: Scutigera coleoptrata (Linnaeus)

Common name: House centipede

What it looks like: Usually about 1.5 inches in length with 13 to 15 pairs of legs and very long antennae. According to Harvard’s Environmental Health and Safety website, “This centipede looks like a moving hair brush.”

Where you’ll find it: In damp, dark places: bathrooms, basements, under sinks, under baseboards What it eats: Bedbugs, termites, cockroaches, silver fish and spiders

How to defeat them: They can’t swim, so you can use that against them. You could also just squish them. Or learn to live with them.

Ten things you should know before signing your lease

1. Negotiate lifestyle issues with your housemates. Most problems in student housing have to do with tenants not getting along. The number one point of friction among student households is dirty dishes, so that should tell students that it’s worth clarifying expectations in writing.

2. Beware of illegal clauses like the “no pets” clause.

3. Ensure that any repairs that need to be done are placed in the lease so that it’s enforceable.

4. Every student should understand what the lease term “joint and several liability” means. Agreeing to this term gives the landlord the right to seek full compensation from any one tenant should a fellow tenant stop paying rent or cause damage to a unit. Think twice about who you are going to live with.

5. Seek out the current tenants and ask direct questions about the landlord’s business ractices, personal behaviour, and experience in the house. The most useful question often is “Why are you leaving?”

6. Make sure you know what the landlord is expecting in terms of lawn care and exterior
maintenance. It’s advisable to make the landlord responsible for this, particularly because students are away for significant periods of time—and usually for the entire summer.

7. Ontario gets new tenancy legislation as of January 31, 2007. Your landlord should, at a minimum, be aware of this. See page 1 for full coverage.

8. You cannot sign away your rights so, even in a signed agreement, the landlord will not be able to enforce unlawful provisions (two examples seen routinely by Queen’s Legal Aid are “no pets” and the obligation to provide post-dated cheques or direct debit payment.) A tenant can agree to lifestyle provisions that would be enforceable, such as an agreement not to host large parties or restrictions on number and timing of guests.

9. Being a landlord is a business and some landlords use classic pressure tactics such as showing their houses to several groups of students at the same time to give an air of competition. Remember that there is no grace period to back out of a rental contract you are having second thoughts about.

10. Don’t sign your lease without an opportunity to really read it before you sign. Queen’s Legal Aid produces a Lease Reading Guide with information on what to look for. Students can also bring a copy of their contract to Town-Gown Relations (JDUC 142a) for a free review. A tenant is allowed to negotiate any term of the contract before signing including the amount of rent.

—Courtesy of Joan Jones, town gown relations co-ordinator and Ryan Quinlan-Keech, AMS commissioner of municipal affairs

You know them, but you don’t love them. They’re big, they’re ugly and you usually only see them after midnight. No, I’m not talking about that video game-obsessed subletter who just never left; I’m talking about Ghettobugs.

If you live in the Ghetto you’ve probably cringed at their twisting antennae and recoiled in horror at their ridiculous speed.

The image of them scurrying across my kitchen floor and into the many cracks in the walls regularly haunts both my waking and sleeping nightmares.

To me they always seemed like some kind of mutant combination of a cockroach, giant spider and, like, I don’t know, a crazy ferret or something. Blending the cunning of a fox with the creepiness of a large arachnid, there’s no telling how many of them roam through the Ghetto terrorizing students peacefully trying to satisfy their late-night cravings.

I set out to learn more about the creature, hoping that by perhaps discovering its weaknesses I could get closer to defeating the beast.

So I contacted Eric Rickey, manager of the Canadian National Identification Service for Insects, who helped me identify the beast, which was obviously an important first step.

The conversation started innocently enough. Known to Queen’s students as the Ghettobug, Rickey said the insect’s proper name is Scutigera coleoptrata (Linnaeus), but it is widely referred to as simply a house centipede.

And it’s actually not an insect.

“It’s classed with the insects even though it’s not a true insect,” he said. “It’s more of an arthropod.”

Then Rickey referred to the Ghettobug as “beneficial” to one’s house.

What?

“This thing is a hunter and a predator to most of the pests that you don’t want in your house,” he said.

I soon found out—and you may not want to hear this—but Ghettobugs are actually on our side.

The fact of the matter is that house centipedes are harmless to humans and pets, they have no interest in your food and they won’t damage your furniture or floorboards.

Not only that, but they also hunt common household pests that are actually harmful and troublesome.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that if you’ve got Ghettobugs—or house centipedes—then you’ve also probably got other, less visible, bug problems.

You may not be able to see those sneaky termites plotting their next munch-mission behind your ratty couch, but they’re far more hazardous to you and your house than that honking centipede blitzing across the kitchen floor.

The Scutigera coleoptrata is an insectivore that kills and eats other insects. Their preferred preys are termites, bedbugs, cockroaches, silver fish and spiders.

So, should people be happy when they see them?

“Honestly?” Rickey asked. “Yes. If you can put up with any insect, treat this with the same disdain that you might a house fly.”

Rickey also said house centipedes are one of the only creatures that hunt spiders relatively well. So, I guess it’s a matter of trading one creepy crawler for another.

“Of course you don’t want millions of them—then you’ve got your own problem. But even then that usually means that there’s a lot of food, and if there’s a lot of food, then that’s your problem, not the centipede itself.”

So when you see a Ghettobug scampering across your floor and into or out of your walls, they’re probably just taking care of some extermination business.

“They hunt like pumas,” Rickey said. “They’ll chase their prey and jump on it, grab it with their legs and bite it, then poison it. Sometimes they’ll catch two or three at one time and just hold them down and feed on them at their leisure.”

Now aren’t you glad they’re on our side?

Rickey said the house centipede is Mediterranean in origin, but it made its way to Canada in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Due to oceanic travel and extensive shipping practices, the arthropod spread rapidly from one continent to another.

“It lives outside, but likes to winter with humans where it’s nice and warm—having Mediterranean from its roots—so it does move inside for the winter,” he said.

For that reason Rickey said there is generally a rash of sightings in the fall as they make their way indoors and a rash of sightings in the spring as they move out again.

But he added that they’re quite comfortable staying inside.

“It’s odd in that it is one of the only centipedes that can reproduce indoors, so it does do part of its life cycle inside the house.”

Rickey said the beasts are primarily nocturnal and they prefer to do most of their hunting under a cover of darkness.

“They are a predator and they hunt in the night,” he said. “They prefer dark, more damp spaces. That’s why you’ll find them more often around bathrooms, basements, kitchens [and] under the sink,” he said.

I asked Rickey about the time I was left awestruck by a Ghettobug who fearlessly leapt from a shelf at least eight feet high, stealthily gripping the ground and taking off into one of several available crevices in my kitchen.

“They’re exoskeleton beasts so they’re like little armoured creatures,” he said. “Their armour’s on the outside so they just bounce and absorb it, and away they go.

“Hit them with a book, though, and they’ll squish.”

Rickey said they have between 13 and 15 pairs of powerful legs, each armed with tarsal grips—hook-like appendages that allow the elusive beasts to scale walls and dash across ceilings.

I also asked Rickey about the lightning quickness of the creepers; he said the reason for their speed and agility is quite simple.

“They have lots of legs and they’re spread out like oars on a boat,” he said.

He said their power and quickness is just another one of their hunting weapons used to annihilate their prey.

Rickey said that technically you can be bitten by house centipedes, but it’s very rare and the harm would be minimal.

“You’d have to be pretty, let’s say, thin-skinned,” he said. “It has very small mandibles and that’s the only way it can actually bite or sting. It doesn’t have a stinger like a bee or a wasp, but it can bite and it does have venom—that’s how it kills its prey. But to you it would be a mild bee sting if it were able to bite you, like, maybe, in-between your fingers or something where there’s a delicate web of flesh.”

Virginia Walker is a professor in the biology department at Queen’s. She teaches a course in modern insect science, and said that while she agreed with Rickey in the relative harmlessness of the house centipede, she has witnessed allergic reactions to centipede bites that resemble a bee or wasp sting.

“I have seen someone who was bitten get quite a raised lump that was sore for a few days.”

Walker said part of the reason people find house centipedes so creepy and repulsive (aside from their obvious repulsiveness) is that they, like several types of insects, stay alive even after their heads or other body parts are removed.

“Insects, unlike ourselves, don’t have all of the neurological functions concentrated in their brains,” she said. “They do have brains, but they have a less centralized system that they can carry on some functions without their brains.”

Referring to the beneficial nature of the Ghettobug, Walker said this year there was a particularly bad infestation of box elder bugs, which could make house centipedes even more valuable.

She said the box elder bugs are mostly just an annoyance, “but if you squash them, they make a stain on the carpet.”

In addition, Rickey said that since house centipedes hunt common household pests that are actually hazardous to your health, food or furniture, they not only work to exterminate those pests but also to indicate their existence.

“If you’re finding a lot of them in one area, I would suggest that there’s a good food source there,” he said. “If it’s under a kitchen sink, there may be a lot of silver fish; if you’re finding a lot of them in your bedroom, you may want to check your mattress [for bedbugs].” So, next time you lay your head down to sleep and you notice a giant Ghettobug blasting across your bedroom floor, you can sleep a little easier knowing that the house centipede is there to protect you from the other beasts of the night. Instead of bashing its head in with a rolled up newspaper or slipper heel, perhaps you should offer a solemn salute before nodding off, just to let the little guy know that you know he’s fighting the good fight on your behalf.

And if you happen to hear a loud snap or crunch, don’t bother getting up. He’s probably just mauling a cockroach or something.

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