Crawling visitors: Millipedes
November 3, 2016
Our home is being invaded. Well, that's a bit dramatic, but where are all these millipedes coming from? Every day, mostly in the evening, I find millipedes crawling through the house. As I try to pick them up, they curl up in an effort to elude me. But in the interest of not having my cat eat them, I persevere, gathering them up and putting them outside.
Millipedes are some of the oldest terrestrial critters on Earth. At times in their evolution, some species have reached over six feet long. Thank goodness I'm not finding them in the house. It would be like trying to get rid of an alligator!
Let's debunk a myth: Millipedes don't have 1,000 legs or feet; they have about 400 legs, two pairs per body segment. They don't bite or sting. In addition, they don't bother food, clothes, furniture or other household items. They aren't insects. These slow-moving invertebrates generally eat decaying leaves, organic matter and dead plant materials, although sometimes they can wreak havoc on young seedlings. They are not carnivores like their cousins, the centipedes. They do not have venom as centipedes do. However, they can have irritating secretions from glands along the sides of their bodies.
They live in damp places, generally in irrigated landscaped areas such as flower beds, hiding in mulch and plant litter. While they may migrate in the fall, heavy rains can drive them out of their normal habitat. I suspect the recent downpour (we had four inches in a 24-hour period at our house) brought the millipedes out of hiding. They also come indoors looking for places to overwinter.
Millipedes are beneficial arthropods because they break down leaf and plant matter for microorganisms to use. They contribute to a healthy soil that is good for plants. While mildly annoying, they really do no harm, so pesticides are unwarranted. If you are too squeamish to pick one up in a tissue and put it outside, vacuuming or sweeping them up will work. Birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and some insects eat millipedes. I bet chickens find them a delicacy.
If you want to prevent millipedes from getting in the house, leave a border of bare soil adjacent to the house. Thin plants next to the house to increase ventilation. Allow soil to dry out between waterings. Caulk or seal cracks and other openings in exterior foundation walls and doors.
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Since I'm grateful for the moist soil, I can tolerate a few millipedes.
JoAnne Skelly is Associate Professor & Extension Educator, Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.