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Do Centipedes Bite?
Do centipedes bite? Yes, many of them do. While most household bugs are completely harmless, centipedes are capable of inflicting a very minor venomous bite.
Centipedes are common arthropods — related to insect, spiders, and even lobsters — that live in almost all environments around the world. This includes your basement!
While there are some very cool and even beautiful centipedes out there, there’s only one kind found in your basement or house — the so-called “house centipede.” This quick, many-legged arthropod goes by the scientific name Scutigera coleoptrata. The species is native to areas around the Mediterranean Sea, but has spread throughout the world. Clearly it knows what it’s doing! This centipede is one of the most successful animals in the entire world. And you probably have some of these geniuses living right down in your basement.
These centipedes kill and eat all kinds of insects and little pests bugs that would otherwise make your life less happy. So. like spiders, they use their poison to make your life better.
A Centipede's "Back Legs"
The Sting of a Centipede Bite
Since centipedes need to kill their prey, they have a poisonous bite. In this way they’re a lot like spiders, only they rely on speed and stealth rather than the trap of a web. They use their venom to eat, like all of these animals do. If they happen to bite you, it’s in self-defense — certainly not because they want to eat you, and definitely not because they want to bite. For some reason, you have made them think they’re about to die, and they do what they have to to stay alive.
Centipedes tend to live underground or in dark cracks, where they can burrow down and hide from the daylight. Since they're mainly nocturnal, you probably won't see them too often. This is especially true for "wild" centipedes that don't live in your house, like the big Scolopendra centipedes that live in the arid Southwest and feed on crickets and other small invertebrates.
How Centipedes Bite
Centipedes bite with “fangs,” but technically that’s not what they are. While a spider has actual, free-standing fang mouthparts, centipedes use modified front legs to pitch, puncture, and deliver venom. It’s entirely possible that these front leg “fangs” are an intermediate form of true fangs, on their way to evolving into fangs like the more-evolved spider has.
When the centipede wants to bite, it seizes its prey — or, much less commonly, your skin — and the sharp tips puncture the skin. Venom flows from the modified legs into the wound, killing the small prey.
The sting that you feel when the centipede bites is that small amount of toxin intended to kill a little spider or a fly. So there's no reason to panic -- you received a pretty tiny dose, and the poor centipede has done everything it can to defend itself from what it perceives to be impending death.
Most centipede bites are minor
Centipede Bite Symptoms
When the venom enters the human system, it immediately causes stinging pain. The small house centipedes that you might encounter have a sting comparable to a sweat bee — that is, a slight sting and burn that quickly fades. You may be bitten by a house centipede and never even notice it.
The red spot stings and itches and fades in a few hours. It’s truly nothing to worry about, and compared to all the good those little guys do for you, and considering that the little bug thought you were going to kill it (and maybe you were), it all adds to up to a big “so what?” Move on and let the centipede move on too.
Take a Centipede Bite Poll
Have you ever been bitten by a centipede?
More Dangerous Centipede Bites
There are, however, some centipedes out there that are truly fearsome. There are large — think nearly a foot long — centipedes that can delver enough venom to cause a toxic reaction that can kill. Although these centipedes are relatively uncommon and not often seen, they are out there and they do occasionally bite people. The symptoms of a bite like this are:
severe pain, which is usually in proportion to the size of the centipede
swelling and redness
swollen, painful lymph nodes palpitations or a racing pulse
The wounds from these bites are technically not even bites, since they’re inflicted by “legs.” They form a distinct chevron shape and may result in serious infection and further complications. However bites from these centipedes are very rare, and it's very unlikely that they could result in anything like a serious complication.
Unless you live in the arid southwest or neotropical regions, and spend a lot of time reaching into dark crevices without looking, you’re basically ever going to even see one of these big biters. That’s kind of a shame, since the big species are often quite beautiful.
A House Centipede With Its Prey
Can you pass this centipede quiz?
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A Hundred Legs?
Centipedes get their name from their multitude of legs. “Centipede” means “hundred legs” in Latin, and though they don’t have that many, they do have plenty. Think of them as extra-long spiders. They typically have 15 pairs of legs, in addition to an array of long, whip-like antennae and "feelers," which help them locate prey in the dark, dank places where they like to live and hunt for food.
If you’re not sure whether what you’re seeing is a centipede, give it a nudge. If it bolts away at high speed, it’s a centipede. If it moseys out of the way, it’s the slower-moving millipede. Which are, you’ll be happy to know, unable to bite anything.