Do Centipedes Bite?

Updated on July 12, 2018
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I have studied insects for nearly forty years, and I have also done battle with my share of garden pests.

Do Centipedes Bite? Yes -- Some Do!

Do centipedes bite? Yes, some can, but it all depends on what kind of centipede we're talking about. The one that most likely sent you to this article is the common brown house centipede, known to scientists as Scutigera coleoptrata. This is the long, thin, many-legged bug that scurries across the floor when you move a box of books in the basement. They're fast, they have dozens of long thin legs, and they seem to jump out at you when you least expect it -- in other words, a bug-hater's nightmare.

If possible, try not to freak out and squash these little guys. Their bite is of no consequence for humans, and the only way they'll even get a chance to bite you is if you chase one down and pick it up. Their number one way of handling a threat like you is to run, run, run. Killing the one centipede you see will not do anything about the others you can't see -- you'll still have centipedes in your basement.

But that's okay, because we ALL have centipedes in the basement.

Scutigera Coleoptrata -- Scary, but Harmless

The Brown House Centipede

Scutigera coleoptrata is the species of centipede you're most likely to see running for its life in your basement or garage. These small centipedes might look freaky, but unless you're a silverfish, or a fly, or any number of nasty household pests, they're harmless. Brown house centipedes eat bad bugs all day long, along with dead insects and other assorted crud, keeping your cruddy corners a little less cruddy.

So if you want to help out the roaches, flies, silverfish, and all the other nasty pests in your house, stomp that centipede. One of their favorites is roach eggs -- yummy, right? -- which means they will keep down or eliminate a cockroach problem. And centipedes themselves are relatively clean animals that don't reproduce out of control. If you see one, that doesn't mean you have hundreds living in your walls.

So unless you like cockroaches and other bugs, let Mr. Centipede scurry away to a place where he (hopefully) won't bother you again.

Don't Call the Exterminators -- Centipedes ARE the Exterminators

Since brown house centipedes kill and eat all kinds of insects and little pesty bugs that would otherwise make your life less happy, and since these centipedes don't bite you, they're actually little exterminators that basically never rest and work for free. Why would you want to kill them?

Some Centipedes Bite, and They Bite Hard!

Your little brown house centipedes are harmless and won't hurt you. But their country cousins are a different story.

There are a few centipede species out there that are big and poisonous enough to actually hurt you. They are not the same as the ones in your basement, and unless you live in certain parts of the world, you'll never encounter them. They live in holes and cracks in the ground, and come out at night to hunt crickets, moths, and even small vertebrates like lizards.

We're talking about centipedes in the genus Scolopendra, and these guys are bad news.

Anatomy of a Centipede Bite

Centipedes bite with “fangs,” but technically that’s not accurate. A centipede's fangs are actually its front legs. While a spider has actual, free-standing fang mouthparts, centipedes use modified front legs to grab and puncture its prey, and then deliver venom through hollow tubes. It’s entirely possible that these front leg “fangs” are an evolutionary intermediate to 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.

When the Centipede Bites

When centipede venom enters your system, it immediately causes stinging pain. The small house centipedes that you might encounter have a sting that burns a bit and quickly fades, because the amount of venom is tiny. You may be bitten by a house centipede and never even notice it. But when a Scolopendra species bites you, you notice.

Centipede bites are among the most painful bites known to man, and the bigger the centipede, the worse the pain. The venom, delivered by those modified front legs with the needle-sharp tips and venom ducts, is specially designed to incapacitate and paralyze. If the centipede is big enough, the pain and the shock can send an adult to the emergency room.

Scolopendra Centipede Bites -- a True Emergency

The truly dangerous centipedes in the Scolopendra genus are huge compared to your dinky little cockroach-egg-eating house centipede. They can grow to a foot in length, which makes them pretty awe inspiring whether they can bite or not. These big wild centipedes can deliver enough venom to cause a toxic reaction that can actually kill a human. Although these centipedes are relatively uncommon and not often seen, they are out there, and they do occasionally bite people. The symptoms of a centipede bite like this are:

  • severe pain, which is usually in proportion to the size of the centipede
  • headache
  • swelling and redness
  • swollen, painful lymph nodes palpitations or a racing pulse
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • anxiety
  • potentially fatal heart problems

The wounds from these bites form a distinct chevron shape and may result in serious infection and further complications. But it's important to remember that bites from these centipedes are very rare, and it's very unlikely that they could result in anything like a serious complication.

So remember -- unless you live in the arid southwest or Neotropical regions, and spend a lot of time reaching your hand 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.

The capture efficiency of this species may be the highest among all reported venomous animals.

— Ren Lai of the Kunming Institute of Zoology in China.

New Research Identifies Fatal Component of Centipede Venom: "Spooky Toxin"

A new study published by the Royal Society of Chemistry has identified the component of centipede venom that makes the bites so deadly. The bite delivers a kind of neurotoxin that interrupts the communication in nerve cells, causing paralysis. The centipede's prey -- be it lizard, mouse, or other small animals -- is overcome by the effects of the bite in a matter of seconds.

Scientists began referring to one component of the centipede's bite as "spooky toxin," both for its unparalleled deadliness and the fact that it shows no resemblance to any known animal toxins in protein databases. The toxin causes the nerves to fire relentlessly, throwing the heart and breathing apparatus into disarray.

Take a Centipede Bite Poll

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A House Centipede With Its Prey

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A Centipede's 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 a slower-moving millipede. Which, you’ll be happy to know, are unable to bite anything.

Do Centipedes Bite? Yes, if You're a Cockroach

So the next time you pick up a box in your garage or basement and see a creepy crawly centipede running for its life, think twice before you smash it. Centipedes do us a huge favor by feasting on all the nastier bugs in the neighborhood, and killing one will only mean more cockroaches, silverfish, moth flies, and so on. Scutigera coleoptrata exists to attack bad bugs, not you -- so go easy on them.

Centipede Resources

The following resources were consulted for this article:

westernexterminator.com/occasional-invaders/centipede

chemistryworld.com/news/deadly-component-of-centipede-venom-identified/3008568.article

Questions & Answers

    © 2014 GreenMind Guides

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      • Mel Carriere profile image

        Mel Carriere 

        3 years ago from San Diego California

        Very well written hub. Unfortunately I do not share your love or find the beauty in centipedes, but they are definitely interesting. I grew up in arid New Mexico, and my aversion for centipedes comes from a time when my cousin and I were rummaging through an auto dump and unearthed a ghastly giant centipede. We both freaked out. I recognize their need to exist, but don't ask me to love them. Great hub!

      • teaches12345 profile image

        Dianna Mendez 

        3 years ago

        I have seen these little critters outdoors but rarely indoors. Thank God! I didn't realize they could cause so much pain. Thanks for educating me today.

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