Monday, October 15, 2012

A millipede invasion

Although harmless to people, the many-legged millipede can be intimidating if you are scared of creatures that resemble worms and snakes.

Simply Living
October 15, 2012

On Orchard Way, the dead-end street where I grew up in Yardley, PA, my mother’s fear of worms and snakes was common knowledge.  The neighbors all knew the sight of any slithering or slimy looking creature would send my normally composed parent into wild banshee mode, screaming uncontrollably.

It would have been a stretch to call my mother popular with the kids on our street.  Her no-nonsense nature and quick-to-criticize manner earned few points among adolescent boys, who responded to her complaints about their behavior by taking advantage of her fears.  

Their most memorable prank involved placing a knot of squiggly worms into our mailbox knowing full well my mother was the one who usually got the mail.  Mom’s reaction to their squirmy surprise far exceeded the expectations of all involved, earning its own page in Orchard Way history.

The other day as I hand-picked millipedes off the tiled floor, I thought of my mother who died in August 2010.  As I picked up one millipede after another, I wondered how my mother would have reacted.  If she saw as many cylindrical crawlers inside the house as I did, her level of hysteria might have surpassed the infamous mailbox incident. 

Although millipedes are not reptiles, they look enough like small snakes to trigger terror among ophidiophobiacs like my mother, people who are scared of snakes.  Belonging to a class of animals known as diplopoda, millipedes are multi-segmented arthropods with two pair of legs per segment.  These harmless-to-people invertebrates are often confused with centipedes, which have one pair of legs per segment.  While both have dozens of short appendages, the legs on centipedes are quite visible, protruding sideways from their bodies while less obvious millipede legs extend downward. 

Other differences include the color (centipedes are blackish-red while millipedes are grayish-brown), body shape (centipedes are flat, millipedes round) and speed of movement (centipedes are fast, millipedes slow).  Centipedes and millipedes also have dietary differences.  Centipedes are carnivores, which makes them beneficial to gardeners because they eat bugs that eat plants.  Millipedes, on the other hand, are vegetarians dining on decomposing organic matter as well as tender young leaves.  Centipedes are good for the garden because they consume bugs.  Millipedes… not so much.  Millipedes are beneficial in that they help break down organic material but not welcome when they nibble on newly sprouted broccoli leaves. 

At some point every year, millipedes seem to wander indoors.  They could be venturing inside to escape the heat or in search of dry ground during rainy periods.  For whatever reason, their move into interior spaces is an unfortunate choice.  Even the messiest home is not usually a depository for either decaying matter or tasty green sprouts so millipedes that seek indoor refuge rarely live long. 

The simplest way to deal with multi-legged millipedes that find their way through cracks into home is to pick them up and throw them outside.  Since they don’t bite or sting, handling them holds no danger.  For a more permanent solution, millipedes can be dropped into a pail of soapy water or doused by any number of home-defense type sprays.  Be forewarned that when touched, millipedes curl into a spiral in the hope that their pursuer will think they are already dead and leave them alone.  Centipedes won’t do that, which is another way to tell them apart.

When it feels threatened, a millipede curls into a spiral and stays still.

I don’t mind millipedes.  I don’t even get upset if they meander into my house.  I do regret, however, that I never took the time to ask my mother what made her so terrified of any creature that bore even the slightest resembled to a snake or worm.  There are some questions, I suppose, that can never be answered and there are some questions too late to ask.  

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