Small Wonders, Critter Stories: Millipedes

What is the difference between a centipede and a millipede, you may ask, and you would be forgiven for saying the number of legs!Centipede vs. Millipede: Pest Identification Guide FullScope

In actuality, they are both members of the Arthropod family and are members of the sub-group myriapods (many feet). 

About those legs – milli means thousand in Latin. The most ever recorded pairs of legs in a millipede was 750, until the discovery of a new species in 2021 which had 1,300!

Centi means one hundred, and centipedes and can have from 30 – 354 pairs, always an odd number, so now you know!

However, they do have some very different habits and lifestyles.

Let us start with the centipedes. Each segment of their body has one pair of legs which extend away from their body, giving a somewhat untidy appearance. Their long antennae are used to seek out prey. Seen side by side you can see that a centipede appears flatter than a millipede.

They can run quite fast and can give a nasty bite if provoked. 

FACT: Some very sensitive people may get a slight reaction to the bite.

They are predatory by nature, biting and injecting venom into their prey which consists of smaller insects such as earthworms, springtails, fly larvae and other centipedes.

Nocturnal in activity, they live in soil and detritus, and some species can live up to 10 years. They can be subject to dehydration in sunlight or dry areas, so they avoid heat and light.

Millipedes may look similar, but are quite different in habit. 

Their bodies are much rounder and each body segment (except the first three) will have two pairs of legs. The legs are compact, giving the millipede a tidier appearance than the centipede. They are slow walkers – no rushing around with these little guys! Their antenna are quite short. 

FUN FACT: When threatened they will curl up into a neat little ball or spiral.

A Wandering Horde of...Millipedes - Insect Diagnostic Lab

They do not bite and are known as detrivores – that is they eat stuff like leaf litter, rotting logs etc. They are gentle and harmless. The two most common varieties you will find in the Finger Lakes are the Narceus americanus and the black and gold. The black and gold sports these colors as a warning. The insect contains a very small amount of cyanide in the body armor as a defense! It is unlikely to cause problems, but it is advisable to not pick these little fellows up. The Narceus is quite harmless and some folks keep them as low maintenance pets. They can live up to 2 years of age and grow to be four inches in length.

Just how do these creatures attain that length? The female will lay from 10-300 eggs in a prepared nest, few will provide “parental care”. When the eggs hatch, the millipedes are very small, but will periodically molt, shedding the exoskeleton to become larger with each successive molt.

While most folks see these creatures as “creepy crawlies”, the both serve a vital function in the ecosystem. The centipedes keep certain harmful bugs in check and will rarely attack your plants.

The millipedes are part of natures “clean-up” crew, reducing leaf litter, rotten wood etc. to a rich humus that provides accessible nutrition back to the earth.

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