Almost Paradise?

Ok. Time to address the boar on the lanai. Hawai’i Island, at 19.5 degrees North latitude, lies firmly in the tropics (or at least the sub-tropics if we are going to split degrees.) We are, indeed the de-facto southern most of all the United States, lucky to experience mild weather all year round. With this comes a fact of tropical living that many people perceive as being a downside, believe it or not. And that is: there are cockroaches and centipedes that live here! And sometimes, IN OUR HOUSES (cue the ‘dread’ music)!!

The myths about these warm weather animals are legion. They inspire great passion in some excitable people who exclaim that we need to “destroy them all with fire!” Oh my. Somehow roaches have gotten the reputation of being the harbingers death and disease, and are a symptom of filth and decay. Worse, centipedes are thought by many to be loathsome, monstrous, and creepy animals. Even most entomologists(!) will admit that the centipede is the one critter that gives them the creepies. (It should be noted here that I am not talking about the cute little house centipedes that many affectionately refer to as “Scutes.”)

Both cockroaches and centipedes fulfill their ecological niche con mucho gusto, while being, actually, fairly harmless.

Out of about 4,500 species of roaches worldwide only about 30 are considered pests. Hawai’i is the home to 19 species of cockroaches, (all of them imports!), yet only 3 considered ‘pests.’ The largest and most common is the American Cockroach (Periplaneta americana.) They can get to be nearly 3 inches long and are COMPLETELY HARMLESS! Sure, if one of these guys crawls over something dirty and horrid and becomes inoculated with horrible microbes, then yes, don’t let them crawl over your food! But roaches can be found in the most fastidious households- they are simply well hidden.

Speaking of fastidious, after being held by a human, cockroaches will immediately and furiously clean themselves of the human muck they pick up- they even wipe down their antennae! Besides being a food source for insectivorous animals like birds and spiders (and some human cultures), they are important as fertilizers of the local ecosystem. Cockroaches break down the nitrogen locked in organic vegetable matter and, upon pooping it out, return it to the soil as food for the plants. Way to go Roaches!

Compared to the cockroaches’ mild, mellow, innocuous herbivore manner, centipedes are the fearsome devil-beast hunters. There are about 8,000 species of centipedes worldwide, but only 3 types have found their way to Hawai’i. (Many people think that this is 3 species too many.) Only one of these has a bite of consequence, (meaning, it REALLY HURTS) the “Vietnamese Centipede” (Scolopendra subspinipes). It can get to be a true monster- up to 12 inches in length, and will try to eat anything not longer than itself- insects, small reptiles, and even birds! (I myself have witnessed a mouse being attacked and consumed by a large specimen. Now THAT was creepy!)

The “bite” of the centipede on humans is usually incurred by accidentally stepping on one or by putting one’s foot into a shoe without shaking it out first, which perhaps explains why so many residents here wear ‘slippahs’- AKA ‘flip-flops.’ A bite generally does not necessitate medical intervention outside of cleansing the wound and applying antibacterial salve, and maybe taking a couple ibuprophin.

cu centipede

Centipedes are stellar pest-control agents. The centipede subdues its prey by actually “hugging” it with its first pair of modified legs, which are attached to venom glands and powerful muscles. The fast acting venom soon incapacitates the prey long enough to be consumed.

An interesting tidbit is the fact that the centipede employs what I have come to call the “butthead” line of defense. The centipedes’ long back-legs and dark tail segments makes it visually confusing for a predator to tell which end is which. Predators tend to want to get control of the head end of their food because that is where the defensive mechanisms are usually located. Given that an immediate decision has to be made on a fast-moving potential meal, there is a 50/50 chance of the predator grabbing the wrong end, allowing the lucky centipede the opportunity to strike back and possibly be dropped for a hasty dash to safety.

So, is it worth it to live here knowing that these critters are constantly running around our house? Yes it is! While we don’t enjoy being awakened by a gigantic cockroach scampering across our legs at night, and we certainly hope to extend our good fortune of NOT experiencing a centipede bite first-hand, (knock on termite-laced wood), all in all, our “roomies” are pretty interesting, usually keep to themselves, and don’t make a lot of noise. Best of all, they keep our other housemates- the reptiles, generously fed.

Below: A young S. subspinipes. This is the only size I can comfortably hold. ;-)

Photo credits from top to bottom: Unknown Artist (Tin Shack Bakery (great food!!)Pahoa, HI), Me (I think), The others, Me (I know)