Are millipedes good or bad for the garden?

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Centipede

Centipedes and millipedes are generally beneficial creatures.

Centipedes feed on soil-dwelling mites, insects, insect larvae, baby snails, and slugs. (They paralyze small insect prey with venomous claws.)

Millipedes feed on decaying plant tissue and fallen fruit.

Together centipedes and millipedes help break down organic matter enriching the soil by helping to create humus.

Sometimes centipedes and millipedes can be pests. Centipedes also eat living plant tissue and earthworms. Millipedes sometimes feed on plant roots, germinating seed, and seedlings.

Centipedes and millipedes are close relatives of insects, but they are not insects. Centipedes belong to the class Chlopoda, not Insecta; millipedes belong to the class Diplopoda, not Insecta.

Centipedes look like segmented 1-inch worms with 30 or more legs. They are brown, flattened, have a distinct head, and one pair of jointed legs per segment. They hide during the day under garden debris and are active and feed at night.

Millipede

Millipedes are up to 2 inches long. They have hard-shelled, cylindrical, and segmented bodies with two pairs of short legs per segment. Millipedes can have up to 400 legs (not 1,000 as their name implies). They are often found coiled in the soil during the day and are active at night.

Centipedes are fast moving. Millipedes are slow moving.

Centipedes can be pests when they feed on the roots of asparagus, cucumber, lettuce, radish, and tomato. Millipedes can be pests when they eat the roots of beans, cabbage, carrots, corn, potatoes, strawberries tomatoes, and turnips.

Centipedes and millipedes overwinter as adults in the soil. In spring they lay clusters of translucent eggs. Nymphs are smaller versions of the adults. There are many generations of centipedes each year. There is just one generation of millipedes each year.

To prevent centipedes and millipedes from eating the above ground portions of plants, sprinkle wood ashes, diatomaceous earth, or cinders around plants, seedlings, and near rows of germinating seeds.

Centipedes and millipedes are found throughout North America.

Millipedes and Centipedes

Millipedes and centipedes are often confused for each other. Millipedes are usually dark colored and have two pairs of legs per body segment. Centipedes, on the other hand, come in many colors and sizes and have only one pair of legs per body segment. Millipedes are, generally, slow moving creatures that break down dead plant material. They are beneficial to your garden as they feed on the dead plant material and return lawn fertilizing nutrients to the soil.

Varieties of Millipedes and Centipedes

Centipedes are predacious, feeding on many harmful insects that can damage your landscape plants. They are very fast runners. The fastest are the ones with the fewest number of legs. They will rise up as they run and settle back down when they stop. There are about 3,000 centipede species throughout the world. They all possess a poison gland that opens through their jaws. None of the species are known to be very dangerous, although, there are species in the southwestern U.S. that can cause a temporarily painful bite.

Both millipedes and centipedes can be found hiding in the damp soil under rocks or boards. They often emerge from compost that is turned over, or when digging in the soil. Sometimes you may find a centipede in your house. This is normally a species known as the house centipede. They, also, exist outdoors and can be found across the U.S. as well as Europe. They have 15 pairs of legs, are about one 1” long, and are often found running across the floor or walls. They hunt many insects that may already be in the house, such as flies. They don’t bite and will help to rid the house of other insect pests.

Before you decide to swat a centipede or millipede with a newspaper, or crush it under your foot, remember they are very beneficial to the overall well-being of your lawn and garden. They are not attractive and do look menacing, but they are an integral part of the ecosystem.

Learn more about…

Mole Crickets

Snail and Slug Damage

Sod Webworms

Description of millipedes


Common millipede on carpet. Photo by Diana Pounds.

Millipedes are common arthropods found in damp locations where they feed on decaying organic matter. Millipedes are are beneficial as “recyclers” as they break down decaying organic matter. Millipedes are not harmful; they cannot bite or sting and they do not attack people, property, possessions or pets.

Millipedes live outdoors or in damp locations such as greenhouses and hide during the day under leaves, needles and dead plant debris, or in cracks and crevices. They are most active at night when the humidity is higher or when dew is present.

Millipedes have an elongated, worm-like body with two pairs of short legs on the underside of almost every body segment. The common millipede is approximately 1 inch long with a hard, rounded, cylindrical body that is brown to blackish in color. They have short, inconspicuous legs and they usually coil into a spiral when handled or disturbed and when dead.

The garden or greenhouse millipede (also called flat-backed millipede) is often abundant in greenhouses (as the name implies) but is also found in potted houseplants and may live outdoors in damp areas. The garden millipede is different from the more common millipedes by being moderately flattened from top to bottom and lighter colored. The legs are fairly prominent. Flat-backed millipedes have small “flanges” or ridges along the sides of each body segment.


Flat-backed millipede.

Life cycle of millipedes

Millipedes spend the winter as adults, hiding in protected locations. Eggs are laid in the soil or under decaying organic matter. Young millipedes that hatch from eggs resemble small, shorter versions of adult millipedes. The immature millipedes grow gradually in size, adding segments and legs as they mature.

Growth and development occurs in damp areas with decaying organic matter. Millipedes can not reproduce indoors. All millipedes found inside wandered in by mistake.

Damage caused by millipedes

Millipedes are harmless; they do not feed upon building structures or furnishings and they cannot bite or sting. However, millipedes can be annoying as accidental invaders in houses and other buildings when they migrate into buildings over night. Millipedes are usually found in the garage, basement or lowest level although they may wander into other parts of the house. Millipedes in greenhouses, gardens and potted plants may be annoying but do not feed on the plants unless the plant is laready damaged or decayed.

Management of millipedes

Controls for millipedes are aimed at keeping millipedes outdoors or reducing their numbers at the source. Cracks, gaps and other points of entry around windows and doors and in foundation walls should be sealed if possible. Removing organic matter such as plant mulch and dead leaves from against the house may help, and damp conditions around the house foundation should be corrected.

Insecticides are of limited benefit in controlling millipedes because of the protected areas where they originate and because of the long distances they migrate. In warm weather when millipedes are actively wandering, residual insecticides can be applied in a 5- to 20-foot wide barrier around the building to reduce entry. If practical, also spray areas where the millipedes likely originate. Thorough application will aid in control, but reliance on chemical control alone is often unsatisfactory. The control treatments must be thoroughly applied in such a way as to get the insecticide down to the soil surface. For more information on insecticides please see this article.

Millipedes migrate long distances during certain times of the year (varies with the weather, but commonly in spring or fall). Therefore, actions near the house may have no effect. Some sources of millipedes such as woodlands and crop reserve program fields can produce extremely large numbers of millipedes that invade from distances of 50 feet or more.

The indoor use of household insecticides provides little if any benefit. Millipedes that wander indoors usually die in a short time because of the dryness, and spraying cracks, crevices and room edges is not very useful. Sweeping or vacuuming up the invaders and discarding them is the most practical option.

Control of greenhouse millipedes requires locating the source of the infestation. Check under benches and in houseplants and damp areas. Millipedes discovered during the summer may originate outdoors under leaves and mulch, in window wells and similar locations.

If houseplants are infested you may decide to discard the plants. For plants you wish to save, remove any soil-covering mulch or moss and allow the potting soil to dry out as much as the plant can withstand between waterings. The soil surface, cracks along the edges of the pot and the area between the pot and saucer can be sprayed with a houseplant insecticide to further help eliminate millipedes.

Do you live in Iowa and have an insect you would like identified?

The Iowa State University Plant & Insect Diagnostic Clinic will identify your insect, provide information on what it eats, life cycle, and if it is a pest the best ways to manage them. Please see our website for current forms, fees, and instructions on preserving and mailing insects.

Contact information for each states diagnostic laboratory for U.S. residents. If you live outside of Iowa please do not submit a sample without contacting the Plant & Insect Diagnostic Clinic.

Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

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Be a Better Farmer: Understand the Living Soil
Part 2 – Good Bug or Bad?

Originally Printed in Country Guide, Spring 2001

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Wireworm
  3. Millipedes
  4. Centipedes
  5. Symphylans
  6. Related Links

Introduction

This second installment in our living soil series focuses on 4 soil-dwelling creatures that often get confused with each other. It is important to be able to identify them, however, so you know whether to control them or help them thrive.

Wireworms

The bad actor in this group is the wireworm. A crop pest, it feeds on seeds, germinating seedlings and roots of corn, soybeans, wheat and edible beans.

Often confused with millipedes and centipedes, wireworms are the larvae of click beetles, which you may fine attracted to lit areas around your house in late July. These adults do not damage crops.

The larvae have long, hard cylindrical bodies that are copper-brown in colour. True insects, they have only 3 pairs of legs. Click beetles can have a long life cycle, some remaining as larvae and potentially doing damage for 3 to 5 years. So if they were there the previous season, they’ll probably still be in your field this year. They prefer reduced or no-till fields, sandier soils or fields where sod, small grains or alfalfa have been plowed under.


Wireworm larva.

Seed treatments containing lindane protect germinating seed against this pest. If populations are high, an in-furrow or banded insecticide may be needed to protect the growing seedling. No rescue treatment is available.

Millipedes

Millipedes, in contrast, are beneficial. They shred organic matter and mix it through the soil. This gives smaller soil organisms like fungi and bacteria greater surface area to work on, and speeds residue breakdown.

Millipedes have hard cylindrical bodies, usually dark brown, gray or black in colour, and between 30 and 400 pairs of short legs. When disturbed, they usually curl up. They’re easily confused with wireworms and centipedes. The key here is the number of legs and the body shape.

Absolutely harmless to humans and buildings, they may occasionally feed on garden plants if a garden is over-watered or has high amounts of plant debris and rotting material on the surface. But take a walk at dark to make sure the damage isn’t caused by earwigs.

Because millipedes need moist, cool soil with lots of decaying residues, they respond well to reduced tillage.

Centipedes

Centipedes are also good (but ugly) bugs. These predators feed on pests such as slugs, symphylans, spiders, flies and cockroaches. Usually yellow to reddish brown, they’re flat-bodied and have one pair of long legs per body segment. With at least 15 pairs of legs, centipedes are not true insects. They are rather shy and run very fast when found.

Their favoured habitat is dark, moist, protected areas under leaves, logs and residue. As with millipedes, farming systems that leave crop residues on the soil surface and involve a variety of crop rotations will encourage centipede populations.

Often confused with millipedes, centipedes can be identified by their flat body shape and leg arrangement. They won’t harm humans or buildings. Centipedes are actually good to have in your house. They hunt less welcome visitors like cockroaches and spiders.

Symphylans

Fourth on our list come symphylans. These bugs are both good and bad. Occasional pests of corn, they feed on germinating seed, gouging kernels. They may also feed on roots and root hairs of corn, alfalfa, carrots, and potatoes.

On the other hand, they mostly survive by scavenging nutrients from plant debris. By shredding residue for faster breakdown, they keep plant nutrients cycling through the soil.

You’ll find symphylans in damp, high-organic, sandy soils usually when crops are germinating slowly from a cool, wet spring. They are small (usually less than 1.5 cm long), white to brass coloured, and have only 12 pairs of legs (one pair per segment like centipedes). Their distinctive antennae are jointed to form a Y shape. They are often confused with wireworms and centipedes.

It’s not known whether symphylans can be controlled with seed- or soil- applied treatments, but they seldom reach crop-pest levels in Ontario. A steady supply of crop residues and less soil disturbance (no-till) encourages these creatures to be good soil citizens.

Since many of the good critters in your soil look like bad guys and vice versa, it’s important to recognize them all.

Related Links

  • OMAF Agronomy Guide for Field Crops (Pub.811): Chapter 8, Soil Management
  • OMAF Agronomy Guide for Field Crops (Pub.811): Chapter 9, Soil Fertility and Nutrient Use
  • OMAF Soil Management Index Page

Facts, Identification & Control

Latin Name

Class Diplopoda

Appearance

What Do They Look Like?

  • Size: 2.5 to 4 cm long
  • Color: Common North American species are brownish in color.
  • Body & Legs: Long and slender, millipedes look like worms with legs. They are segmented, with two pair of legs per segment.

How Did I Get Millipedes?

They usually dwell in damp areas outdoors but can migrate inside if their habitat outdoors becomes too hot and dry. Once inside, they may hide under furniture or boxes of stored items.

Entry

When they come to a home, millipedes gather on porches and patios. They climb the foundation of the home and they often find entryways such as:

  • Basement doors and windows
  • Crawlspace vents
  • Doors with missing weather stripping
  • Garage doors

How Serious Are Millipedes?

Are They Dangerous?

Millipedes do not bite or sting, nor do they do any damage to stored food, structures, or furniture. However, there are some species of millipedes that excrete a defensive fluid that irritates the skin of people who handle them or otherwise come into contact with those toxic millipede species.

Since the pests are most active at night, their appearance can scare homeowners moving boxes or other items. Millipedes also move in large numbers, so they can become a major nuisance and cause quite a fright to unsuspecting people or pets. But, since millipedes feed on and thus decompose organic matter, they are actually very beneficial to the environment.

Signs of an Infestation

Other than the sightings of the millipedes, there aren’t many distinct signs of their presence.

How Do I Get Rid of Millipedes?

In an emergency, a vacuum cleaner or a shop-type vacuum can be used to remove millipedes from walls and floors. When the situation gets bad, many homeowners call for help.

What Orkin Does

The Orkin Man™ is trained to manage millipedes. Using Orkin’s exclusive system of Assess, Implement, and Monitor (A.I.M.), he can design a solution for your home’s unique situation.

  • Inspection – Millipede treatment usually begins with an inspection by your pest management professional to locate the source how the pests are getting inside the home. Once the inspection is completed, your technician will prepare a plan that may involve both non-chemical and chemical treatment methods.
  • Prevention – Non-chemical components of the plan will emphasize preventing the pests from getting inside the home and reducing suitable habitats. Some specific actions include sealing around doors, windows, cracks, gaps, and crevices, plus reducing moist places that promote millipede survival. For example, the plan may recommend limiting the amount of mulch, rocks, or debris that are likely to create moist areas favoring large numbers of millipedes.
  • Removal – If chemical products are the most effective and efficient approach, your plan might include exterior and interior applications of products to potential entry points and harborage sites where millipedes accumulate.

Behavior, Diet & Habits

Where Do They Live?

Millipedes normally live outdoors in damp places. Around homes they live in flowerbeds and gardens. People often find millipedes under:

  • Mulch
  • Piles of dead leaves and grass clippings
  • Structures like dog houses and storage sheds

Crawlspaces are excellent millipede habitats. There are often boxes of stored items and pieces of lumber on the ground under a home. The millipedes can feed on dead leaves that have blown into the crawl space or small pieces of damp or decaying wood.

Migration

In the fall, millipedes often migrate. They move out of their normal habitat. Scientists suspect they may be trying to get ready for winter. However, millipedes have also been seen migrating after a heavy rain has flooded their habitat. During these migrations, millipedes often find their way into homes.

What Do They Eat?

They eat dead leaves and decaying wood particles that they find.

Reproduction

Eggs are deposited in the soil; most species reach sexual maturity in the second year and live several years after that.

  • Are Millipedes Poisonous?
  • Do Millipedes Bite?
  • How Long Do Millipedes Live?
  • Millipede Infestations
  • Types of Millipedes
  • What Do Millipedes Eat?
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Millipede

narceus americanus

The millipede’s name means “thousand-legger”, which is what they appear to be. Millipedes actually have only 200 to 300 legs and at least four eyes. They are gentle and easy to handle, sleep during the day and come out in the evening to eat.

Millipede Facts

Scientific Name: narceus americanus
Average Adult Size: 4 to 11 inches long
Average Life Span 3+ years with proper care
Diet herbivore

Diet

A well-balanced cat diet consists of:

  • Vegetables and fruit,such as romaine lettuce,squash, melon slices and bananas; avoid iceberg lettuce because it does not provide enough nourishment.
  • Apples and cucumbers are favorites but everything must be sliced or peeled due to their weak mouthparts.
  • Ground cuttlebone will supply needed lime salts.

Feeding

Things to remember when feeding your millipede:

  • Feed once a day, as much food as they will consume in a night.
  • Discard uneaten vegetables and fruits each morning.
  • Water – Always have a shallow dish of chlorine free water available; place a sponge or stones in the dish to keep the millipede from drowning; if a sponge is used in the dish it must be replaced often due to bacteria growth.

Housing

  • Size – Appropriately sized habitat, such as a 5 to 10 gallon glass aquarium, with a screen mesh lid fastened tightly with metal clips to prevent escape.
  • Hideaway – Provide a hideaway to help your milipede feel secure.
  • Substrate – Mulch-type commercial material, dampened sphagnum moss and bark; avoid gravel and artificial turf (too harsh).
  • Temperature – 60 to 78°F.
  • Lighting – Keep habitat away from sunlight; millipedes sleep during the day and do not like bright, hot lights; a red or blue bulb will allow you to watch the evening activities of your millipede without disturbance.
  • Millipedes may be housed with other millipedes of the same species but do not house different invertebrate species together.

Normal Behavior

  • Generally easy to handle; millipedes don’t bite, move slowly and have tough shells.
  • Nocturnal (active at night).
  • When feeling threatened, they curl up into a tight spiral with their shells to the outside to protect themselves and may secrete a foul-smelling and -tasting fluid meant to repel predators. Always wash your hands after handling a millipede.

Habitat Maintenance

  • Thoroughly clean and disinfect the habitat at least once a week: place millipede in a secure habitat; scrub the tank and furnishings with a 3% bleach solution; rinse thoroughly with water, removing all traces of bleach smell. Dry the tank and furnishings before adding clean substrate.

Grooming & Hygiene

  • Handle as little as possible; wash hands before and after handling. Do not allow a millipede’s secretion to come into contact with eyes, mouth or open wounds.

Health

Signs of a Healthy Animal

  • Eats regularly
  • Body is rounded and full
  • Active and alert
  • Healthy skin(exoskeleton)

Red Flags

If you notice any of these signs, test water quality and improve as necessary.

  • Poor appetite
  • Lethargic
  • Fungus
  • Dull shell

Common Health Issues

Health Issue Symptoms or Causes Suggested Action
Health Issue Dehydration Symptoms or Causes Lethargic, shriveled appearance. Suggested Action Consult with a veterinarian.
Health Issue Fungus Symptoms or Causes Loss of appetite, white fuzzy patches. Suggested Action Consult your veterinarian.

Shopping List shop all

  • appropriately sized habitat
  • substrate
  • food & water dishes
  • décor
  • thermometer
  • humidity gauge
  • vitamin supplement
  • calcium supplement
  • cuttlebone
  • red or blue bulb and lighting fixture
  • book about millipedes

Sources

Ask a store partner about Petco’s selection of books on millipedes and the variety of private brand products available for the care and happiness of your new pet. All private brand products carry a 100% money-back guarantee.

Because all invertebrates are potential carriers of infectious diseases, such as Salmonella, always wash your hands before and after handling your invertebrate or habitat contents to help prevent the potential spread of disease.

Pregnant women, children under the age of 5, senior citizens and people with weakened immune systems should contact their physician before purchasing or caring for invertebrates and should consider not having an invertebrate as a pet.

Go to cdc.gov/healthypets for more information about invertebrates and disease.

This Care Sheet can cover the care needs of other species.

Note: The information on this Care Sheet is not a substitute for veterinary care. If you need additional information, contact your veterinarian as appropriate.

Developed with and approved by a qualified veterinarian.

What Do Millipedes Eat?

Most Millipedes Are Scavengers

Millipedes frighten many people. They have long, slender bodies. Some species of millipedes can reach almost 115 mm in length. Even when they are curled up, many people think they look scary. Millipedes have lots of legs—so many that people call them “thousand-leggers” In fact almost every segment of the millipede’s body has two pairs of legs.

Millipedes prefer to live outdoors. They need a lot of moisture, so they tend to live in damp areas. Around the yard, millipedes will be found in gardens and flowerbeds. They live under mulch, under dead leaves, or even under piles of grass clippings. In well-established lawns, millipedes can also live in the layer of thatch between the grass and the soil.

In their natural habitat, most millipedes are scavengers. They eat damp or decaying wood particles. They also eat decaying leaves and other plant material. If their habitat starts to dry out, millipedes will attack living plants. They can get moisture from the green leaves and soft roots.

As millipedes grow, they shed their skin several times. After each molt, they eat the cast-off skins. Some scientists think this helps them replace lost calcium. Sometimes millipedes also feed on small insects, earthworms, and snails.

Millipede control usually requires changing their habitat. The Orkin Man™ is trained to identify the areas where millipedes have been living around your home. He can also identify entryways they might be using to get inside your home. Since every home is unique, he will create a solution for your home’s situation. Then on each follow-up visit, he will inspect for any changes that might allow millipedes to invade your home again.

For more information or to schedule an inspection, please contact your local Orkin branch office.

Portuguese millipedes

Millipedes’ slow-crawling, rounded bodies have two pairs of legs on each body segment and rows of glands that secrete a pungent yellowish secretion when the millipede is agitated. This secretion is composed of organic chemicals called quinones, which make the millipedes distasteful to predators such as birds.

Distribution

The Portuguese millipede naturally occurs in southwest Europe. They were first recorded in Western Australia around Roleystone in 1986 and since the late nineties, have been found in other areas of south-west Western Australia. They are also found in South Australia, Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania and Victoria.

Description

The smooth, cylindrical body of the Portuguese millipede distinguishes it from the native species around Perth, which have a bumpy look. Native millipedes are usually found in low numbers and are widespread. Portuguese millipedes congregate in large numbers and are quite mobile, especially after the first rains in autumn.

Portuguese millipedes will curl up into a tight spiral when disturbed, or try to escape with thrashing, snake-like movements. They are 20-45mm long with 50 body segments when fully developed. The adults range in colour from slate-grey to black. The juveniles are light grey/brown, often with a darker stripe along each side.

Life cycle

Portuguese millipedes reproduce in autumn and early winter. They would probably begin mating in March or April and lay most of their eggs in April and May. This would explain why they appear so mobile and so abundant after the first rains.

Portugese millipede.

Mature females lay about 200 pinhead sized, yellowish white eggs in a small hole they have made in the soil. An immobile, legless stage hatches from each egg and develops into the first active stage of the life cycle after about one week. This first stage has only three pairs of legs, but each time the animal moults until it is mature, more legs and body segments are added.

Millipedes grow or develop through a series of moults. During moulting millipedes are very fragile because the new cuticle is soft and easily damaged when first formed. The millipede usually eats the old cuticle.

After the first year of life, juveniles have reached the seventh, eighth or ninth stage of development and will be about 1.5cm long. After this stage they will moult only in spring and summer. Portuguese millipedes usually mature after two years when they are in the tenth or eleventh stage of growth and some can live for more than two years.

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