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Spiders & beetles & moths: unwelcome guests, tiny creatures have a long and inventive history of colonizing our homes.

oh my!

Museum entomologists receive a steady flow of questions about the small creatures that turn up in peoples' houses, especially old houses. Even in our sanitized modern world, everyone has experience with them. The unexpected intimacy of sharing one's home with these tiny unfamiliar animals is a reminder that the natural world was not shaped to comply with people. The small creatures are there because humans have unknowingly provided suitable living conditions for them. Far from being a random assortment, those in our houses are a select group of colonizers from around the world, and they have a long history, illustrating the power of natural selection.

The insects and arthropods discussed here are by no means confined to houses. They are widespread in commercial buildings and transport of all kinds; but their occurrence in houses brings them closer to the personal experience of people. And the old-house community puts people directly in contact with them, the outcome of events that followed when humans took up agriculture a few thousand years ago.

Adapted from Biological Notes on an Old Farm: Exploring Common Things in the Kingdoms of Life by ROM curator emeritus Glenn B. Wiggins and published by the ROM. The book is available in bookstores, including the ROM's Museum Store, and online.

PREDATORS

The old-house community is replete with granivorous and scavenging insects, and consequently is an energy resource for predators--and old houses are well supplied with predators.

Spiders are the ones seen most often in houses, but despite their role as agents of biological control, spiders are usually not appreciated indoors. Spiders found in houses are generally a mix of native and introduced species.

The pseudoscorpion that turns up in houses is introduced but is rarely numerous.

House centipedes are conspicuous predators.

Assassin bugs were introduced from Europe, where they had gained a reputation as predators of bedbugs, which were a rampant problem in the Old World; their disguise as dustballs while developing as nymphs render assassin bugs less apparent.

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HIBERNATORS

Insects of this category do not reproduce in buildings, but they do take advantage of the fine overwintering protection unwittingly provided by humans.

The most abundant hibernators in old country houses are cluster flies introduced from Europe.

Hibernating lady beetles are attracted to windows on warm spring days, but in recent years, the common species in houses is a foreign immigrant rather than the native two-spotted lady beetle.

One impressive hibernator is the western conifer seed bug, only recently appearing in eastern North America.

From time to time, introduced clover mites invade houses in swarms, apparently seeking only shelter, as do strawberry root weevils.

SCAVENGERS

Bits and pieces of just about any food material attract scavengers, and houses can harbour a goodly number of them.

Silverfish have been scavenging for several hundred million years and houses offer splendid opportunities for them to carry on.

Much the same is true for certain species of roaches. The roach species in buildings are mainly of African origin and are the epitome of generalist scavenging insects that have taken advantage of human activities to become aggressive colonizers. The species found in much of the northeast is the German roach.

Ants are adept at establishing nests in parts of houses. A wide range of species from large, black carpenter ants to small reddish pharaoh ants may forage in houses.

Book lice find food just about anyplace where the humidity is appropriate.

House flies are supreme generalists, common at both tropical and temperate latitudes.

Some scavengers specialize in materials of animal origin, and prominent among these are carpet beetles. Few domestic insects are more common in houses or better entrenched in the wall spaces and floor cracks that every house provides. Carpet beetles are notorious for the damage they do to woollen clothing, blankets, and of course, carpets.

Clothes moths fit into the same category, and indeed, much of the damage to woollens attributed to clothes moths is really the work of carpet beetles.

Larder beetles infest meat products and cheese.

Damp cellars of old houses or crawl spaces of newer ones can harbour cave crickets.

House crickets are cultured in large numbers as food for pet birds and reptiles.

Sowbugs or woodlice are mainly of European origin and also live in damp cellars, feeding mainly on fungi and decaying organic matter.

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STORED-FOOD INSECTS

For the most part, stored-food insects are beetles, well suited to the dry conditions of houses. Bread crumbs and bits of other seed products provide a foothold in houses for stored-food insects. But the sweepstakes entre, is inside products that are brought into the house. Warehouses and packaging plants are constantly combating grain-feeding insects. In northeastern North America, the common ones are the following:

Sawtoothed grain beetles are one of the flat bark beetles. Both larvae and adults feed on flour, cereals, dried fruits, and spices.

The persistent spider beetles are aided by their underlying ability to live as scavengers on animal fragments such as hair, feathers, and wool.

Granary weevils turn up in houses where grain products are stored and handled. It is believed that this same granary weevil was a significant pest of stored grain in Roman times.

Two species in the beetle family Anobiidae are now pests throughout the world; both have been found in mummies in Egyptian tombs, confirming an Old World origin. Larvae of the drugstore beetle feed on just about any stored food material including toxic drugs, and on leather and books as well; cigarette beetle larvae are major pests of plant products.

A number of species of darkling beetles infest stored food; the yellow mealworm, larger than most stored-food insects, is cultured in large numbers as food for animals in zoos and the pet trade.

The only stored-food pest that is not a beetle is the Indian meal moth. The adults are much larger than clothes moths and can be seen flying in the house during evening hours.
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Publication:ROM Magazine
Date:Sep 22, 2009
Words:1030
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