‘Hundreds’ of reasons to like millipedes

EVERY year, towards the end of April, we arrive home of an evening to find hundreds of millipedes, four-centimetre-long creepy-crawlies with a thousand feet, crawling up the side of our house.

The security light comes on when we drive into the yard, and, as we approach the front door, there they are, in lines and rows, heading toward the roof. At the back of the house, they are on their way down, having scaled two or three storeys. Back to earth, they continue on the same line, and are soon lost in the grass and bushes of the back garden.

We assume the house was built on an ancient millipede migration route, and rather than go around it, they climb over it. If we left the front door and a back window open, they’d march through, tens of thousands, indeed millions, of tiny feet tramping doggedly over carpets and furniture.

These millipedes are innocuous creatures, black, shiny and smooth, with no bits sticking out. Lift a flat stone or an old log in the garden and you will find a few, running for cover as soon as the daylight hits them, or curling into flat spirals. Called snake millipedes, they feed on decaying wood and vegetation and, along with wood lice, pill millipedes, and a dozen other garden crawlies, participate in making the millions of beech leaves and pine needles that carpet our yard vanish each winter.

We are most grateful for this service; I have no idea what we would do without them. Now, on the beech trees, tons of leaves are beginning to open. Already the leaves of the sycamores are big enough to flap about in the breeze, and soon it will be the ‘feathery’ ash, with its compliment of foliage. All these leaves will have to be swept up in autumn. Having been swept up, they will be left in heaps: in recent years, we do not burn them, partly because it seems gratuitous to release more carbon into the air than is essential for the domestic fire of winter evenings, and also because, this being Ireland, they are too wet to burn. We leave it to our many-footed, or footless, friends to chomp them into protein and they, perhaps, feed the birds which, in spring, sing sweetly from the very trees that provided their dinner’s dinner.

Indeed, I dislike harming insects. I know friends in New York would say, “so you’re telling me you’d entertain roaches, already?” Well, no.

Cockroaches are beautiful architecturally, but I would not like to share my home with them. We don’t have them here. The insects that wander into Irish homes are well behaved and keep a low profile, except for, perhaps, fleas, but these are rare nowadays; it’s years since I saw a human flea.

My conscience is sometimes troubled by concern for insects.

As I put an old, wood-wormed log on the fire I fear for the ‘eeeks’ and shrieks of immolated small creatures which, up to seconds before, had been innocently chomping away in the cause of biodegrading the log into soil or humus.

On the island of La Gomera, many years ago, I bought a carton of very cheap American cigarettes, a packet of which were claimed to contain less nicotine than a single conventional cigarette. It was when the cigarettes squeaked as I smoked them that I realised one good reason for this was that they contained communities of tiny tobacco-eating beetles, which, of course, were immolated as I sucked and inhaled, thus cutting down considerably on my nicotine intake and helping to save my life. However, I couldn’t stand the shrieks and gave up smoking and so do not face the same niggling remorse again.

Some scientists postulate that cockroaches will inherit the earth if we nuke ourselves into oblivion. They are hardy creatures, as are many insects. I read that brine shrimps, lying dormant in deserts for 2,000 years, come alive as soon as rain falls. Bacteria live in oil, 1,000 feet below the earth’s surface.

Meanwhile, were there ever lines that better capture the delights of spring than Shakespeare’s “When daffodils begin to peer,/With heigh! the doxy over the dale,/Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year;/For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale....” How beautiful, the image of the doxy (a beggar’s wench) crossing the dale “in the sweet ‘o the year”, with youth and joy abounding.


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