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Nature’s Secrets

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There’s quite a micro-world in your house

By Meg Lowman
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“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.”

– Eleanor Roosevelt

Who lives in your home?

Most people count their family members, plus an optional dog or cat. But entomologists – scientists who study insects – are now turning their attention to the six- and eight-legged critters that share your household. Despite the fact that millions of homes exist throughout the world, scientists have never before surveyed the entire population of arthropods living in the cracks in bedroom floors, in carpet, furniture or scampering across kitchen counters.

Humans spend billions of dollars to control insects, but it turns out an extraordinary number of species thrive within our four walls.

Scientists from the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences teamed up with N.C. State biologists to vacuum, scrape, sweep, suck, trap and crawl their way through all the rooms of 50 Raleigh households. Bringing back vials containing thousands of six-legged critters to the laboratory for analysis, the bug investigators found that an average Raleigh home contains more than 100 arthropod species.

The commonest household insect was the gall midge. These flies are so small and unknown that “they float around like plankton of the air and we aren’t sure if they actually live, eat and reproduce in houses or whether they simply drift in” according to Michelle Trautwein, lead entomologist on this survey. Although 100 species of insects may sound like bad news to some homeowners, the good news is that no bedbugs were found throughout this study, and only one black widow spider was uncovered (in a museum staff member’s basement!).

The biodiversity of our homes is relatively harmless, very diverse, and probably quite helpful in terms of maintaining a healthy household. For example, carpet beetles eat bits of organic materials that drop into our carpets; teensy book lice act like almost-microscopic vacuum cleaners eating very small bits of organic matter adhered to paper. Not surprisingly, healthy populations of spiders inhabit Raleigh homes, serving to capture some of our less welcome guests, including mosquitoes. Other amazing discoveries included the fact that living rooms hosted the largest diversity of arthropods – even more than basements. And homes with more windows and doors had more insects.

Over the next few years, North Carolina’s insect teams will expand their studies of homes, seeking to better understand our six-legged housemates. Do pets make a difference in the types of bugs living in households? Do houses with more “stuff” have more insect inhabitants? Stay tuned, as scientists learn about the role of household insects in our daily lives.

Meg Lowman, an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert, directs the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Nature Research Center. Online: www.canopymeg.com.

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