Technology & Science

Our homes are ecosystems for bugs—and we don't even know it

The Nature of Things examines how each room in your home is its own separate ecosystem

Nicole Mortillaro - CBC News

February 09, 2017

This sac spider may be living in your home and you don't even know it. (Matt Bertone)

Does the thought of a spider or centipede in your home horrify you? A new episode of CBC's The Nature of Things reveals there are more bugs in our homes than we realize — and we just need to accept it.

Our homes are are like mini-ecosystems. For thousands of years — from ancient caves to today's brick houses — insects (as well as some non-insects) have learned to thrive in our homes.

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We may see the odd spider, fruit fly or centipede, but there are many more critters happily sharing our space. 

A team of American entomologists wanted to understand just what could be found in the average home, so they've been entering homes around the world to undertake their study. 

​"It's this incredible new frontier and it's so unexplored, even though it's such a common and familiar place," says Michelle Trautwein, one of the entomologists featured in The Nature of Things documentary.

'Take some deep breaths'

The Vettese family bravely offered their Toronto home to the entomologists to provide the Canadian perspective. The scientists were joined by a Canadian spider expert from the University of Toronto and a fly expert from the University of Guelph.

'They're like aliens living with us.' - Roberto Verdecchia

Most might not want to know what creepy-crawlies are sharing their home — and the Vettese family was no different. But when friend and documentary filmmaker Roberto Verdecchia approached them, they agreed to lend their space to science.

"I thought, that sounds interesting. I think I can meditate, take some deep breaths and get through this," Cynamin Vettese told CBC News, laughing. 

So out went the Vetteses and in came the scientists, who created a pop-up laboratory. They brought in pincers, tubes and even an aspirator to suck up bugs — with their mouths. (It contains a tiny filter inside the tube that keeps bugs from being swallowed.)

Great Wild Indoors – Weevil Suction  0:53

The entomologists explored every nook and cranny of the Vettese family home: the corners of the basement, behind toilets, carpets and even books.

They found insects almost everywhere.

It's not that the house was unclean. Rather our homes are indoor biomes, where insects have learned to thrive. And amazingly, each room in a house can be thought of as its own ecosystem. 

The critters in our homes

So what were the Vettese family living with? The pill bug (also known as the potato bug), the carpet beetle, the booklouse (which feeds on the mould and starch in book bindings), the cellar spider, and the ever-common house centipede.

That's just to name a few.

The Great Wild Indoors – Spider vs. Centipede  0:54

Though Cynamin Vettese wasn't exactly thrilled to find out she's sharing her home with so many different critters — 112 different types of species, which is typical for the average home — she also found the results fascinating. 

"I was shocked to hear about how many species they find in people's homes," Vettese said. "But isn't it interesting that these insects have adapted to live inside?"

But she added: "It's still better that I don't see them."

The centipede seemed to provoke the biggest reaction from the Vettese family — and Verdecchia. It probably didn't help that the entomologists had trouble capturing their specimen, as it scurried out of their handmade trap to seek refuge under a wooden plank against a wall.

The Great Wild Indoors – How Flies Eat  0:49

'I was never a bug guy'

For filmmaker Verdecchia, the decision to study indoor bugs started in his bathroom.

"I was never a bug guy," Verdecchia told CBC News. But one day he saw a spider — and that got him thinking about the bigger picture. "I wondered, 'Why is it here? Is it going to live? Will it die?'"

He searched online for more information about insects in our homes and learned of Trautwein's study. 

While filming the documentary, Verdecchia said he gained a newfound respect for indoor critters. "They're like aliens living with us," he said.

Bug therapy

Verdicchia hopes the documentary will make people understand the balance of life that exists in our homes.

It has worked for the Vettese family.

Their two children, aged nine and seven, were fascinated by the whole experience, asking the entomologists "a million and one questions," Vettese said.

Entomologists show the Vettese family some of the critters found in their Toronto home. (Gina Lomas)

The family was both amazed and "grossed out" by a microscopic view of a family of larvae that lived in a decaying peach. They became the common fruit fly.

Seeing the insects under a microscope, and through Verdecchia's lens, was an amazing experience. It's one that Vettese says has changed her: she's no longer as squeamish about indoor bugs. 

"Knowledge is power," Vettese said. "It's like therapy."

The episode, entitled The Great Wild Indoors, airs on The Nature of Things tonight at 8 p.m.

The common house centipede is likely found in most homes. (Matt Bertone)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicole Mortillaro
Senior Writer, Science and Technology

Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.

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