Humans aren't the only ones seeking warmth, food and shelter in the winter months. As it gets cold outside, you might find a few critters wander into your home with the same idea. There are tens of thousands of insects, arachnids and other classes and species in Kentucky, but Matt Markgraf visits the lab of Murray State assistant professor of biology Dr. Laura Sullivan Beckers to talk about some of the most common in west Kentucky that you might find in your home this time of year.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but rather a regional overview. If you've spotted something interesting, check these online guides: the University of Kentucky Critter Files and BugGuide.net.
Asian Lady Beetles
These 'ladies' are quite common in homes, usually in the winter time and usually in great numbers. They are an invasive species in North America and may be out-competing native species. They were brought to North America for their usefulness in killing smaller invertebrates (like aphids). While predatory, they aren't likely to bite and not necessarily harmful to humans. They're likely looking for warmth. Asian lady beetles have diverse morphology and as such can be difficult to identify. Native species include the Convergent Lady Beetle, which has white stripes around their heads, differentiating them from the Asian lady beetles (which may or may not have spots and could range in color).
Like little furry moths, they have two distinctive primary wings. They will come up out of drains in bathrooms and may go back down into drains. They use vibrational communication, which you wouldn't hear audibly. Invertebrates tend to be drawn to bathrooms because of the moisture.
This time of year, wasps and bees may come into the house and seem zombie-like and lethargic. Queens can diapause and overwinter. Workers and males tend to die with the first frost. Some of the 'zombie' characteristics may be due to being in the late stages of life. Mud daubers are the more 'friendly' wasps, distinctive for their long abdomen and mud constructed nests. Paper wasps include yellow jackets and are also common, as are cicada killers.
Predatory animals, some may sting and stun other animals and lay their eggs in them, so when the egg hatches the larva has a breakfast. These tend to be non-social and aren't necessarily aggressive towards humans. Social wasps that build the nests, like hornet nests, can be aggressive towards humans or anyone that might get too close. Some people have allergic reaction to bee and wasp stings. Beckers said Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, ants) cause more human-related fatalities than spiders, snakes and other critters.
Picture a normal centipede, but with tons of spidery legs. They are quite fast and you might find one scurrying around the house hunting for food - other pests in your house like crickets and cockroaches. They have a venomous claw that they use to attack prey, but aren't necessarily a threat to humans.
Slugs & Snails
There are lots of slugs in west Kentucky and some tend to be rather large. If they are spotted like a leopard, they are likely leopard slugs. They produce a slimy mucus trail that they slide along using undulating muscles. Slugs also have elaborate courting behavior. Slugs are hermaphroditic (containing both male and female sexual organs) and two might follow each other using pheromone communication. One species (seen in the video), will climb a tree and drop down together in a slimy swing. A "sluggy dance" will commence in which the slug will then pass sperm through a male organ.
Snails range in size and are fairly harmless, though some could contain parasites. They are closely related to slugs - both gastropods - with the obvious difference being the shell. Beckers said a slug is basically a naked snail. Slugs are broadly defined as either not having exterior shells, or having small shells.
Wolf spiders are very common in west Kentucky, particularly the Tigrosa genus - so named because they are ferocious predators. Beckers said the ones in her lab were collected on campus or on her front lawn [Note: There were several containers of spiders around the lab]. Some wolf spiders are large, around two or three inches. They usually burrow underground. The males have longer legs than the females. Mature males also have distinctive pedipalps (they look like small legs by their mouths) that look like they are wearing little boxing gloves.
Wolf spiders are venomous but don't pose much of a threat to humans. If you were to get bitten by a wolf spider it would feel like a bee sting, but aren't otherwise dangerous. They'll eat crickets, flies, cockroaches and other small invertebrates you may not want in the house.
Also very common in west Kentucky, they can be mistaken for small wolf spiders for their similarities. Recluses can be found in dark places like behind pictures, in basements and garages. A simple way to tell them apart from a wolf spider is that recluses are solid brown or grayish-brown. Wolf spiders have stripes - banded legs or on their back.
Recluses also have a violin structure that may or may not be visible. The base of the violin is near their head, not their abdomen. In other words: stripes on the legs or on the abdomen, probably a wolf spider. Solid legs and tiny violin shape near head, probably a brown recluse.
Recluses have cytotoxic venom that can cause decay in human tissue. But as common as the spiders are, there are relatively few cases of recluse spider bites. If you get bitten, look for a black spot that gets bigger over time. A doctor might give you antibiotics to take care of secondary infection, but you might lose some tissue from the cytotoxic effect.
Another spider commonly found in west Kentucky homes, black widows have large abdomens with bright red patterns. Beckers said the ones in her lab were found on campus. Unlike brown recluses, their venom is a neurotoxin. Symptoms of a bite might include violent illness and cramps. Fatalities are quite rare. One would have to be already confirmed to be killed by a black widow, Beckers said. They might enter a house seeking shelter. Outside, they'll overwinter in tree bark or leaf litter like other spiders.
Some people call cellar spiders 'daddy longlegs' which also refers to harvestmen, which aren't spiders but Opiliones. Cellar spiders have long legs and tubular bodies. They might be found in your garage with large webs and white cotton-ball like eggs. They are fairly stationary and harmless.
Bonus: House Mouse
Also looking for warmth in the winter is the house mouse. These furry critters aren't dangerous, but can carry ticks, fleas and tapeworms that infect pets. Some rodents carry Hantavirus, but this is uncommon in west Kentucky and Tennessee. They're likely looking for food in the house and may be near the kitchen or any areas with food. If you have a mouse, get a cat - and make sure they have flea and worm protection.