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Taxonomy terms
  • Silverfish are primitive, wingless insects in the order Zygentoma (previously Thysanura)
  • They are found globally in a variety of habitats, with several species becoming pests in homes
  • They can cause damage to paper, clothing, carpet, glue and some dried foods
Silverfish

Silverfish don’t bite, sting or spread disease, but they can cause damage to papers, some fabrics and some dry foods.

Although ominvorous in their diet (they will eat almost anything), their preference is for carbohydrates. In particular, they target plant material (silverfish are one of the few animals able to disgest cellulose) and starches. This means they can cause damage to paper, books, photos, wallpaper and glue!

They are of particular concern to homeowners, museums and other establishments that store books, papers and photos.

 

Silverfish tend to hide in dark, undisturbed placed, but if you find one, there’s more than likely to be many more.

There are around 600 species of silverfish that have been described, but there are likely many more.

Most of the silverfish homeowners will see belong to the family Lepismatidae, with the grey silverfish (Ctenolepisma longicaudata) being the most common silverfish in most countries.

Another interesting silverfish is Thermobia domestica, which is prefers hot dry conditions and is sometimes found around ovens in bakeries.

There is also a whole sub-family of silverfish species which have adapted to live in the nests of ants and termites.

Although all species of silver fish have a similar shape… a wingless insect with three tail filaments. The common grey silverfish, Ctenolepisma longicaudata, as its name suggests is a grey / silver colour with long tail filaments and equally long antennae.

They can grow up to 2cm long, have a flattened body that tapers towards the tail. Generally they are covered in scales, as is the case with the common grey silverfish, which will readily fall off when picked up or squashed!

Although they have no wings, they can run very fast, with a fish like movement, which is how they got their name.

In the natural environment, Silverfish typically live in dry habitats such as dry leaf litter, under the bark of trees and under rocks. However, they do thrive in humid conditions (not wet), as they don’t drink, but absorb moisture through the air (through their bum!).

They are tolerant of quite large temperature ranges, being found in damp cool sub-floors and hot, dry roof voids. They don’t like light, which means they hide in dark undisturbed placed, allowing them to cause significant damage before they are noticed.

With their love of paper, they are often found in cardboard boxes, books, documents and roof insulation.

Silverfish undergo incomplete metamorphosis, which means although they moult regularly, their body form remains the same after hatching – baby silverfish look just like adult silverfish, only smaller.

In fact, silverfish continue to moult throughout their life-time as they get bigger. Moulting every 1-3 months, depending on conditions, they can moult up to 50 times during their lifetime, with sexual maturity reached after the 9th moult. In order to lay eggs they need to mate after each moult.

Silverfish undergo a mating dance before pairing up. There is no internal fertilisation, rather after the dance, the male lays a bundle of sperm and threads, which the female sits on!

The silverfish diet is primarily focused on complex carbohydrates such as cellulose and starches, which is why paper, cardboard and glue are readily eaten.

They only have small mouthparts so scrape the surface of materials. If they scrape enough, eventually they make holes.

The will also readily eat plant based textiles such as cotton and linen. Flour and rolled oats, being high in starch are also targeted by silverfish.

The do need some protein intake so will eat insect carcasses. They will also eat wool and silk fabrics.

Silverfish damage to paper
Silverfish damage to paper

 

Silverfish damage to books
Silverfish damage to books

Silverfish are hard to spot, as they like the dark, undisturbed places such as the bottom of drawers or wardrobes. If you spot a large silverfish (over 1.5cm), you should realise it is probably over 2 years old and has been breeding for some time… so there is likely to be a lot more silverfish somewhere!

If you find silverfish in drawers or wardrobes, the first step is to painstakenly empty all drawers and wardrobes to look for silverfish. Squash or spray any silverfish you see. You should then wash clothes in as hot a temperature as the clothes label allows to kill any silverfish eggs or adults you may have missed. Placing clothes in a black plastic bag in the sun is an effective heat treatment which will also kill any silverfish and their eggs.

Drawers and wardrobes should then be treated with a suitable insecticide. However, although this will prevent silverfish in those areas for some time, it is probably they you won’t have eliminated silverfish from your house, as they may well be in the sub-floor and roof void. This is when a professional silverfish treatment is beneficial.

In addition to treating internal areas such as wardrobes with a suitable product, professional pest managers will also treat roof voids with insecticide dust, and investigate whether a sub-floor treatment is required as well. They will also recommend actions to take to prevent a silverfish infestation (see below).

There is also research into new silverfish control products including silverfish baits.

  • Empty your drawers and wardrobes on a regular basis to check for silver fish
  • Store any out of season clothes in sealed containers
  • Carry out regularly cleaning – especially in all those dark spots underneath heavy furniture and the bottom of wardrobes
  • Avoid storing documents and books in cardboard boxes and placing them in the sub-floor / roof void. Sealed plastic container are a far better option
  • Place the food from any open food packets in sealed containers
  • Clear up any food spills in cupboards
  • If you have a humidity problem use de-humidifiers in wardrobes (also good for preventing mould)

Most people will come across silverfish at the bottom of the sink or bath. Obviously there is no food in these locations, so why is this?

Silverfish don’t drink and so gain their water requirements by absorbing moisture through their rectum. Bathrooms and sinks tend to be high in moisture. As their legs are more claw like, they are unable to climb out of the baths and sinks, becoming trapped. Silverfish will also fall out of the down lights which are common in bathrooms.

More silverfish facts from Dr Graeme Smith

Other fabric pests.