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Silverfish Destroy in the Dark

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

Unlike many benign insects that take up residence in our homes, like spiders and box elder bugs, silverfish can be quite destructive. And since their damage is done out of sight, it can take a while before you notice it. And once you do, it’s probably too late.

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Small blue silverfish. Photograph courtesy of Clemson University - USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series, Bugwood.org.

If you see holes large and small in paper products, silverfish are the likely culprits. They’ll eat anything made of paper, especially the pages and bindings of old books, documents, stamp collections, and posters. You may also see flecks of black excrement on the materials.

They can digest cellulose, which makes them able to eat paper, cardboard, starch, and glue. They also eat dry foodstuffs such as cereals, pastas, flours, and dry pet foods. They’ve even been known to eat clothing, carpets, and old wallpaper.

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The remains of what appears to be a cardboard box. This is an extreme example of the damage silverfish can do. Photograph courtesy of Clemson University - USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series, Bugwood.org.

Silverfish (Lepisma saccharina) are a half- to an inch long, longer if you count their antennae and three long “tails.” Their bodies can be silver or gray. Silverfish aren’t fish, of course. But their scaly bodies and quick, darting manner when disturbed could be called fish-like.

Silverfish need a dark, moist habitat to survive. You are most likely to find them in places where the humidity is high: damp basements, the garage, kitchens, laundry rooms, and bathrooms: under sinks, and around toilets, tubs, and showers. They are experts at hiding, so if you see one, it’s likely you’ve surprised it by turning on a light.

They can live for weeks without food or water. They do not bite or sting and will not harm humans or animals.

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Gray silverfish. Photograph courtesy of Pest and Diseases Image Library, Bugwood.org.

How to deter silverfish:

  • Seal up cracks in walls and floors, around pipes and electrical outlets.
  • Lower the humidity in your house. Use dehumidifiers or run fans in humid areas.
  • Vacuum regularly to get rid of silverfish eggs and the crumbs they feed on.
  • Clean up any damp areas outdoors that are closest to your house.
  • Put items vulnerable to silverfish in airtight containers.

Don’t store books, carpets, paper materials, etc. in basements or other damp areas. If you must, plastic containers with a tight seal will keep them out. Storing things in cardboard boxes only invites them in.

Sticky traps work to catch silverfish. You can also deter them by sprinkling diatomaceous earth in areas they frequent. Bug sprays and powders are effective, but can be hazardous to people and pets. Only large infestations merit that level of control. Always follow label directions when using any pesticide product.


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