This little silverfish Lepisma saccharina had a lucky escape last night when I rescued it in the nick of time from our bath. It lost a few segments from one antenna and from its tail cerci, but was otherwise intact - and very lively.
I hadn't seen one of these tiny, pewter grey, carrot-shaped wingless insects for quite a while. When I was a kid I used to see them racing out of dark corners of the kitchen cupboard, with their body undulating like a fish.
They like to feed on carbohydrates like spilled flour or sugar – the clue is in the saccharina part of their Latin name – and they also thrive on starch-based glue that holds some cardboard cartons together.
Silverfish like cool, humid places but their slightly larger and less common cousin, the firebrat, needs heat. It has lived alongside humans for as long as we have heated our homes with fire and was once common in bakeries. My grandfather, who worked for a major bakery firm in the 1920s, once told me that it wasn’t uncommon for them to be picked up in the dough and accidentally baked into loaves; not something that would earn Mary Berry’s approval in The Great British Bake Off.
These are some of the most ancient insects on Earth. Catch one, take a look with a magnifying glass and you’ll see that its carrot-shaped body is covered with these minute, overlapping, iridescent silver scales. These are easily shed and, together with their fast, wriggling motion, have allowed these living fossils to evade the jaws of predators for over 400 million years.