Indoor insects are the focus of a new documentary

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Philip and Cynamin Vettese were bug-eyed when long-time friend, Toronto director and filmmaker Roberto Verdecchia, asked for a favour.

Verdecchia wanted to use their century-old, newly renovated, three-bedroom house in the St. Clair West neighbourhood for a documentary exploring the hidden world of wildlife — including insects and spiders — that lives in our homes.

“They were hesitant and slightly squeamish. But I explained what we were going to find is in everyone’s home and it’s not about how clean or tidy they are, and it would be fun,” says Verdecchia. His idea for the project was inspired by a spider living in his basement bathroom — he wondered how it got there and what it was doing.

“We never gave bugs much thought and I’d rather not see them,” says Cynamin Vettese, a counsellor. “But when Roberto came to us with the idea, we were intrigued.”

The Great Wild Indoors, airing on the CBC’s Nature of Things with David Suzuki on Feb. 9 at 8 p.m., is the result: a fascinating look at the creatures that live with us. A team of entomologists (bug experts) led by Michelle Trautwein of California Academy of Sciences, along with spider expert Maydianne Andrade of the University of Toronto and “fly guy” Morgan Jackson from the University of Guelph, explored the nooks and crannies of the Vettese home in search of arthropods (insects, arachnids and crustaceans) as Verdecchia’s team filmed for TV production company 52 Media Inc.

Trautwein’s team is entering homes on every continent to compile an inventory of the bugs they find. She says a lot is known about cockroaches and bedbugs, but little about the other arthropods we share our homes with.

Each area of the home is a different ecosystem. Basements are particularly rich with life, although kitchens, bathrooms, bookshelves and closets also teem with critters. The species that live indoors can’t survive outside — trying to save a spider and release it outdoors is a death sentence. Inside the Vettese’s home, the bug experts scooped some bugs by hand, trapped some in jars and sucked others up through a mouth-operated aspirator outfitted with a filter to prevent swallowing any of the tiny creatures.

The resulting documentary shows scenes of life-and-death drama, such as a spider trying to capture a beetle by wrapping it in its silks; and a battle over a web between a male and female spider.

“The spider fight was sheer luck,” Verdecchia says. “It was one of the great moments when they got close to each other and duked it out.”

Filming bugs isn’t easy, especially when many are minuscule and fast-moving. The film crew spent a week in the house then took some of the captured insects to a film studio for close-ups.

“It was tough. We had to use a lot of macro lenses and let a lot of light in. Most bugs don’t react well to light. They like the dark. The secret was patience and finding the right spot to be in. We did take after take and hoped the bug was in focus,” Verdecchia says.

Entomologist Jackson says most of “the silent neighbours we live with every day” are harmless and can be beneficial.

“Some insects eat the same food we do, but the majority are eating stuff we have discarded. They eat dust bunnies or crumbs that fall into cracks, so they are cleaning up after us,” Jackson explains. “Or they are feeding on other insects and keeping populations down.”

While house flies are a nuisance and can transmit bacteria through their feet, he says, you have to admire their physiology: their wings beat 200 times a second, they have 4,000 lenses in each eye for a near-360-degree view and have the fastest visual processing system on Earth. Their body sensors detect air movement, which explains why it’s so hard to swat them. Cynamin Vettese, a sexual violence counsellor says her husband Philip, a high school English teacher and their two children enjoyed the filming experience, even when they discovered that they had 112 different bug species living in their house — common for most homes.

“Our daughter Emerson (7) is interested in snails, ants and worms and our son Maxwell (9) thought it was pretty cool, too. We learned a lot,” she says. “We found out that there are often mites in flour you bring into your home and they showed us close-ups of fruit flies eating a peach. That was disgusting!”

But Vettese says knowing about what is living in their home has been reassuring: “It’s weird. I was not good about bugs and now I feel calmer about them. I don’t worry about spiders anymore. They are not a bad thing. They are living in their ecosystem and won’t disturb you.”

Verdecchia says most people’s reaction to seeing bugs in their homes is to try to eradicate them.

“These critters have entered our homes and we think we should try to get rid of them,” he says. “That is kind of backwards, as we almost moved in with them. We’ve been living with bugs for tens of thousands of years and they are the same creatures our ancestors encountered in caves. Those caves have developed into our modern-day homes.”

But that doesn’t mean he’s at ease with every creature that lives in his house.

“I’m still creeped out by centipedes, but filming them helped,” Verdecchia says.

Our silent roommates

Some of the common arthropods that live in our homes:

Carpet beetle. Do you have wool carpet? You most likely have carpet beetles. Their larvae feed off the wool.

Pantry beetles. They enjoy dining on flour and oats, so they hang out in your pantry. They’ve been around for thousands of year, since people began storing grain.

Masked bedbug hunter. This tiny assassin bug covers itself in dust to camouflage itself from prey. It eats various insects, not just bedbugs

Cellar spider. The webs in your basement act as trip lines to alert the cellar spider that a victim is near. They capture prey by quickly flexing and extending their legs and oscillating their bodies so that victims can’t tell where they are.

House centipede. It’s respiratory system acts like a fuel-injection system and it can run up to 67 km/h. Its front antennae are sensitive to smell and touch and help it navigate in the dark. Its first pair of legs are poison fangs.

Book louse. The most literary of bugs, it feeds on mildew and starch in book bindings. All are female and reproduce by themselves.