Horsehair worms are neither pests nor are they dangerous to us. Here is a collection of horse hair worms facts to cover everything you need to know about them.
If you ever happen to see a tangled mass of black or brown, writhing strands in a stream – beware!
While it might look like horse hair fell into the stream and came to life, these strands are actually horsehair worms.
Despite how their imaginative name came to be, the worm has little relation to horses.
They neither infect them nor live amongst them. Let’s take a deeper look at these interesting-looking worms.
What Are Horse Hair Worms?
Horsehair worms are a type of aquatic, parasitic worms. They have thin, unsegmented bodies with a cylindrical cross-section that remains uniform.
One end is unpigmented and has the “mouth” of the worm.
According to scientists, there are as many as 2,000 species of horsehair worms, though we have only found around 350.
While mating, opposite sexes twist themselves into a knot. This is why they are also called Gordian worms. The name comes from the Gordian Knot – a type of knot from Greek mythology.
Where Do They Live?
They are found worldwide but mostly occur in places close to a water source. The US alone has 11 species of them.
Larvae are parasitic in nature. The worm larvae prey on an arthropod or insect host, living within their bodies and absorbing their fluids through the skin.
The adult lays eggs in freshwater sources like lakes, streams, and sometimes even in a swimming pool or pet water trough.
In general, horse hair worms dwell in any water source, ranging from lakes and puddles streams to water collected on cabbage leaves!
Their appearance in farm troughs and similarity to long strands of hair gave them the name “horsehair” worms.
What Do They Eat?
During the larval stage, the worms survive on the bodily fluids of host insects. Some common terrestrial hosts include grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, and cockroaches.
The microscopic larvae are born in the water and move freely until an insect host drinks them.
They then absorb the fluids of the insect from within its body cavity. After emerging as adults, the worms do not eat.
This is because they do not have a digestive tract. The sole purpose of the adult is to find a mate.
What is the Lifecycle of A Horse Hair Worm?
Adult worms lay eggs in any source of water. These eggs hatch within a time of 3 months. Newly hatched larvae protect themselves using a cyst and move around freely in the water.
They wait for an insect host they mistakenly eat them. Once inside the body walls of their host, they survive on its fluid and grow until the host dies.
Adults can only survive in water. Their life cycle depends on the host they find.
If a larva finds an aquatic host, then they keep growing within. On becoming an adult, they kill the host and navigate out of its husk.
If the aquatic host is one that completes its lifecycle on land (eg: midges) – then the larvae enter a dormant stage.
It remains so until another suitable host comes along and consumes the earlier host. In such a process, the earlier insect was simply an intermediate host.
Sometimes, larvae within a terrestrial host can drive them toward the water. We do not understand this process entirely.
But once the host dives into the water, the adult emerges by making holes in its exoskeleton.
If you next see a dead cricket in a water body, one of its death causes could be these worms.
This is also how sometimes horsehair worms get into indoor spaces like animal water troughs and swimming pools.
Do They Bite or Sting Humans?
Horsehair worms do not bite, sting, or infect humans. They are also not dangerous to pet dogs, cats or plants.
They are parasites of insects and only infect them. If you happen to ingest a horsehair worm by mistake, visit a doctor immediately.
They cannot cause an infection, but you might experience some discomfort and pain in your digestive tract. A common treatment medication used is diethylcarbamazine (DEC).
Are They Poisonous or Venomous?
These worms are not poisonous or venomous but are parasitic. This means that they burrow within their host insect and slowly suck in their fluids.
Eventually, they kill their hosts either by drilling holes in their bodies or by forcing them to drown themselves.
Are They Harmful to Humans as Pests?
Horsehair worms are not considered pests as they cannot infect humans, dogs, cats, livestock, or plants. They do not pose any danger if touched or ingested.
Generally, one need not control measures of their population in freshwater bodies.
However, if they make their way into your animal’s drink or any domestic water supply – you can install a mesh or use chemicals to get rid of them.
Are They Beneficial?
Yes, they are actually beneficial for us! This is because these worms help to control populations of other insects like millipedes, grasshoppers, beetles, cockroaches, and crickets.
They prey on arthropods and small and large invertebrates alike.
However, they only kill their hosts after they mature fully inside. This process takes around three months.
And they are only parasitic towards a set species of insects – making them only mildly beneficial.
Can They Come Inside Homes?
It is quite likely for horsehair worms to grow within water storage areas inside a home.
If a common host, such as a cricket, drowns itself in the water, it can release the adults into the water.
You might see them in flushes, bathtubs, or water supply tanks.
What Are They Attracted To?
Horsehair worms are attracted to host insects such as beetles, snails, slugs, mantises, cockroaches, grasshoppers, and crickets.
Eventually, their hosts are attracted to water to drown themselves and release the worms.
How To Get Rid of Them?
Seeing horseworm hairs in your home does not mean you need to vacate and call a pest control company.
They are quite harmless, and you can dispose of any visible tangles you see. However, to prevent continuous growth, you have to discourage their hosts as well.
To prevent the entry of any common host, you can spray a barrier of insecticide around your house. A mesh can prevent insects from getting into water tanks.
Regularly flush out any animal’s water trough to remove cysts and eggs. You can also seal any small crevices in your home to prevent the hosts from growing in there.
Interesting Facts About Horse Hair Worms
- The diameter is a single horsehair worm is around 1/25th of an inch.
- After a host consumes a cyst, the shell of the cyst dissolves, the larvae emerge from it and bore a hole in the digestive tract to reach the body cavity. It resides there until it is ready to emerge as an adult.
- Initially, a new adult is whitish in color. Eventually, they turn yellowish, then tan, and finally brownish-black.
- During mating, many worms coil around together to form a large tangle. You might see them more often after a bout of rain.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can a human get a horsehair worm?
If a human happens to eat a cyst or infested host, they can end up with a worm in their gut. However, they cannot infect a human.
If this happens, you will experience some intestinal discomfort. It’s best to visit a doctor who will prescribe the right medication.
Can horsehair worms hurt humans?
Horsehair worms cannot hurt or bite humans. It is safe to remove them manually from any domestic water source using a mesh!
An adult female worm lays millions of eggs at the same time. Since the larvae are microscopic, it’s best to treat the water source with chemicals.
What does a horsehair worm do?
One thing the horsehair worm is famous for is driving its host mad. Since adults only thrive in water, they charge infected hosts to find water bodies.
Crickets and grasshoppers infected with the worm develop suicidal tendencies and drown themselves, allowing the worm to escape.
Are horsehair worms in the US?
The US alone hosts 11 species of horsehair worms. They’re a pretty common species in and around water bodies.
The most common species is Gordius robustus, which belongs to the phylum Nematomorpha. They also look very similar to mermithid nematodes.
How horsehair worms control their host’s behavior is a mystery. The nervous systems of infected insects produce different proteins than regular insects.
It’s interesting seeing these long worms wriggle in the water. But despite their non-toxicity, it’s best to leave them alone. Thank you for reading.
Over the years, many of our readers have been confused, interested or even terrified after observing these worms in their midst. Read up on the experiences of our readers in the emails below.