Maggie A's Meanderings




April 3, 2011

The Suburban Wilds -- Creepy, Crawly Cockroaches

The American cockroach (Periplaneta americana) -- also called the palmetto bug or the waterbug here in the Southern U.S. and ship cockroach, kakerlac and, of all things, the Bombay canary in other places -- is the largest cockroach in the United States. Like another Southern pest, the fire ant, the "American" cockroach is actually an import. It arrived on our shores from tropical Africa. But once here, it sure did make itself to home. It's now so ubiquitous across the South that most people don't realize it isn't a native species.  

The "American" cockroach, like many Americans is an immigrant to these shores.
Gary Alpert
 GFDL CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5via Wikimedia Commons

I was seven years old before I saw my first one. I'm sure I didn't go the first seven years of my life before we moved to Mississippi without seeing any cockroaches. But whatever types of cockroaches they were, they didn't make an impression.

These cockroaches did. They were huge. Fast. (It turns out the American cockroach is one of the fastest land insects. One was recorded running 50 body lengths in a second. That would be over 200 mph for a human.) And mean. These things were just as likely to run at you as away from you. They came equipped with long spines on their legs --- spines sharp enough to scratch skin. And they could fly. I still remember the exact moment I discovered that. I was standing outside near the backdoor, there was not one, but a bunch of cockroaches, flying around the porch light; I was horrified. Actually, I was seven years old ---- at my first sight of giant, armored, flying cockroaches equipped with sharp spines, I would have been freaking out, except freaking out not encouraged in my family.  

They were everywhere. You turned on a light, and you could see them scurrying. But it wasn't just at night. Even in the daytime, you could walk into a room and they'd be there. 
I learned to always look where I stepped. If you left a glass out, you might pick it up again only to find a cockroach in it. I never saw my parents having sex, but I saw roaches having sex. (Of course my parents weren't doing it in the middle of the den floor.) My brothers would squish one, and I see eggs squirting out. I'd tell my brothers to make sure to smash the eggs so they couldn't hatch. I'd go to feed the dog and there would be a roach in his bowl munching away at the dog food or in his water bowl.

American cockroaches are nicknamed  "waterbugs" for a reason. You could lift the toilet lid and there would be a roach swimming in there. I inspected the bathtub, the walls and shower curtain before I climbed in. When a cockroach would drop into the tub with me, I learned I could levitate I got out of the water so fast.  

One of the worst aspects was the noise. As long as it's on a hard surface (and we had tile floors) you can hear a cockroach in a room. The skittering of its feet is unmistakable. I'd be playing with my toys when I'd hear that noise. I knew there was a cockroach in the room with me, but I couldn't see it. I never knew if it would be lurking under the next toy I would pick up, ready to charge at me. One got trapped inside of a toy of mine -- an elaborate, powered rotating 
carousel of different appliances (a refrigerator, a washer, a dryer, etc.). You'd press the button and the appliance would power up: The refrigerator would light up. I could put bits of cloth into the dryer and the dryer would spin. It was one of my all time favorite toys. Somehow the roach crawled in through the workings of the toy and in between the wall of the dryer and the rotating cylinder and died there, and ---- I kid you not ---- the body is still there to this day, still looking intact and still as impossible to get out. Sometimes when I was playing and I spotted the cockroach I could trap it under a toy bowl. That was worse because they would live for weeks without food and water (a female cockroach can live 42 days with no food or water, a male for 28 days), so for weeks I would hear it climbing on the underside of the bowl. If I put a finger on the bowl, I could even feel the vibrations from its feet. But I could never bring myself to lift up the bowl and smash it. I hated the crunching sound they made when they were crushed. As a child I couldn't step on one. My brothers used to prolong the "crunch" because they knew the sound affected me like fingernails on a chalkboard.  

Instead I would spray them. But that would make them go psycho crazy. You could never tell where a sprayed roach would go. It would run around in all directions or fly straight at you. Of course I knew it wasn't deliberate; its central nervous system had just been poisoned. But it didn't make it any easier dealing with a psycho cockroach. (Though I noticed a funny thing about cockroaches -- when they were alive I'd swear I was looking at a world record size cockroach, but when I had to pick up the dead body to throw it away it always seemed to have shrunk. This is one of the mysterious abilities of the American cockroach as people will swear they saw one that was three, even four, inches long while reliable scientists tell us that the
Periplaneta americana usually grows no longer than 1.7 inches and rarely exceeds 2 inches.)

At the time there was a roach trap that was very popular.  The Roach Motel™, its slogan was "Roaches check in......But they don't check out!" It was a box open on both ends with adhesive on the inside. The idea was the roaches would crawl into the box and get trapped there. Sometimes I'd see a roach walk into one. I would look into the box, and what I saw there compelled me to watch the same way many people seemed compelled to look at car wrecks. The cockroach would never put one foot into the trap, then try to pull its leg back and go around. Instead it would walk all the way in and try to continue moving forward. It's feet were stuck in the adhesive, and it would pull so hard that it actually pulled its own leg off. As a child I couldn't begin to comprehend how anything could pull its own leg off. Now I know that legs of cockroaches are designed to break and fall off if pulled upon in the same way that a lizard's tail would break off. And, like a lizard's tail, the cockroach can regrow a lost leg. But at the time all I could think of was what it would be like if my leg got pulled off. And losing a leg never stopped the cockroach. It would stubbornly continue moving forward pulling off leg after leg until it lost so many that its thorax touched the adhesive. When that happened, the roach was now finally stuck. (Probably there were some roaches that made it all the way through the trap and out the other side.) But stuck didn't mean dead. It would still be weeks before the cockroach would die. I would look in and see the antenna waving at me. They seemed impossibly indestructible to me; nothing should be that hard to kill.  

Till we moved to Mississippi, I don't recall having any of the usual phobias young children often have. I wasn't afraid of the dark or worried about monsters under the bed ---- until I had to live with the American cockroach. I became scared of the dark, not because of the dark, but because I didn't want to step on a cockroach. There was a long hallway leading to my bedroom, I complained so much about having to walk down it in the dark, my father actually rewired it so there was a light switch at both ends: that way I could turn on the light, walk down the hall and turn off the light before I went into my bedroom. For me the monster under the bed was a giant cockroach. That first year in Mississippi some nights I would stand a couple of feet away from the bed and then jump onto the bed so the roach couldn't reach out and grab me.

When it comes to the American cockroach it's not about cleanliness ---- the key is location, location, location. My mother kept an obsessively clean house and still had a serious roach problem. You couldn't even apply the term "housekeeping" to what I do, and if I get three roaches in a year, that's a major incursion. Most years I get one or none as long as I remember to spray the door lintels when I keep them open at night. But I live in a "good" location.

Oak TreeIt turns out those beautiful oak trees draped with Spanish moss that the South is famous for are giant roach nests. The American cockroaches just love to nest among their roots in the dank, dark of the dead leaves.  I found that out the hard way. Across the street from my house was a table-top sized park. My best friend and I used to spend hours playing in it. We found an old rug discarded there, and we placed it at the base of an oak tree among the roots so we could sit on it. One day we lifted up the rug to move it...........underneath was a seething mass of cockroaches, the first cockroach nest I'd ever seen. Every square inch under that rug was American cockroaches, and we'd been sitting on it. Never again, as that was the last time we ever sat on that rug. But we lived on a road lined with those trees, their branches would overarch the street. No wonder we couldn't keep the cockroaches out of the house no matter how much spraying we did or how many traps we put down. Now the nearest oak tree is halfway down the block.  



Popular conception is the way to deal with a phobia is to confront the thing you fear. The technique worked for me, though I didn't set out to super-expose myself to the American cockroach. But what I did do had the exact same effect: I moved to a trailer park set smack-dab in the middle of the Mississippi woods. When I looked out the back windows of the trailer, all I could see were trees. It was not possible to keep the roaches out when you're where they live. The exact moment I realized I had gotten past my phobia of the American cockroach was when I was sitting in the living room, watching TV with my dinner in my lap and a cockroach landed on the top of my head. I could tell by the weight and size of it that it was a waterbug. I sat there for a moment thinking of what to do that would be least likely to end up with that cockroach on my dinner plate. Then I got up, walked over to the kitchen, put my dinner down in the kitchen and calmly walked back to the living room and gave my head a violent shake, tossing the cockroach across the room; I could hear it smack on the opposite wall. Then I went back to the kitchen and got my dinner. That was not something I would have been capable of when I was child. But living in the woods, the American cockroach was omni-present. Even in hot weather, I learned to always sleep with a sheet pulled up over me. That way when I'd be awakened by the roaches crawling on the sheet in the middle of the night --- and I would always feel them --- I would automatically flick the sheet to fling it off the bed. (The American cockroach maxes out at a weight of 1.8 grams for an egg producing female. That's not very much. A penny weighs 2.5 grams, but human skin is very sensitive.)

Now, mind you, I still don't like the waterbug. In fact, it's fair to say I hate the damn things and always will. Nasty, filthy, they carry harmful bacteria and are known to cause hay fever, asthma and provoke skin reactions in people. But it's now a rational dislike, not an irrational, paralyzing fear.  

The next school year put that new attitude toward roaches to the test. After the summer, I moved into a different place in the same trailer park. (And if you're wondering why I'd go back there, the place was cheap, a quick drive to the school and came with free cable which I'm pretty sure the landlord must have pirated.) That first night I walked into the kitchen to find it crawling with cockroaches. I don't mean 3 or 4 or even 10 or 12 --------  I mean hundreds. Literally hundreds of roaches from the teeny-tiny ones about the size of a pinhead up to the giant, full-grown American cockroach and
every size in between had taken over the kitchen. The fact that I'd turned on the kitchen light seemed to disturb them not at all. Well, I was hungry and the food was in the kitchen, so I went in. I tried to make my dinner by holding everything up in my hands, but when I had to put my plate down to grab something --- and it was only for a split second --- in that time 3 cockroaches had already crawled on it. I wasn't so hungry after that. The next morning I spoke with the landlord. The day before when I moved in he'd told me the place had been previously occupied by a couple. I did not, could not, understand how any human being could have lived in such conditions. But then the landlord told me they'd been drug addicts. I guess the massive roach infestation didn't matter to them. But it sure mattered to me. The landlord agreed that I could bug bomb the place and deduct the cost of the bombs from the rent. So that's what I did. When I came back there were so many dead cockroaches I actually had to sweep them up. The bug bomb got rid of everything but the American cockroaches. The other roaches must have been nesting inside the place while the American cockroaches came from the woods outside. So I spent the rest of the school year as I spent the previous school year, with the American cockroach as a constant unwanted roommate and frequent (very brief) bedmate.
Legendary Albino Cockroach

Once I visited a museum that had an exhibit of the American cockroach. And by exhibit I don't mean some nice display with different stages of the roach life cycle pinned to a board with little labels. This was a huge plexiglass cube with a live cockroach nest inside it. You could walk all around the cube. The interior of the cube had a box in it and the writhing mat of cockroaches seemed to be stuck in a narrow gap between the box and the plexiglass. Being from the South I didn't understand why anyone would need to study American cockroaches in a museum, but I forget not every part of the country has them.

The cockroaches -- as is their preference -- were packed in there so tightly they'd make an ant colony look downright unsociable. They crawled over and around each other without space between them. They didn't seem to be individual cockroaches but a super-organism. Then I spotted it. ------ an all white cockroach. I didn't know there were such things as albino cockroaches. But even stranger than a white cockroach was the fact that in that crowded mass, none of the other cockroaches would get near the white one; there was a distinct gap all around it. After seeing that I used to joke that cockroaches were racist.

I know now that I wasn't seeing an albino cockroach, but a freshly molted cockroach. The exoskeleton would shortly harden and darken. But it still brings up an interesting scientific question. If what I saw was normal behavior and other roaches avoid a newly molted roach, then why? Was it because it was more visible, thus more in danger of predation? (There's a reason why real albinos are rare in nature.) Or is there some kind of mutual "altruism" going on whereby delicate larvae are protectively avoided until they harden?

Wall and Fence at Jackson SquareAs bad as that experience was, my worst cockroach experience wasn't in that trailer park in the woods, but in a locale that couldn't have been more different. It was a city, the city of New Orleans at the very heart of it: in the French Quarter's world famous Jackson Square (click for a 360 view of Jackson Square). If you've never been to Jackson Square, it's a park enclosed by a wrought iron fence set on top of a wall. Outside of the park along this fence is where the artists and fortune tellers set up. The ground inside Jackson Square is level with the top of the wall, so when you're outside of it most of Jackson Square is elevated from where you're standing. Jackson Square itself is a manicured lawn with large, shady trees and wide, paved walkways.  

A group of us were in town for a business meeting, and we'd gone to the French Quarter for dinner. We weren't partiers, so it was only about two hours past sunset when we headed back to where we parked the car. We walked past Jackson Square, and I saw a sight I'd never before seen in my life and hope never to see again.......

There on the wall were thousands of American cockroaches. For a moment I wondered where they'd all come from and why they were on the wall, then I noticed they were all coming from the same direction: from inside Jackson Square. They were crawling down the wall and spreading out to the French Quarter. I looked past the wrought iron fence into the Jackson Square itself, and it looked like the ground was moving. In an instant I understood why they closed the gates to Jackson Square at night.  It wasn't to keep the homeless from sleeping in it ---- it was because anyone who tried sleeping there would have been covered with a living carpet of cockroaches. It wouldn't have been possible to even walk in Jackson Square; the cockroaches would be crawling up your legs.

I figured the exodus probably started at full dark when the temperature dropped and the humidity rose. If so, it had been going on for an hour. Yet still the cockroaches kept coming, so many the ground was thick with them. How many did that mean nested in Jackson Square? Millions certainly. My stare went to those trees ---- every one of them had to be roach nests.

Roach Paradise a.k.a. Jackson Square 
By Bobak Ha'Eri (Own work) GFDL CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5via Wikimedia Commons

Then I looked around me. 
Even today, no one's going to associate the word "clean" with the "French Quarter." This was years ago, long before Hurricane Katrina. At the time the horses for the buggy rides were allowed to take dumps in the street and the manure would just be left there. (A practice that's theoretically stopped.) The Quarter was filthy with trash and food. I thought about the buildings I saw with cracks in the wall and gaps in the floors stuffed with old newspaper. Add in New Orleans' almost tropical weather and humidity --- so 
reminiscent of the African jungles where they originated --- and what you had was an American cockroach paradise. Perfect climate, a veritable banquet of food and plenty of places to hide. If American cockroaches were capable of dreaming, good little roaches would dream of dying and being reborn in New Orleans' Jackson Square as their reward for living a righteous cockroach life.

What I was dreaming of was putting a big tent over the whole of Jackson Square and fumigating it. After that night, it was years before I could bring myself to so much as set a foot in Jackson Square even in daylight. Then one visit to New Orleans I finally made myself walk through it. It's a beautiful, little park in daylight. But, unless the city of New Orleans finally did something about the cockroaches, even if it were unlocked there isn't enough money in the world to get me to set foot in the place after dark. Well, that's not actually true. But what I'd charge to do it is way more than anyone in their right mind would be willing to pay.

Giant monster cockroach under the bed
                   Nightmare on My Street

In researching this piece, I've learned to have a little more respect for the American cockroach. In some ways they're remarkable creatures. But I spot one of them setting foot in my house he's still a dead cockroach.  I'm not practicing "catch and release" with roaches the way I do with spiders.  (I like spiders because they eat bugs --- besides spiders had a much better publicist in E. B. White, the author of "Charlotte's Web. The musical comedy "Joe's Apartment" about singing cockroaches just doesn't have the same sympathy factor.)


The American Cockroach, William J. Bell, K. G. Adiyodi, Springer, 1982
The Cockroach FAQ (Special thanks to Professor Joseph G. Kunkel of the University of Massachusetts for answering my question about cockroach weight)
Discovering The Achievements Of The American Cockroach
American Cockroach

If you'd like to read about something even more disgusting than the American cockroach, check out "7 Scary Things You Didn't Know about Your Pet's Food." For more about intrusive wildlife, read the original "The Suburban Wilds."
Please take a moment to look around the Archive.

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