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The Curse of the Cockroach: How to Battle the Bugs and Win

When I was nine years old, our fourth-grade class pet was a Madagascar hissing cockroach named Billy. I wanted to take him home on weekends, but my mom wasn’t so keen on the idea. To this day, I still carry a torch for Billy the Cockroach. So imagine my surprise when I got older and learned that this creepy-crawly pest wasn’t everyone’s cuddly pet of choice. Even though most of us want to rid our homes of them, these vermin are actually pretty fascinating. 

La Cucaracha
Richard Schweid shares some fun facts about these eighteen-kneed ninjas in his book The Cockroach Papers: A Compendium of History and Lore, but these five are particularly intriguing: 

  1. Roaches predate dinosaurs by over 150 million years, and they’ve never altered their design or needed to do so; they’re anatomically perfect in this regard. 
  1. Cockroaches will eat feces, dead humans, sour beer, and even their own young, but they won’t eat cucumbers, which give them gas. 
  1. There are more than five thousand species of roaches, and there may be that many roaming in your apartment at night. They’ll be long gone by the time you turn on the light, though. Cockroaches detect your presence with anal sensors that vibrate in the air when you enter a room. 
  1. They suffer from positive thigmotaxis, an insatiable desire to be touched on all sides. This means that they prefer to be rolling around with their friends, or maybe snugly burrowed in your ear. 
  1. Cockroaches can withstand an atomic bomb blast—at least, better than humans could. Donald Lewis, a professor of entomology at Iowa State University, confirms this conventional wisdom that roaches have a much higher radiation threshold than humans. 

Roaches Check In, but They Don’t Check Out
But if you’re one of the many who aren’t awestruck by the fact that cockroaches roamed the planet back when dinosaurs did, and you just want them out of your home and your life, take heart—there are measures you can take to get rid of them. Exterminator Jonathan Hatch says that the most common mistake people make when going after roaches is stomping on them. Besides the obvious mess, cockroaches, when they’re hungry enough, will eat each other’s remains, so the best way to kill them is to dehydrate them.  

Most roach-killing sprays abrade the exoskeletons of the roach first and then deliver a neurotoxin to turn off their brains. Roach-killing dusts, like boric acid, also abrade the exoskeleton, but without delivering any other chemical; they simply allow the roach to die of dehydration. So the roach-extermination method you choose depends on how long you want the little guys to suffer. It will also depend on what kind of roaches you have. 

The American cockroach prefers moisture and warmth and is usually found in dank places like boats, bathrooms, basements, and sewers, but is less common in homes and apartments. It’s one of the larger species of roaches in the United States. If you have American cockroaches in your home, the best way to get rid of them is to caulk cracks and crevices in your foundation, as well as in your baseboards and walls. Use a dehumidifier to keep relative humidity to a minimum, and dust those areas where you notice roach traffic most often with boric acid. 

The German cockroach relies less upon moisture than other roaches do, which makes it able to thrive in just about any environment. That’s why it’s one of the most common American household pests. But this guy’s Achilles heel is his preference for warm air; this species gravitates toward heating vents and furnaces, so these are the best locations for your roach baits if you have German cockroaches. 

Like its German cousin, the brown-banded cockroach prefers warm, dry climates. This means you’re most likely to find it in the upper floors of your home, especially the attic. This is also because the brown-banded cockroach loves to nosh on fabric, glue, and other starches found in your bedroom closets and strange spaces. To control brown-banded roach populations, wait until dark, then turn on the lights and follow the bugs to their hiding places and spray them with a pyrethrin- or permethrin-based roach spray. Later, vacuum thoroughly, using a crevice attachment to suck up all the roaches and their eggs. (And don’t forget to change your vacuum bag afterward.) Finally, dust with boric-acid powder, and caulk the cracks beneath baseboards and around cabinets and shelving to stop the roaches from returning. 

The Oriental cockroach is less common than others because it prefers the wettest environments, but you still may find populations in garbage containers, sewers, drains, and basements. Experts consider these roaches the perfect vector for food-borne illnesses, because they love leftover food scraps, so your best bet when fighting them is to keep your home clean and dehumidified. 

The smoky brown cockroach is primarily an outdoor bug that will come inside only to seek out a food source, like plant matter. You won’t really have to worry about this unless you have a greenhouse attached to your home, but if you do have a problem, consider lining the perimeter of your house with an organic desiccant, such as food-grade diatomaceous earth. 

If you’re dealing with just a few roaches, these tips and tricks will probably be all that you need, but if you’re inundated with large populations of bugs, don’t hesitate to call in a professional.

The Richness of Roaches
Learning to appreciate the beauty of these bugs may make it a little easier to face the creepy crawlers in the middle of the night, but when you’ve had enough, don’t worry; there are ways to get these wonders of nature out of your habitat.