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Know Your Enemy: Cockroaches

Few living things gross people out like the humble cockroach. But are they actually harmful? (Image courtesy of Clemson University-USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series,

Most people think cockroaches are disgusting. And if you’ve ever turned on a kitchen light, to find them skittering for dark corners, you probably agree (reference: my first apartment). But of the thousands of species out there, only a few can be considered pests.

There are well over 4,000 described (i.e., named) species of cockroach around the world, with some experts estimating that there are another 5,000 species that have yet to be classified by taxonomists. Their classification is actually a point of contention – and I won’t take a position on which suborder they’re in, or how many families they consist of.

An estimated 60 to 70 species can be found in the continental United States (depending on who you ask), but most people are likely to interact with no more than a dozen of them – depending on where you live.

For example, if you live in a suburban home, near trees or areas with a lot of mulch, you may see the occasional “woods cockroach” – any of several species in the genus Parcoblatta that live in wooded areas and eat organic matter. Woods roaches are native to the Americas, tend to be fairly large (over one inch in length), and should not be a problem for homeowners.

While they may come into your house (e.g., inadvertently hitching a ride on some firewood, or entering through soffit vents or other openings), they do not want to be there. And (good news!) they have not been known to reproduce indoors. So, if you see one, don’t freak out. Woods roaches are actually very beneficial, consuming decaying matter in the leaf litter around trees and serving as a significant food source for other animals (including the red-cockaded woodpecker).

Woods roaches are different from wood-feeding cockroaches, which are in the genus Cryptocercus. Wood-feeding roaches are fairly uncommon, and are found only in the Appalachian region (including the mountains of North Carolina). Wood-feeding roaches are similar to termites: they eat wood, form “families” with a pair of adults that rears broods of young, and build galleries in decaying wood. Interesting, right? Not creepy at all.

But when most people think of roaches, they aren’t thinking of these wild species. They’re thinking of pests found in urban settings. There are four or five of these species in the U.S., of which the German cockroach (Blattella germanica) is most common.

German roaches are relatively small, rarely reaching more than half an inch in length. And they can’t fly, so are often introduced into new places by humans – catching a ride in your groceries, cardboard boxes, etc. But once they’re in, they can disperse rapidly. An infestation in one apartment can quickly spread throughout the building.

To a German roach, humans are a moveable feast. They’ll eat almost any organic material. The crumbs in your cabinet, bits of food that slip down the crack by your stove, your garbage can – they’re all smorgasbords to germanica.

German roaches have a unique reproductive strategy among cockroaches. After mating, a female makes an egg case containing approximately 40 eggs. The case remains attached to the rear of the female’s abdomen, where the eggs incubate for approximately three weeks before live young emerge. These nymphs are tiny – no more than 2 millimeters long – but begin foraging immediately.

The nymphs do not go through a pupal stage, but molt six times over the course of around 40 days before becoming adults. Once they reach the adult stage, they have wings (even though they can’t fly) and are capable of reproducing.

Because adults can live for up to a year, reproduce repeatedly and can produce a new generation every 60 to 70 days, the introduction of a single fertilized female can create an infestation of thousands of roaches fairly quickly – a population of millions over the course of a year.

But while roaches do gross people out, there is little understanding of their role as a vector of disease. We know they carry various pathogens (such as enterococci), but there has been little or no epidemiological study done that links roaches to human disease.

That said, cockroaches can exacerbate allergies and asthma. Proteins in the bodies of cockroaches are what trigger allergic reactions, and those proteins can attach to dust particles and become airborne when roach feces dry up or when a cockroach dies and its body breaks down. This can be a serious problem in areas with large infestations, where children become sensitized to these allergens.

And roaches also contribute to indirect health effects stemming from the overuse of pesticides. So-called “bug bombs,” for example, are not particularly effective – but can expose people to harmful amounts of insecticide. They aren’t very effective because: A) they do not do a very good job of reaching into the nooks and crannies where roaches hide; and B) roaches have become highly resistant to these pesticides.

So, how can you effectively deal with a cockroach problem? Your best bet is an integrated approach:

  • Improve sanitary conditions to reduce the amount of food available to roaches.
  • Reduce clutter, so there are fewer places for roaches to hide and reproduce.
  • Physically change your environment to limit the ways a roach can access your home. E.g., use caulk to block cracks around electrical outlets and eliminate water leaks that give roaches access to the moisture they need.
  • Use pesticide dusts (e.g., boric acid or diatomaceous earth) selectively, in hard-to-reach areas, such as behind cabinets or under the sink.
  • Place insecticide baits in areas where you see cockroaches – but where children and pets cannot reach them. E.g., behind the refrigerator.

This is a lot of information, but we haven’t even touched on other pest species of roach, such as the American cockroach. If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll pull together another post on them.

Note: Many thanks to Dr. Coby Schal, Blanton J. Whitmire Distinguished Professor of Entomology at NC State, for taking the time to talk to me about cockroaches. Any errors in the above post are mine alone.

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  1. I just killed a cocroach that I believe ,and hope, flew in back door at twilight, i.e. I hope only 1 in my house.. It was relatively high on a wall, so I crept upstairs and tried to spray it….it flew into kitchen (the back door was no loger open, darn). Hours later sitting with computer, stood up to get dog treat & the sucker brushed against my leg….was it in te dog bed? my recliner? EEEWWWW, Reached for shoe & tried slapping it…not dead, scooted somewhere…oops there it is- shoes now on feet I stepped & smooshed. Lifted foot, sheeeet it is still alive. Stepped, Smooshed, dragged. Were did it go? Got flash light and whew, saw that I killled it. Slipped it onto a paper & drowed it in the toilet,although it was dead.

    So the question, until I can determine next step – do cochroaches hurt people or pets?

  2. Wow. I thought my family was bad. Folks seriously hate roaches, even after the lovely roach article.
    Eastern NC is producing a particularly ginormous brand of mutant roach though. One day I came in the living room and there was a huge one on the couch with his four back legs crossed. He looked up at me from the newspaper he was reading, and then just started reading again. So I left.
    I don’t need that. He can have the house.

  3. The large (up to 2″) flying (albeit short distances) black cockroach is commonplace in my area of N. Carolina (Charlotte). I live in a brick home built in 1985 surrounded by trees. They come out in force at night and if you enjoy sitting on the porch after sunset, you better not mind their company. Occasionally we find one or two inside when waking up in the middle of the night. Wearing slippers or flip flops is best practice if you’re fumbling around in the dark on the way to the bathroom or kitchen at 2AM in our home ! Never has any small roaches been seen so I assume that is a good thing. Thanks for sharing your knowledge !

  4. I have these large black roaches mostly outside. I leave a small bucket that is about 7 inches high and 7 in. wide. They climb in at night but cannot climb out due to their own
    body weight. I had 5 this morning which I promptly dispatched. Once in a while I will find one of these big ones in the house. Are they water roaches? They seem to have wings but cannot fly. Are they dangerous? Bringing diseases?

  5. In addition to boric acid and D.E., a solution of dish detergent and water in a spray bottle is a safe way to spray offenders immediately. The basically drowned in the solution, and it is very effective. The solution also doubles as a spot cleanup for many surfaces. Outside of the house, you can also spray 3′ up from the ground, and 3′ out. Repeat after moderate rainfall.

  6. Boric acid is very effective and quite safe if used correctly. I spray boric acid powder in cracks and crevices, behind cabinets, under the microwave, & in the corners of the inside of cabinets, and I put a bit (1/2 half a teaspoon) in plastic milk bottle tops in discreet places which cannot be seen. Roaches hate it and boric acid is safer than having a bug anti-infestation company take care of them. Boric acid works. Look it up. I now find roaches either dead or half-dead. I pick them up with tissue and flush them away.

  7. I moved to NC from Miami, FL and will not return just because of the roaches down there. It matters not how clean or OCD about cleanliness you are, roaches are a part of tropical life and they are a large a polo ponies and I have seen them as big as 4″ there. My parents used to send large boxes of Christmas presents for our kids and I’d ALWAYS find they came with a roach or two via one of the big carriers each year. I had to ask that they just send money or have things for me to pick up at local stores. Now, I’m living in a duplex where some undesirable folks moved out, leaving a ton of garbage behind. It has taken months, but I am just seeing roaches in my place and I’m beside myself about this! I hate them so much that I must skip over the pix of them even to look at info on how to get rid of them. I have a clean place, no clutter, bit I DO see them under the stove and refrigerator. I am on a mission to get rid of them!!! I have 2 cats so I prefer a way that is safe for them. I do know that roaches often get into appliances like counter top coffee makers, microwaves, etc, but HOW do I get rid of them INSIDE of appliances?? There is just no pest as awful as roaches to me! I can’t step on them, either…thr crunch is disgusting. Can I get rid of them using diatamacious earth and boric acid alone?? I appreciate any help in eliminating this menace from my place in advance.

  8. We live in apex and have just started seeing very large roaches that some are rust brown and other very large ones are black. In 7 years at this home we have never had this pest problem… It seems they started when we had a professional company come to spray quarterly. Weird. We now see one roach every two days or so. And they are HUGE. Our home is also clean.

  9. My husband and I have just recently found a few American cockroaches in our home in SE NC. We’ve been in the house over six years and never had any problems in the past. We have our home professionally sprayed quarterly and can’t figure out why we have them now.

    So what should we be doing?

    1. Margaret, I have lived in my home in central NC for over 10 years. Professionally sprayed quarterly. During that time I have seen a couple dead American roaches a year. This fall I see 5–6 dead ones almost every week. What has changed?

  10. I am having the same problem with cockroaches as Mary (above). We have our home sprayed quarterly & just had it sprayed 3 weeks ago & have had 4 live cockroaches since that spraying! I blame the pest control company, they blame the weather & the “new infestation” that has come into the eastern/coastal areas of N.C. What is true & how can it be controlled?

  11. We are very interested in knowing more about American cockroaches. We have encountered several over the last few weeks and have been busily sealing every crack we can find. Our house is spotless and all food is sealed up. We think the heat/dryness is to blame for them coming inside but we do not know for sure. We also read a paper from your university that said baiting at key spots was more effective than hiring a pest control company so we bought hydramethylnon and placed it where we saw them and then sealed behind it so they would not come through. We would love to know more about them! Please post!

  12. I think what i hate most about these bugs is the crunch when they get smooshed. My husband insists on squashing them with shoes, and I have to leave the room.

    What about the big ones that my husband likes to tell me are “water bugs” (as though that makes them less gross…)?