The Enduring Cockroach
ALTHOUGH millions have heard the lilting Mexican folk song “La Cucaracha” (The Cockroach), not many housewives actually burst out singing it when they see the little insects darting for cover in the kitchen. To most people, roaches are annoying pests. They are not attractive in appearance, at least to us. They carry diseases. Their pungent odor is repulsive.
Yet, despite such human abhorrence, roaches continue to abound. Their great reproductive capacity, coupled with the scarcity of natural enemies and the roaches’ ability to adapt and protect themselves, quickly generates an amazing population. The common German roach, for example, can easily have over 35,000 descendants in a year. That is the average, not the maximum, which may exceed 100,000 a year. How so? The German roach’s ootheca, or egg case, may contain up to 48 eggs. The female roach produces seven ootheca during her average 140-day lifetime. If everything goes well for the roaches, with each female in each generation producing the same amount, tens of thousands of roaches are generated in a remarkably short time.
Most of the over 3,500 species of cockroaches live outdoors, unnoticed by humans. But a few, such as the German variety, favor man’s buildings for their homesites. Actually, the national names (American, Australian, German, Oriental, and so on) are really meaningless. Europeans, it is said, would name the roach after neighboring countries. The Romans called it lucifuga, from its habit of fleeing from light. The English word “cockroach” is from the Spanish cucaracha.
Some entomologists report a happy family life among roaches. Adults have been observed carrying little ones piggyback. Mothers have been noted helping the emerging young to escape from the egg capsule. After hatching they are often kept together and brooded by the mother, and a colony of nymphs, or young ones, will usually be found with a few older ones.
Not Choosy Eaters
Roaches feed on almost anything. They will eat whatever humans eat, as well as many other things, such as leather, hair, wallpaper, and animal carcasses. They also eat books—especially if they are soiled by perspiration—and will eat the bindings to get at the paste. In some parts of the world, parchment cannot be used for legal documents because it is so often damaged or destroyed by roaches. They relish dirty areas and filth but may infest even the most sanitary places.
Actually, roaches do not need much food. A dozen of them can live for a week on the glue of just one postage stamp. Water is more important to them, which is why they are most often found in kitchens or bathrooms.
Cockroaches have been accused of being carriers of bacteria and viruses that cause infectious hepatitis, food poisoning, urinary-tract infections, skin infections, allergies, and dysentery—to name a few. As they wander about, they contaminate food and utensils and leave an unpleasant odor, which is the combined result of their excrement, the fluid that they exude from scent glands, and a dark-colored fluid that they regurgitate to soften their food before eating it. Dishes that are soiled should be thoroughly washed and then scalded; otherwise, when hot food is put in the dish, the offensive odor will come back.
Is there anything good about a roach? Actually, it is a quite complex little creature. The roach’s sensors detect changes in air pressure and temperature, as well as locate water and warn of approaching predators. Roach antennas have 40,000 nerve endings that do the touching, tasting, and smelling for the roach. The largest sense organs of the cockroach are the compound eyes, which are made up of many small lenses, and yet the roach does not see objects clearly. It is, however, very sensitive to movement and is quick to notice even minute changes in light intensity. The cerci—the forked pair of appendages at the end of the abdomen—detect vibrations as well as sound or air movement and thus trigger the insect’s escape reaction of scurrying into the nearest crack or crevice. Alarmed, a roach can react in as little as 0.054 second and dart away!
A roach breathes through spiracles, portholelike openings on each side of its body. Blood is pumped by a huge tube that runs the entire length of the body. Decapitated, a roach can still survive for over a day—long enough for a female to deposit her eggs safely. The American roach can live up to six weeks without any food or water.
An amazing creature, yes, but of what benefit is it to mankind? Well, for one, it is a known enemy of bedbugs. And because of its size and ease of rearing, the American roach is often used in laboratories for scientific research. Japanese researchers, for example, had at one time successfully used a roach extract in treating liver disease in laboratory mice and were optimistic that it would also work on humans. Some fishermen use the Oriental roach as bait for catching bream, a sunfish. But this little fellow is essentially a scavenger, doing the work for which he was created: returning trash, garbage, and dead carcasses to the earth.
Ridding the Home of Them
“How did these insects get into my house?” asks the housewife. Well, they—or their eggs—may have come in grocery bags, sacks of potatoes or onions, in beverage cartons. They may have flown in. Since a roach can flatten itself, they might have walked in right under your front door. And if you or your guests have visited an infected place, they may have hitchhiked on shoes or clothing. In apartment houses, they can enter by passing through cracks in walls or floors or by traveling the “roach highways”—the common water and steam pipes.
How do you get them to move out and stay out? Fastidious housekeeping is essential. Likely hiding places, such as cracks and crevices in floors, baseboards, and vents, should be cleaned frequently. Keep clean all spaces around stoves, refrigerators, and cabinets. Clean up food spills and crumbs completely and immediately. Do not leave unwashed dishes overnight in a sink or a cabinet. Keep food stored in tightly closed containers. Since dry dog or cat food may provide a picnic for roaches, it is best to store it in a container with a lid and to avoid putting out more food than the pet will eat. Inspect incoming grocery bags and soft-drink containers for hidden insects and their eggs. Remove trash and garbage from the house daily. Repair all dripping faucets. Remember, though, while keeping the kitchen clean will make Senõr Cucaracha feel unwelcome in the kitchen, if you eat your meals in your living room or den, you may find you are inviting him in there.
If a room is badly infected, a pesticide may be necessary. Too much spray, however, may work against you. The roaches will either avoid it or become immune to the poison. So read the label carefully and follow the instructions exactly. Pay attention to precautions, and be especially mindful of children, the elderly, or anyone who has a respiratory problem.
Serious infestations often require professional help. Because it takes 30 days for roach eggs to hatch, monthly services may be needed for a while. If you do call a professional, the following will help. Thoroughly clean the kitchen before he comes, and be sure that food and dishes are removed from cabinets. Dishes and utensils may temporarily be placed on a table and protected with a plastic sheet. Food items may be stored in the oven or in the refrigerator. If the pest-control technician offers some suggestions or recommends changes, be sure to consider them.
The war against roaches has been going on for some time. And the roaches have been fighting back. They have become resistant to most pesticides that have been used over the years. Now scientists are turning to biological weapons. A newly developed compound, a synthetic hormone called hydroprene, keeps roaches from reproducing by keeping them in the juvenile stage. However, even though sterile, that generation keeps on living. So results are not immediately seen unless hydroprene is combined with another pesticide.
Whether these pests will be eliminated from households or not remains to be seen, of course. So far la cucaracha has endured and has done remarkably well.
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Rid Your Home of Roaches
◻ Keep entire kitchen clean. Give attention to all spaces around and under stoves, cabinets, and refrigerators.
◻ Frequently clean all possible hiding places—such as cracks and crevices in floors, baseboards, and vents. Where possible, caulk cracks and crevices in kitchens and bathrooms.
◻ Remove trash and garbage daily.
◻ Store food in tightly closed containers.
◻ Clean up spills and crumbs immediately and completely.
◻ Examine all incoming bags and containers for insects and their eggs.
◻ Practice moisture control. Repair all water leaks, and do not soak dishes overnight.
◻ Use a good roach bait.