Today we caught up with a Tampa Bay palmetto bug, also known as an American cockroach, in a rare exposed moment. A few other species also bear the same, “palmetto bug’, mostly due to their size, ranging from one to three inches long. Before our interview, Jake* agreed to talk to us under the condition of anonymity.
What’s in a name?
“We don’t like to be called ‘cockroaches,’” said Jake, lounging on the windowsill near the potted plants. As exterminators in Tampa Bay and Lakeland Areas, we were interested in learning more about these pests, who, like their little cousins, the German cockroaches, often seek warm, damp places.
“So, they call you ‘palmetto bugs’ because you’re often found beneath the leaves of palmetto palm trees, right?”
Jake nodded. “Yes, that’s right. Palm trees are great! Not that we don’t like being in the house, though. Sometimes we’ll turn up in your home after a windstorm because we get knocked out of the trees. Or, we’re looking for food or shelter.”
How and where they get around
“But, can you fly?” we asked, noticing Jake’s nearly folded wings. Jake was about an inch and a half long, an average size for a palmetto bug. Exterminators have different ways to treat flying insects than their crawling counterparts.
“We fly short distances. Mostly, we glide or fly a short distance, for example, if we’re disturbed. If you go after us with a fly swatter, we might fly right into you by accident. Plus, we only like using our wings in warmer weather. Usually we just like scurrying around. That skittering sound you hear when we’re in your house is the motion of us moving. We don’t hiss as people say.”
“So, where are some of your favorite hangouts inside the house?” we asked him.
“Anywhere warm and damp!” Jake replied. “You will find me underneath your sink down by the drainpipe. Attics. Dumpsters! I might check out your basement, hide behind an appliance like the refrigerator, in a pile of dirty laundry, underneath cracks in the floorboards or other tight spaces.” We noticed Jake was oval-shaped and flat, flat enough to slip in a small crack in the windowsill.
“What about your love life?” we asked. A cockroach infestation can be distressing to homeowners.
“Ah, yes! If you see a gal with raised wings, she’s releasing a pheromone, which attracts us guys,” he said. “I found my girl doing that and flapped my wings at her, which is how I showed her I was interested,” he said. “She accepted, and we mated. After I did my part, she can carry on laying egg cases for the rest of her life, about once a week for a year or more. We call the case which holds the eggs an ‘ootheca.’ It looks like a human pill, the capsule kind. Ours typically hatch about 16 babies. They’re adorable. A grayish brown and about a quarter of an inch long. German cockroaches? They can hatch fifty! Our babies molt about five times before they reach adulthood.”
“Ah, damp, dark places. Cardboard boxes. Starches, sweets, meat. Water.” He stopped and pointed one antenna to indicate the water pooling in the tray beneath the potted plants.
“Exterminators. Pest control. Boric acid! Not only does it cut us up slow, but when we bring it back to the nest on our legs, it spreads to the others and kills us all off. Weather which is too hot, too wet, or too cold outside. That’s when we invade your homes. We don’t like bad weather any more than you do!”
“Do you bite?”
“Almost never! We try to avoid you people.”
“Do you carry diseases?”
Jake looked a little cagey at that point. “We’re tough on asthmatics and people with allergies. Our poop, which looks like little specks of pepper, and our shedding, saliva—which is pretty much the same as the family dog, right?—Those things trigger reactions in people with respiratory issues.”
“What about real diseases?”
“Listen, we hang around dirty places, alright? Dumpsters. Rotten food. The most common thing we carry is salmonella or E. coli. There are pathogens in our poop, which probably isn’t a surprise considering what we eat. If you get a little food poisoning symptoms, like stomach cramps and diarrhea, it might be because we contaminated your food.”
“Anything else we should know?”
“Bug bombs aren’t effective on us. We can hide from the fumes. If we’re in your house, it isn’t because you’re filthy, it’s because we found a handy way to get in, which is why people are so careful about sealing exterior cracks. If you see one of us, there can be a whole lot more of us hiding.
“We’re also very clean. We clean ourselves all the time, which is why boric acid is so dangerous for our kind and why we shed a bit from our bodies so often.”
Someone slammed a door near the front of the house, and Jake, alarmed, slipped off the windowsill and scurried under the baseboard, off to find a dark place to hide.
*name changed to protect identity.
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