Cockroaches Aren’t So Bad, Right?

Imagine a world where rubbish is piled higher than houses, where trash topples out of bins onto streets paved with dog poop and chewing gum. Everything smells like that boyfriend you had once… you know the guy. Sometimes you think you can still smell him, but it’s just your own morning breath plus bad dreams. Yeah, him. Are you imagining this world? Wondrous, isn’t it? Magical, heavenly almost, no? Hmm, well aren’t we lucky that the humble cockroach didn’t fling itself off the bridge into non-existence? Thank you, Clarence.

Okay, let’s get all the hatred out of the way. EWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW! GETAWAYGETAWAYGETAWAY! *Flails arms around like a Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm-Flailing Tubeman* Right, I’m done. Yeah, alright, they’re pretty icky. The fact that they leave a trail of poop to find their way around doesn’t exactly make them animal of the year, but cockroaches still have a lot of positive aspects, so I’m gonna go all Shallow Hal on you and explain.

There are actually over 4,000 different types of cockroaches, but only 30 that are considered to be household evil-doers. Of these 30, there are four top roaches which appear regularly in our homes, climbing in our windows, snatching our people up, etc. These are the German cockroach, American cockroach, Brown-banded cockroach and the Oriental cockroach. The German cockroach and the American cockroach are both originally from Africa, because people who name animals like to mess with our heads for fun. The German cockroach is the one that most of us are icked out by, and since cockroaches can live all over the world, the chances of you having a run-in are pretty high. But I’m arming you with facts here, and knowledge is power against tiny insects without firearms.

Yes, I said “tiny” insects. If you’re standing in your kitchen in your underwear at 2am, screaming because all you wanted was a PB and J sandwich and oh God, why is life so hard, then the little dears probably don’t look tiny to you, but trust me, things could always be worse. The Giant Burrowing cockroach (or the Rhinoceros cockroach, depending on if you’ve resorted to name-calling) is the biggest cockroach in the world, and can grow up to three inches long. These roaches are the kind you might wanna have around, though, since they don’t have wings and hang out in Australia munching dead leaves and possibly surfing. Some people keep them as pets, too, either because they’re an excellent choice or because they’ve never heard of guinea pigs.

Like the Giant Burrowing cockroach, Oriental cockroaches also don’t have wings, which is handy if you’re trying to catch them, but cockroaches that do have wings aren’t too talented at the whole flying malarkey, anyway. To make up for their poor aviation skills, cockroaches have the perk of being fast. Really fast. In fact, the hissing sound that cockroaches make may in fact be the neaaaaaaaaaaw that young children channeling aeroplanes know makes you go faster. That’s science. Okay, that sound is actually air blasting out of the breathing holes in their belly, but even that’s kinda cool, considering that most insects can only produce noise by rubbing body parts together.

Anyway, cockroaches are Fast and the Furious speedy. Researchers found that an American cockroach can scuttle around at up to 29 inches a second. They have a few secret weapons in their arsenal (NOS not being one of them, but neon lights and Vin Diesel do play a part). Cockroaches have eighteen knee joints. Their back legs (metathoracic, if you wanna show off) are the most important, and the cockroach will rise up onto these whilst moving super fast in a Warner Bros. fashion. Cockroaches also have lower joints which are like an ankle and a foot, which they use to hook onto things and skitter up walls so that they can watch us while we sleep. The handiest gift that cockroaches have been blessed with, however, is the tiny hairs on their legs, which allow them to feel the slightest air movement around them and run away, like the cowards they are. Cue wheel-shaped leg blurs and smoke clouds. Possibly a meep meep thrown in for fun.

Question: Where does a cockroach like to chow down?

Answer: Anywhere.

Cockroaches are resourceful fellows. If you went out for brunch and every food place was shut, what would you do? Probably go home to sulk and raid the fridge, right? But not the cockroach; nope, they see the gold lining the streets. A cockroach will eat almost anything, from the icky stuff you find on the sole of your shoe and the hair fuzzing up your hairbrush, to soap, book bindings and stamp glue. In the wild, eating all the junk found on the ground is awesome. They’re basically teensy trash collectors. But when you realise that a family of roaches has been pigging out on your first edition Austen collection, you can feel pretty rage-ified.

Hopefully you won’t ever have to see these delightful creatures hanging out in your kitchen. That would be awkward, like ‘Um, hi, what are you doing?’ ‘Oh, just eating this crumb that you dropped on the floor earlier – you didn’t want it, did you?’ ‘Go ahead.’ Of course, that’s the best case scenario; worst is that you scream, run into a door and lie there unconscious while the cockroach eats you. But that totally won’t happen, because I’m betting that you hang out in the light, whereas cockroaches love the darkness. In fact, the only time you will see a cockroach in the day is if you live in a rubbish dump, (lots of icky yumminess there) or if you have a roach problem so massive that you don’t have enough hidey holes to house them.

Cockroaches aren’t into thrusting their kin to their broom-beaten deaths though – they are actually all awesome friends. A study showed that when possible, cockroaches will choose to all hang out together, and when it’s not possible, they’ll divide into two large groups, rather than dividing into three smaller groups. It might be because cockroaches love to squeeze into tight spaces. They are much happier with solid-ness on all sides. The German cockroach can fit into a dime-sized crack, the American cockroach chills out in cracks the size of quarters and even pregnant cockroaches like to squeeze themselves into crevices two nickels high.

Speaking of pregnancy, cockroaches have got the whole baby making thing down. The female cockroach can lay somewhere between ten and ninety eggs a time, which hatch a few days after they’re laid, producing a LOT of tiny white baby cockroaches. The female will spend most of her life pregnant, and some females are pregnant for their entire lives (which may explain the whole stamp-nibbling thing), so it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out what will happen when the roaches are left to do their baby making. That’s right: infestation. If you have a German cockroach family living in your house, that might mean an extra 300,000 roaches in a year if left unchecked. But if you’re housing American roaches, you’ll get off lightly with only around 800 new roaches, which seems like a breeze in comparison.

The problem with cockroaches is that they’re basically Wolverine. They. Just. Will. Not. Die. Chop their heads off, they scamper away quite happily. Drop an atomic bomb on them, nothing. Actually, these two scenarios are semi-mythical. If you chop a cockroach’s head off, it won’t die, at least not straight away. That’s because the blood will clot immediately after the decapitation, and they can still breathe through their belly. The roach will eventually die of thirst, because, even though they can survive on just one meal a month, (longer if they’ve just munched their way through your Harry Potter collection), a cockroach can only live a week without water, and without a mouth, they’re screwed. A cockroach will also survive a nuclear disaster… or at least some of them would. A roach’s cells will divide a lot less than a human’s, about once a week, so if an atomic bomb did drop, only around a quarter of the roaches would pop their clogs, compared to all of us puny humans. Plus the roaches would make up for it soon enough with their mad multiplication skills.

So, how do you get rid of the damn things? Well, nature has actually got a plan for this. Even though they don’t seem appetising to us, a few animals like nothing better than to chomp on a cockroach, including the common house centipede, who loves to eat roach babies. In the wild, most cockroaches will die in the belly of another, bigger, hungrier animal, but in our homes, roaches are more likely to die on their backs, scrabbling wildly at the air, trying to right themselves.

If that’s not enough to make you feel sorry for them, remember this: there’s always something worse. In this case, the “worse” is everyone’s least favourite picnic guest, the wasp, whose favourite pastime is to lay its eggs in the roach’s belly, where they will grow until they burst out of the roach, committing the most horrific murder ever. Take that, Dexter, you amateur.

Featured image via Shutterstock; additional images via Shutterstock and yet more Shutterstock.

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