Know Your Enemy!

by Joelle Steele

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You might not always see them, but they are definitely there. Waiting. Waiting for you to leave them a nice, warm, greasy stove ... waiting for you to leave your dirty dishes out over night ... waiting for you to forget to empty your garbage ... always waiting for just the right moment when you turn out the kitchen light ...

For several years I managed a three-story, wood-frame apartment building constructed in 1907. Before I took over, it had been neglected and mismanaged. It was crawling with drug dealers, prostitutes, and cockroaches. It took me only TWO WEEKS to get rid of the drug dealers and prostitutes, but it took me THREE YEARS to get rid of the cockroaches. These animals are a tough enemy to fight. They've been around for millions of years, are the most primitive of living winged insects, and are among the oldest fossil insects. In short, they are survivors.

The name "cockroach" comes from the Spanish name for the insect, "cucaracha," meaning "crazy bug." There are over 1,600 known species, but the ones found on the West Coast of the United States are German cockroaches (Blattella germanica). If you plan to do battle with these sturdy opponents, it pays to know your enemy.

Cockroaches do not practice safe sex. One pair of cockroaches can produce 400 offspring in one year and, of course, those offspring can do likewise, meaning that at the end of two years they can leave a legacy of as many as ... 80,000 cockroaches from the same two ancestors! If there were only twelve pair of cockroaches to begin with, that would mean 4,800 cockroaches at the end of the first year and 960,000 (that's almost one million) by the end of the second year. That's a lot of bugs!

Cockroaches breed more quickly when they are warm, so summer is when they are laying the most eggs and when they are most visible in both adult and young forms. The females carry their eggs around in brown egg cases which protrude from the tail of their bodies until they drop them. Each case contains about a dozen eggs which hatch in 40 to 45 days. The average German cockroach has a lifespan of about a year.

Cockroaches love to be warm. The warmer the better. In fact, they even go dormant at 52 degrees Fahrenheit because it is too cold for them to function at that temperature. They love a warm climate, but they also thrive when you crank up the thermostat during winter months. Cockroaches are nocturnal and their antennae are very sensitive to movement and moisture. Those little prongs on their tails sense air movement and air pressure which is why they scatter so quickly when someone enters the room. It's not the light that alerts them to a human presence, it's our movement and the resulting change in air pressure that they sense.

Cockroaches will eat almost anything, but they are especially attracted to starchy or sweetened matter and moisture. If they can't find regular food substances (i.e., decaying matter), they will eat paper (brown paper bags are a favorite and so is cardboard), wood, glue, clothing, shoes, and dead insects. If they are desperate they will even eat their young. But, they would have to be extremely desperate to do so since they can go for three months without food and for one month without water.

Unfortunately, insecticides offer only very short-term relief from cockroaches and the more these chemicals are relied on, the stronger each generation of cockroaches will become. Cockroaches reproduce so frequently and reach maturity to breed so quickly, that each generation of cockroaches becomes immune to the very chemicals being used to destroy them. For example, if an apartment is bombed or sprayed as often as once every two months, within six months the chemicals will have little or no effect on the cockroaches.

The best prevention against a cockroach infestation is cleanliness. Not just washing dishes after every meal or emptying the trash frequently, but keeping kitchen counters, floors, and stoves (especially gas stoves) free of grease and crumbs. Store all shelf food in sealed plastic or glass containers or keep them in their original containers inside the refrigerator. A box of corn flakes sitting on the shelf is a potential feast for cockroaches. Ditto for a loaf of bread, a dirty toaster, or a toaster oven.

Gas stoves and refrigerators are the places a cockroach likes best. The refrigerator offers warmth around the motor and moisture in its drip pan. The older gas stoves, with their burner and oven pilots constantly lit, make lovely little nests for breeding. If a stove isn't used regularly, turn the oven on full blast for about a half hour every week or so to destroy any eggs and young, and to discourage adults which may be present from nesting there. If food or litter falls behind or rolls underneath these appliances, clean it up immediately.

To keep an apartment or home cockroach-free you need one thing: clean residents. If you don't make your would-be tenants aware of this fact, and if you don't stay on top of them once they move in, you may wind up operating a giant fast food restaurant for cockroaches. And you know how that goes — one cockroach eats there and tells all his friends, and they tell all their friends ...

This article last updated: 08/26/1994.