Land & Conservation

Can a Science Writer Learn to Love Roaches?

Digging deep into the research—and my soul—to appreciate this scuttling evolutionary superstar

Illustration: Gabriela Gomez-Misserian

It is a Tuesday morning in August. I walk into the beautiful G&G office and arrive at my sun-soaked desk. There in the bottom of yesterday’s coffee cup—yes, I should have taken it to the kitchen when I left, but that would have been a full ten seconds out of my way—is a giant cockroach enjoying the vestiges of sugar. Excuse me, a giant palmetto bug enjoying the vestiges of sugar. That’s what people call them in Charleston, to give them some Southern charm and soften the fact that all of them are monstrous in size and enjoy the ability to fly here. In Arkansas, where I’m from and where cockroaches are large but less upsettingly so and rarely feel compelled to take to the air, we call them what they are.

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I am on a personal journey with this insect. 

At G&G, I cover conservation and wildlife, all wildlife, including typically unloved members of the animal kingdom like venomous snakes and bats and rodents. Truly, I believe every creature has a place in this world and the right to share it with us; I see each species as a fabulous story of evolution and a window into deep time; et cetera, et cetera. My soapbox is high. 

Nothing sends me tumbling off it like a roach. 

For this embarrassing weakness, I blame my mother. She is a woman who will scoop up spiders and gently coax snakes away from the porch. She once chased a lizard around a Fresh Market to catch and save it. Her only hatred of anything is directed at roaches; she actually moved out of a house she loved in a neighborhood she loved because 1) she picked up a crumb of toast on the kitchen floor and it wasn’t a crumb of toast, and 2) a roach fell onto her head from the ceiling and became entangled in her hair (in its defense, her hair is very curly). 

I have long suspected the problem is coded into my DNA; if it were just nurture, surely I, a woman of science, could have overcome it. A study of inherited fear in mice reveals that “a newborn mouse from a fearful line, reared by a fearless mother together with fearless siblings, will still be fearful as an adult.” I hail from a fearful line, was reared by a fearful mother together with a fearful sister, so I really had no chance. Now I even have a fearful mate. A few years ago after introducing my Lithuanian boyfriend (now husband) to the South, I caught him typing a literal cry for help into Google: How can I stop being so afraid of roaches?

Google’s first entry: “Gradual desensitization or exposure therapy is one of the most common methods of overcoming zoophobias like Katsaridaphobia. This includes looking at pictures of cockroaches, touching a dead cockroach and gradually progressing to being in the same room as the cockroaches without experiencing a panic attack.” 

I can see looking at pictures (though I’ve looked at a lot while writing this story, and it hasn’t made me feel better so far), but the rest of that advice raises some questions. How did the dead cockroach I’m supposed to touch die? Did I kill it? Assuming it died of natural causes and doesn’t have its greenish guts splattered far and wide, will a light brush of a leg be enough, or do I need to caress the thorax? Maybe rub its wings between my fingers? Do I have to pick it up? After you, Google.

My answer is to convert fear to amazement to appreciation through education. The genus Periplaneta offers four thousand species of cockroach worldwide—all feisty, adaptable foragers that will eat almost anything derived from animal or plant, even cardboard or human hair in a pinch. Here are some other assorted facts to amaze and upset you: Roaches are intelligent, with excellent memories, and can even be trained. They can live a week without their ever-loving heads, by breathing through holes in their body segments, before eventually dying of thirst. Females can reproduce without males (you go, girls). Some exhibit parental care; many species live in family groups and can recognize their relatives. Like cats, they groom themselves regularly. Unlike cats, they do that by running their antennae and six hairy legs through their mouths. 

Though they are all cut from the same general pattern, some species sport additional accouterments: Death’s head cockroaches have a skull shape stamped on the plate-like shield over their heads. Madagascar hissing cockroaches, as their name suggests, vocalize. Cave cockroaches look just like the dead leaves they feed on. Here in South Carolina, we have around a dozen species, mostly of the brown and unspecial variety, but there is one jazzier species for whose presence I can personally vouch—a green banana cockroach once landed on my arm while I was in a forest at midnight netting for bats. Among the trees, sporting a sleek pale-green body, it was almost, almost pretty. None of these species are really native. Trade routes and settlers brought them over, but they are clearly thriving here because they thrive everywhere—that’s part of their charm, isn’t it—and we are never getting rid of them. They, like humans, have conquered the earth. 

photo: Adobe Stock
Clockwise, from top left: The cave roach; the green banana roach; the Madagascar hissing roach; the death’s head roach.

Back to the roach at the office. I watch its antennae, those tendrils of exquisite sensibility that serve as its sense of smell, twitch. I imagine, intelligent being that it is, it is smelling my fear. Our associate editor asks what is wrong. When I tell her, horror stamped on my face, her concern turns to glee. “You’re scared of roaches! This makes you so much more relatable!” We hastily cover the mug with a newspaper and plop a book on top. The digital producer floats over to investigate. She wants to see the roach but only if I’ll do the uncovering; I decline.The editor-in-chief waltzes by, assesses, editorializes: Cockroaches gotta eat too! You know we call them palmetto bugs here, right?  

I carry the mug to the outdoor stairwell, knock it on its side, and run away. The cockroach doesn’t budge, and I wait from a safe distance until the deputy editor strolls up from his car and, unfazed, agrees to shake the cup over the railing. The offender issues forth and plunges a few feet before spreading its two semi-translucent pairs of wings and rising on high.

“It’s a flier!” the deputy editor says cheerfully as it disappears. How disgusting; what an amazing creature; what a lesson I have learned. I will never, however many leagues it takes my tired legs to carry me to the kitchen, leave another mug on my desk overnight.