Cockroaches – Natural histories of extraordinary species that changed our world

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Cockroaches – Natural histories of extraordinary species that changed our world

Indestructible Survivors

As opening lines go, it’s up there with Pride and Prejudice: ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’

In Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis, first published in 1915, the unfortunate travelling salesman then has to deal with the consequences of his sudden and bizarre transformation. Kafka himself (and most translators) refrained from assigning the insect to a specific type, beyond the idea that it might be some kind of beetle. The original German term was ungeheures Ungeziefer, literally ‘monstrous vermin’; in Kafka’s letter to his publisher of 25 October 1915 he uses the term Insekt, saying: ‘The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance.’ And yet in the minds of most subsequent readers and commentators, the insect has been firmly fixed as a cockroach. And unlike the beetles in the previous chapter, cockroaches have few admirers.

Myths and truths about cockroaches tend to blur together. We are told that they are the only creatures left alive after a nuclear explosion (not necessarily true, though cockroaches can withstand at least ten times as much radiation as we can). It’s said that they avoid light (generally true, but not for all species), and that they can survive without their heads – true, at least for a few weeks until they need to drink. They can also live for at least a month without eating, survive underwater for up to half an hour, and despite their usual preference for warmth, survive below-freezing temperatures for a short while.

It is this reputation for toughness that has led to a wealth of horror stories about cockroaches laying their eggs beneath people’s skin, which then hatch out into grubs. Except of course they don’t – it’s another urban myth. But why do cockroaches feature so prominently in these modern morality tales? And do we understand them yet?

Cockroaches are generally fairly large insects, ranging in size from less than 3 millimetres to the massive rhinoceros cockroach of Australia, which can reach a length of 8.5 centimetres and weigh over 30 grams. They are mostly silent, apart from the occasional species which hisses to scare away potential predators, but a few species use sound in courtship.

Cockroach-like insects have been around for as long as 300 million years. This means they were scuttling around the earth several tens of millions of years before the dinosaurs turned up. There are roughly 4,600 different species of cockroach, all in the order Blattodea, which now also includes the 3,000 known species of termites.

The earliest English mention of cockroaches is found in the writings of Captain John Smith, the English adventurer who helped found the British colony of Virginia in 1607. In a work first published in 1624, Smith describes the insects on the islands of Bermuda: ‘Musketas and Flies are also too busie, with a certaine India Bug, called by the Spaniards a Cacarootch, the which creeping into Chests they eat and defile with their ill-sented dung.’ The name ‘cockroach’ is a distortion of the original Mexican Spanish word cucaracha, which merges two words meaning ‘fast bug’.

Some cockroaches are social creatures, while others lead a solitary existence, apart from when they pair up and mate. In general they prefer warm rather than cold environments, but those that have learned to live alongside us and become pests are nothing if not adaptable when it comes to diet and habitat. A peculiarly modern problem is their growing liking for laptops, in which, as one contributor to an online gaming forum warned, they might be getting an inadvertent helping hand from the machine’s owner:

Roaches are attracted to heat, moisture and food … [So imagine] the living conditions of a typical early 20s gamer, who uses their laptop at home and doesn’t move it around much. Their play area may even have bits of food (chips, pizza, etc.). The gamer will never see the roaches while he is awake because roaches like to move around in the dark. Once the lights are out the roaches come out, scrounge for food, and then go to where they detect heat … most likely from the still warm laptop. And all it takes is 1–2 to start a colony …

Despite their reputation, of all the thousands of different cockroach species just thirty (less than 1 per cent) live alongside humans, and of these only four are serious pests: the American, German, Asian and Oriental cockroaches. However, this quartet can cause huge problems both to individuals and communities, and also to businesses – particularly the restaurant and hotel industries. Cockroaches transmit diseases by contaminating food with their faeces, and they also act as vectors for disease by carrying pathogens from place to place on their legs. In the US alone it has been estimated that between 25 and 30 million people may be allergic to cockroaches. Allergy to cockroaches was first confirmed in 1943, when participants in experiments reported rashes on their skin after contact with a cockroach. They can also cause or aggravate allergies, possibly including asthma, especially in children.

As a result human beings have developed many ingenious ways to try to eradicate or at least control cockroaches, including biological warfare using predatory wasps or centipedes, and a bizarre range of traps, including the legendary ‘Roach Motel’, marketed under the slogan ‘They can check in – but they won’t check out!’ Home-made traps use a range of products to attract their quarry, including stale beer and coffee grounds, with Vaseline smeared around the edge of the container to stop the insect escaping.

But perhaps the most ingenious way developed to control cockroaches – without resorting to poisons or squashing – is to use compounds known as Insect Growth Regulators (IGRs), chemical copies of natural hormones that effectively stop the cockroach from developing into an adult insect. The cockroach stays alive, but is never able to reproduce, in what Roger Meola from Texas A&M University described as ‘Peter Pan Syndrome’. This approach is clearly far more environmentally friendly than the indiscriminate use of poisons, which can kill more benevolent insects and also be dangerous to humans.

To call someone a cockroach is a very loaded insult. The fear of ‘the other’ is not confined to alien invaders; as we know from recent conflicts in the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East, the greatest level of hatred is often directed at people’s nearest neighbours, simply because they have a different ethnic background, tribal culture or religion. There was international outrage when Colonel Gaddafi compared the rebels in Libya to cockroaches. The suggestion is plain: they are lesser, expendable and should be eradicated. As US author Richard Schweid wrote in his 1999 book The Cockroach Papers: ‘If you want to say something nasty about someone, call him a cockroach: that lowest of the low, vilest of the vile, most easily eliminated without a pang of remorse, the cheapest of all lives …’

One of the triggers for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda – in which a million people were massacred – was Hutu radio show hosts referring to their Tutsi neighbours as inyenzi: cockroaches. When President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, the radio called for a ‘final war’ to ‘exterminate the cockroaches’. During the genocide that followed, they broadcast lists of people to be killed and advised killers where to find them. A United Nations tribunal later convicted three media executives who had worked for the private radio station, of incitement to murder.

It’s not all death and destruction however. There are some positive depictions of cockroaches: in the Pixar movie Wall-E the eponymous robot’s sidekick is a cockroach who has managed to survive in a world so overwhelmed by rubbish that humans had to leave centuries before.

The Mexican dance La Cucaracha is likewise double-edged: it can simply be seen as a celebration of the insect’s survival skills – its spinning, stamping steps, the dancer’s attempts to crush a cockroach scuttling across the floor. But during the Mexican Revolution of the early twentieth century, its words were rewritten and used as a satirical weapon against political opponents, by both the government and the rebel forces, the latter led by the legendary Emiliano Zapata.

And while Gregor Samsa’s insect trapped in his old bedroom has to be the best-known fictional character, another anthropomorphic cockroach (also created amid the destruction of the First World War) is almost his complete antithesis, being sympathetic and also quite cute. Archy, along with his partner-in-crime, the alley cat Mehitabel, first appeared in a newspaper column in the New York Evening Sun in 1916, when the writer Don Marquis claimed to have discovered the eponymous insect composing verse on the office typewriter, leaping about to press the keys for each letter. But because Archy could not type while simultaneously holding down the shift key, all his poems were in lower case.

This cockroach was a reincarnated poet and as such had a highly unusual and entertaining worldview: ‘The human race may be doing the best it can, boss, but that’s an explanation, not an excuse.’ Don Marquis’s columns were a bizarre mixture of social comment and free verse and became hugely popular.

But cultural historian Marion Copeland, author of the fascinating Cockroach, argues that there was much more to Marquis’s stories than simply entertaining his readers. She believes that he was consciously following in the tradition of African-American folklore, in which cockroaches frequently feature as underdogs and survivors, something that resonated powerfully with an audience whose recent ancestors had been slaves, and who were still fighting prejudice and discrimination every day:

[This explains] why the cockroach continues to figure in contemporary folk tradition as the survivor who sees life from the underside and ‘tells it like it is’. It also, in the modern context, makes Archy a champion of both human and nonhuman underdogs and, indeed, the predominant tone in his voice is irony and satire, comedy but comedy with dark undertones.

Archy’s column continued to appear for many years. He also featured in a number of stage musicals, TV programmes and animated films. In 1943 the US Navy named a ship after him, while in 2011 the magnificent new door of Brooklyn Public Library’s building in New York featured Archy and Mehitabel cast in bronze and coated in gold, along with Tom Sawyer, Moby Dick and Edgar Allen Poe’s raven. As one journalist observed, ‘Archy, who always dreamed of public acclaim yet endured a life in lowercase letters, must indeed be proud.’

So, with all the hysteria surrounding cockroaches, are we missing a trick? Could we turn the unavoidable presence of cockroaches to our advantage? And if so, would that change the way we view these fascinating insects?

Previous civilisations were less squeamish. The Greeks and Arabs boiled or ground them up and used them to cure various ailments, the people of nineteenth-century New Orleans used to swear by boiled cockroach tea as a remedy for several complaints, and the Chinese have used cockroaches to treat wounds and illnesses for several hundreds of years.

Analysis has revealed a number of active ingredients in the cockroach, which is now being hailed in China as a ‘miracle drug’ to cure heart disease and help the healing of burns. And this isn’t on the fringes of medicine: one farmer in Shandong province has more than 22 million cockroaches living in concrete bunkers, and sells his entire output – more than 100 tonnes a year – to leading pharmaceutical companies. Elsewhere in China cockroaches are regularly sold as food: usually grilled, fried or boiled (once their heads and legs have been removed) and served in a variety of sauces.

In the west, cockroaches are even kept as pets. However, these are not the species we call exterminators, but the splendidly named Madagascar hissing cockroach, a large (up to about 8 centimetres long), wingless creature with a mahogany-coloured carapace, which produces its famous sound by forcing air through the respiratory openings in its abdomen. In Australia, cockroaches are used for racing, while one New York amusement park holds an annual cockroach-eating competition – the record number consumed being thirty-six.

On 14 September 2007, a cockroach named Nadezhda – meaning ‘hope’ – was sent into space by the Russians. Rather less celebrated than Laika the dog (and much more expendable), she turned out to be a truly versatile astronaut. Several days after the launch it was announced that Nadezhda had successfully produced thirty-three baby cockroaches, making her the first – and so far, only – living creature to give birth in space. However, there is some doubt as to whether the babies actually hatched in space, or appeared after she had returned to earth. The Russian scientists behind the mission were reportedly delighted, though they did have some concerns that the weightless environment might have some effects on the baby insects’ colour. Cockroaches are born with a transparent carapace, which then gradually darkens, as they get older, whereas these ones turned dark soon after birth.

But the scientists’ fears proved groundless, and the following May Nadezhda became a proud grandmother when her offspring spawned a whole new generation of cockroaches. Rumours that NASA is scouring Florida’s fast-food restaurants for the US space program’s very own astronaut cockroaches have – so far at least – proved unfounded.

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So, naturalists observe, a flea

Has smaller fleas that on him prey;

And these have smaller still to bite ’em,

And so proceed ad infinitum.

Thus every poet, in his kind,

Is bit by him that comes behind.

Jonathan Swift, On Poetry, a Rhapsody, 1733

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