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Pest Library: Cockroaches

Cockroaches are insects of the order Blattodea, which also includes termites. About 30 cockroach species out of 4,600 are associated with human habitats. About four species are well known as pests.

The cockroaches are an ancient group, dating back at least as far as the Carboniferous period, some 320 million years ago. Those early ancestors however lacked the internal ovipositors of modern roaches. Cockroaches are somewhat generalized insects without special adaptations like the sucking mouthparts of aphids and other true bugs; they have chewing mouthparts and are likely among the most primitive of living neopteran insects. They are common and hardy insects, and can tolerate a wide range of environments from Arctic cold to tropical heat. Tropical cockroaches are often much bigger than temperate species, and, contrary to popular belief, extinct cockroach relatives and ‘roachoids’ such as the Carboniferous Archimylacris and the Permian Apthoroblattina were not as large as the biggest modern species.

Some species, such as the gregarious German cockroach, have an elaborate social structure involving common shelter, social dependence, information transfer and kin recognition. Cockroaches have appeared in human culture since classical antiquity. They are popularly depicted as dirty pests, though the great majority of species are inoffensive and live in a wide range of habitats around the world.

Cockroaches are social insects; a large number of species are either gregarious or inclined to aggregate, and a slightly smaller number exhibit parental care. It used to be thought that cockroaches aggregated because they were reacting to environmental cues, but it is now believed that pheromones are involved in these behaviors. Some species secrete these in their feces with gut microbial symbionts being involved, while others use glands located on their mandibles. Pheromones produced by the cuticle may enable cockroaches to distinguish between different populations of cockroach by odor. The behaviors involved have only been studied in a few species, but German cockroaches leave fecal trails with an odor gradient. Other cockroaches follow such trails to discover sources of food and water, and where other cockroaches are hiding. Thus, cockroaches have emergent behavior, in which group or swarm behavior emerges from a simple set of individual interactions.

Daily rhythms may also be regulated by a complex set of hormonal controls of which only a small subset have been understood. In 2005, the role of one of these proteins, pigment dispersing factor, was isolated and found to be a key mediator in the circadian rhythms of the cockroach.

Pest species adapt readily to a variety of environments, but prefer warm conditions found within buildings. Many tropical species prefer even warmer environments. Cockroaches are mainly nocturnal and run away when exposed to light. An exception to this is the Asian cockroach, which flies mostly at night but is attracted to brightly-lit surfaces and pale colors.

The Blattodea include some thirty species of cockroaches associated with humans; these species are atypical of the thousands of species in the order. They feed on human and pet food and can leave an offensive odor. They can passively transport pathogenic microbes on their body surfaces, particularly in environments such as hospitals. Cockroaches are linked with allergic reactions in humans. One of the proteins that trigger allergic reactions is tropomyosin. These allergens are also linked with asthma. About 60% of asthma patients in Chicago are also sensitive to cockroach allergens. Studies similar to this have been done globally and all the results are similar. Cockroaches can live for a few days up to a month without food, so just because no cockroaches are visible in a home does not mean they are not there. Approximately 20-48% of homes with no visible sign of cockroaches have detectable cockroach allergens in dust. Cockroaches can burrow into human ears, causing pain and hearing loss. They may be removed with forceps, possibly after first drowning with olive oil.

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Cockroaches: American Cockroach, Asian Cockroach, Australian Cockroach, Brown Banded Cockroach, Cuban Cockroach, Florida Woods Cockroach, German Cockroach, Oriental Cockroach, Smoky Brown Cockroach, Surinam Cockroach and Woods Cockroach.

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