Eeeeeeeeeeewww, Roaches!!!!

In my line of work, I’ve come to know insects pretty well. I recognize the importance of each and every kind of insect and I love to teach the public about them. Insects help us infinitely more than they could ever harm us! The one poor soul that gets the most grief is a wonderful little organism known simply as the cockroach. Men squirm, women scream, and even some children turn up their nose at the mere thought of a cockroach! I spend a lot of my time here campaigning for these little guys and I’m here to clear up some misconceptions, and hopefully change some perceptions about these awesome insects!

Visitors of the Prayerful Sort
Creative Commons License photo credit:
Clearly Ambiguous

Let’s start with the basics; cockroaches are insects with 6 legs, 3 body parts, 1 pair of antennae, and sometimes, 2 pairs of wings. They belong to the order Blattodea. These insects are most closely related to termites and praying mantids which have been known as “specialized cockroaches.”

Did you know that there are about 4000 different species of cockroach worldwide? We’re used to seeing the brown ones, but they can be green, white, or even dark blue. Some can even have elaborate patterns with colors like red and orange. They live in almost every climate; however, they are mostly concentrated in tropical climates. Most roaches live in forests, making homes of trees, rotten logs and leaf litter. They spend their lives as scavengers and decomposers. They rid the world of decaying organic matter and replace it with nutrients that feed the soil and plants. They are one of our most important decomposers, and our existence depends on them! Sometimes, however, they can get a little too close to home.

Bush Cockroach
Creative Commons License photo credit:
Cyron a beautiful bush cockroach!

Out of the 4,000 different species of cockroach, about 4 or 5 have decided to invade our homes from time to time. Can you blame them? Natural habitat is declining faster than ever and we offer them great accomodations, complete with a free all-you-can-eat buffet! That huge, gigantic thing scurrying accross your floor is called the American Cockroach – and it’s probably the biggest bug in Texas. It’s commonly referred to as a water bug, palmetto bug, or tree roach, but the only scientifically correct name it has is Periplaneta americana.  They prefer to hang out in dark, warm, moist environments and that’s why you will usually only see them at night while they forage for food.

If you keep your house clean, well organized, and in good repair, you may see one of these roaches in your house from time to time. Do not panic, it probably wandered in from outside and it’s very unlikely that you have a heavy infestation. Now, if you keep your house dirty, cluttered, and falling apart, well, you are welcoming every roach in a mile radius.

Another familiar species of cockroach is the German Cockroach Blatella germanica. These roaches are very small, light brown, and have 2 longitudinal stripes just below the head. Unlike the American cockroach, German cockroaches are highly adapted to living only in human dwellings, completely dependent on the filth humans leave behind. So, if you see one of these roaches in your house, it is very possible that you do have a very serious infestation. Here are some common myths about roaches and the real truth behind them.

Roaches are dirty.

False! Roaches are obsessive compulsive about cleanliness! They spend most of their time resting, and the rest of their time cleaning themselves, much like a cat. Roaches are actually some of the cleanest animals around.

Roaches spread disease

Trufalse. This is a little less clear cut. Roaches themselves do not have diseases, but can transmit germs with their hairy legs and sticky feet. For example, if you leave residue from raw meat on your counter, it is possible a cockroach may walk through it and track it around, but if your counter is clean and disinfected, that roach will stay clean! There have actually been studies where a cockroach and a human finger touched the same dirty kitchen floor. They were each swabbed and the swab was smeared into a petri dish to be cultured. at the end of the study, the human finger produced several times the amount of bacteria the cockroach did.

Roaches can hurt you

False! Roaches are equipped with no more than a set of jaws for chewing. They are capable of biting, which would not hurt at all – but that’s really not their style; they’re more into running away. They have no stinging appendages or anything like that. They are harmless.

Roaches can live for two weeks with no head.

Ok, this one is actually true. The reason for this is that a roach has several brains throughout its body, not just one in its head. They are really just ganglia or bunches of nerve cells. The one in the cockroach’s head only controls its antennae and mouthparts. Remove the head, and it will still be able to control its legs which are equipped with millions of sensory receptors, allowing it to find its way quite well. Eventually, though, the insect will be overcome by dehydration and die.

I saw an albino cockroach!

False! It’s likely that the cockroach you saw is one that has just shed its skin. A freshly molted cockroach is white with black eyes, and very soft and vulnerable. After a few hours, its new skin will start to harden and grow darker, until it is the original color.

Cockroaches can give my child asthma

True. Unfortunately, a heavy infestation of cockroaches can cause asthma in allergen-sensitive individuals, especially children. If you have hundreds of cockroaches in your walls, the feces will build up and become airborne. This is all the more reason to keep your house clean!

Well, there you have it folks, the skinny on cockroaches. I hope that some of you may look at cockroaches in a new light and next time you see one – give it break! It’s not their fault they have a bad rap. If you still feel nauseous thinking of them, just make sure your house is sparkling clean. If we clean up after ourselves, the roaches don’t have to do it for us. Skip the poison, it’s bad for the environment and kills all of those wonderful bugs everyone loves to see. Until next time, happy bug watching!

Mantis Madness

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 
So tiny I almost couldn’t focus

One of my favorite parts of this job is raising baby insects. It may not be like raising a baby, or even a cat or dog, (sometimes you have to feed them living things) but it is still very fun and rewarding. Plus, baby insects are really cute as you’ve seen from my previous posts. This week, the stork brought us about 100 Giant Asian Mantis nymphs. They are so cute.

Giant Asian Mantids (Hierodula membranacea) are a species of very large, impressive mantids from Southeast Asia. They are typical-looking and resemble some of our native mantis species, but are much larger. They come in a wide range of beautiful colors, such as bright green, yellow, orange, grey, pale peach, or brown.

They are quite voracious and will go after a wide variety of prey.  The adults are of one of the few species that will even eat a pinky mouse (shudder). Mantids are known as ambush predators. This is why they have camouflage coloration, which helps them hide from their predators and prey. They are not equipped for running after prey, so they have to be able to lunge and grab things very quickly. Their characteristic “praying” front legs are equipped with lines of teeth or spines to grab and hold on to squirming animals and they are very strong. Mantids also have excellent vision.  Predators in the insect world need to have accute vision to be able to see potential prey moving and flying around them.

Violet is the proud mother of these babies. She is a gorgeous specimen, bright peach colored with light violet eyes (hence the name). She is the first mantis we’ve been able to take out for Bugs on Wheels. While others may freak out and jump, fly away, or bite your hand thinking it’s a really fat cricket, Violet just climbs up and looks around curiously. It’s like she trusts us, or, just knows that we take care of her and provide her with food. We will be so sad to see her go some day, but I feel great knowing I’m raising her babies and hopefully one of them will be as special as she is.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 
Violet, posing for the camera

Raising baby mantids is really fun and easy, and it can be a great science experiment for home or the classroom. Mantis egg cases are available for purchase from a few web sites, like Insect Lore and Carolina Biological Supply, or some garden centers and nurseries. You can release most of the babies into your garden and keep the rest to raise yourself.

Once the babies hatch, they can be fed flightless fruit flies which are available from Fluker Farms.  They should be kept in a container with a mesh lid and plenty of small sticks and twigs. They need to have several places to hang from so they can molt. They should be fed fruit flies at least 3 times a week and sprayed with a fine mist of water a couple of times a week.

Once they get bigger, you can move on to feeding them small crickets, then bigger crickets and so on. If you have several, be sure to separate them as they get bigger, so they won’t eat each other. When they have made it to adulthood, you can release them into the wild, so they can start the cycle over again. 

Watching insects complete their life-cycle is really an amazing experience and it can teach you so much – maybe even mom and dad will learn something. I will leave you with this video of Violet’s green sister catching her meal. Happy bug watching.
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