In celebration of cockroaches

Aliya Haas Blinman/Staff

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Cockroaches. Lovers of beer and dog food, cute, inquisitive and a beautiful deep reddish brown. I once demonized them, labeled them pests and monsters. But the truth is that pests are only pests because humans consider them such. And according to George Beccaloni, an insect curator at the London Museum of Natural History, out of the 4,800 known species of roaches, only 1% of them are even considered to have pest-like qualities — quick, fast-breeding, freaky home invaders. Unfortunately, because cockroaches aren’t as typically adorable as baby piglets and bunnies, misconceptions about these cuticular crawly arthropods aren’t held in check.

Roaches have been on this earth for more than 300 million years — which preludes the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs — and will be here long after we have gone. They are an incredibly versatile and tough species, able to survive most anything, even the removal of their own head. Humans would be defenseless, naked dwellers at the bottom of the food chain were we without our brains, but cockroaches can survive up to an entire week headless. This is because they are able to breathe through tiny openings in their body segments called spiracles that open and close by contractions and retractions of muscles, which then release that oxygen to a pipe-like system of tracheas that run throughout the roaches’ whole body.

Cockroaches have the amazing ability to hold their breath for up to 40 minutes because they can close their spiracles to prevent water loss and collect oxygen within air sacs in the trachea. So don’t be too surprised if cockroaches come floating up through your toilet drain to pay you a visit.

They are an incredibly versatile and tough species, able to survive most anything, even the removal of their own head.

Most arthropods — the same class as cockroaches — have open circulatory systems, which basically means that their blood, a clear liquid called hemolymph, isn’t constrained by vessels as it is in the bodies of mammals, but rather moves freely throughout their frame, carrying nutrients and waste and keeping their shape intact. More than 90% of an insect’s body is made up of this plasma goop.

Imagine an insect as a big bundle of organs and oxygen tubes all enclosed and held stable by their hemolymph. All of this is held safe and sound inside of an exoskeleton, which is an armored, skeletal shell made up of a tough material called chitin (for a human this would look like a skeleton outside of the skin). An insect’s structure is completely alien to our own, nearly as alien as you can get within our home planet.

Roaches, although typically found in the tropics, are also known to be capable of living in the desert, and even the Arctic — at temperatures of -188 F. In these freezing environments, cockroaches produce their own antifreeze, which has a similar purpose to the less natural antifreeze that keeps the radiator in your car from freezing. The range of roaches is absolutely astounding and only continues to prove their immense ability to tolerate intolerable conditions. I believe we could all learn something about tolerance and adaptability from these little guys.

Cockroaches also have the special ability to develop immunity to toxins and poisons.  A Purdue experiment conducted last year showed that even when roaches were subjected to three different types of insecticides, their population just kept on growing. This incredible immunity, other than making them extraordinarily difficult to remove by typical pest control methods, also makes roaches able to survive in extreme environments. So I don’t doubt that when an atomic World War III eliminates the human species, cockroaches will go on creeping.

They are also extremely social insects, similarly to bees and termites, except unlike those two, all adults are capable of reproducing rather than just having a single queen. They tend to gather together, not only to help certain species —  like the German cockroach — keep warm, but also in order to communicate and interact on an intimate level. Using pheromones, they chemically signal to each other when a viable food source is found and bring that food back to their young.

I believe we could all learn something about tolerance and adaptability from these little guys.

Baby cockroaches and adult cockroaches alike are shy, preferring to stay in dark, moist places. But young will not even stray to find food and will instead be fed orally by their parents, or will feed on the adult fecal matter. This sounds gross, but is actually really sweet and isn’t much different from human babies drinking from female milk glands in the breast.

Roaches also have specialized chemicals on their antennae, and by brushing up against one another they are able to tell whether or not a fellow roach is a family member to prevent inbreeding and keep track of their loved ones.

Capable of living in groups of up to a million and with a highly specialized communication system, cockroaches are dependent on one another. Lonely roaches who roam without company are smaller and less likely to survive.

Most people were disgusted when I volunteered to take care of the Entomology Club’s huge terrarium full of Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches for the month-long winter break. I avoided telling my parents, so when I came into the house carrying a glass case nearly as large as my torso and just barely smaller than my wingspan, full of some 20 odd cockroaches ranging from the size of my thumb to the size of my thumbnail, my dad almost made me drive back to Berkeley.

But with enough wheedling and pleading I was able to convince my dad that it was my responsibility as a club member to make sure they didn’t die. He told me, “Aliya, cockroaches can survive damn near anything,” but that I could keep them in my car if I was so hellbent on having them as pets.

Every other morning or when I was feeling particularly absent-minded, every three, I would hike up the driveway to my old Nissan Pathfinder, open the car door, and take off the heavily duct taped lid of the case to slide in random bits of food (pieces of fruit, dog treats, the occasional fresh leaf) and a freshly moistened paper towel. One time, I even put an IPA flavored paper towel inside because I’d read online that they reacted fondly to the hops and sugar. I didn’t even need to feed them that often because they can survive for up to a month without food, but it always was strangely comforting to spend time with them.

Now that I am back living at my apartment in Berkeley, I’ll be sad to give them back to the club and only be able to dote on them once a week. But as much as I’ve tried to tote their fascinating and endearing morphology and behavior, my roommates will not be sorry to see them go. I hope that you, kind readers, will change your minds about cockroaches and see them as more than just the disgusting crusted monster that scuttles across your kitchen floor.

Contact Aliya Haas Blinman at [email protected].