Originally created 06/03/01

Man vs. the German roach



Cockroaches aren't merely loathsome, they're world-class loathsome.

Take, for instance, the German cockroach.

"All over the world, it's known as the German cockroach. In France, it's the German cockroach," said Coby Schal, professor of entomology at North Carolina State University. "But in parts of Germany, it's known as the French cockroach. In other parts of Germany, it's the Russian cockroach.

"People all over the world despise the cockroach, so they'll name it after neighbors they don't like."

It might seem odd that any nation that abhors roaches and spends millions of dollars trying to drive them from human habitats would want to give the critters a home. But Penn State University is giving a group of German cockroaches, a place they can have to themselves.

In the interest of full disclosure: Watch out, fellas. It's all a trick.

It's scientific skullduggery, a chance for researchers to spy on the pests, learn more about their lifestyle, figure out how they make themselves at home. Then, the humans are going to use the information to sharpen their strategies for rubbing out the roaches.

It's all in the name of better pest control, said Glenn Holbrook, Penn State assistant professor of entomology and a prime mover behind the project.

It probably wouldn't have worked for researchers to turn up at somebody's door and ask to infest the place with roaches in the interest of science, so Holbrook and associates got Penn State's blessings to use an abandoned house on an isolated stretch of university land.

"The place is a quarter-mile from the nearest house," Holbrook noted.

Not that a buffer zone means much - German cockroaches are accomplished freeloaders without the gumption to get up and move out on their own.

"Nobody in a hundred years has even shown the German cockroach to move outside a dwelling," he said.

By the end of the year, when the house project is up, running and infested, Holbrook expects to have easily movable furniture in place - "maybe tables and a bed and nightstands and things." He'll also have see-through plastic doors on cupboards.

What Holbrook and fellow researchers find, they expect to use more cunningly in matters such as bait placement. Unfairly sly, perhaps, but in man's match of wits with the German cockroach, the cockroach is riding a million-year winning record.

The German roach - blattella germanica - is a six-legged, light brown oval, hardly a match, it would seem, for a full-size human.

But around the time the first man unwittingly dropped a few bits of his woolly mammoth burger on his cave floor, German cockroaches moved in and did lunch. And they never moved out.

"They live only with people now, in human habitats," Holbrook said. "You'd think there must be some out there, in the outdoors, but nobody's ever been able to find an outdoor population."

In fact, when German roaches move to new digs, they usually hitch a lift, hiding in soda cartons, potato bags or used furniture. And when they settle in, they settle in.

"I've worked in homes with tens of thousands of cockroaches. ... The worst places I've heard about had 100,000," Holbrook said. "I've heard stories of infestations so bad that buildings were knocked down."

At the National Pest Control Association, senior entomologist Harold Harlan insists that bug hunters are so well-versed on weaponry and technique now that they can whip just about any roach in the house. In fact, insect hunters have outmaneuvered roaches so well that ants have taken over as insect enemy No. 1, Harlan said.

But Donald Mullins, professor of entomology at Virginia Tech, figures that man vs. the German roach is "still sort of a stalemate."

Roaches adapt. They hide. They grow immune to insecticides. They can get wise to bait. A female can spawn about 240 little roaches. And the whole pack can squeeze by on little food - so little that they survive up to 10 days without a bite and as much a month without water.

"They've been around about 249 million years more than we have," Harlan said. "They're quite adaptable, genetically."

Humankind's contempt for the cockroach only deepened in the past few years with research showing that they produce an asthma-causing allergen.

Now, this is war.

The problem is, mankind has no allies. He's the German cockroach's only effective predator, not that he hasn't tried to enlist support.

"There are people who have released geckos in the house, just let them run around to find the cockroaches and eat them," Schal said. "The problem is, the geckos get full. They can't eat enough. Perhaps you could release rats and mice, but people wouldn't want that."

So Holbrook's crew is trying to add what they can to mankind's battle plan. "As long as there are roaches," Holbrook said, "we'll be out there."