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Cute cockroach babies — and how they die

On their backs

Mom and Pop roach may go “Awww, kit'chy-coo.”
  • Mom and Pop roach may go “Awww, kit'chy-coo.”
  • Image by Rick Geary

Matmail: Are cockroaches cute when they are babies? Perhaps a better way to phrase it is, are they smaller? Smoother? Less likely to make eye contact? I see various sizes around San Diego sometimes in each other’s company, other times alone. Typically, they are decidedly alone. — Ed Vogel, the Net

Dear Mr. Alice: I have a few roaches in my home. So every time I see one, I grab my fly swatter and WHAM WHAM. When I look, there is the little sucker on his back, his little feet movin’, and again WHAM WHAM. Now this is my question. Why do roaches turn on their backs before they die? I won’t eat or drink. I’ll even hold my breath until I hear from you. — Alfred Beck, San Diego

Well, exhale and have a cold one, Alfred. And tell ’em to shoot you a bowl of peanuts while they’re at it, and put it on my tab. Got to keep your strength up for all that WHAM WHAMing. I’m sure you’ve found out, the fact that you haven’t left toast crumbs or sticky soda-can rings on the table lately hasn’t reduced your herd of cucarachas one little bit. Those suckers can live happily on glues and paste, paper, cloth, soap, paint, fingernails and hair, other roaches —just about anything. Or nothing, for a few weeks anyway.

You must be pretty light on your feet and fast with that swatter if you have a respectable kill rate. Roaches can easily sense the vibrations of another roach creeping in on tiptoe, and they have two body structures to detect air movement. Either one alerts them to big trouble ahead, and they zoom for the nearest crack. But when you do luck out and WHAM WHAM on one enough to stun him, he ends up on his back because that’s the heavy part. Bread falls jelly-side down; roaches fall wings-side down. Most roaches killed by insecticides also end up supine because the poison affects their nervous systems, they spasm, and they flip, unable to right themselves. Glad to hear that the simple fly swatter is effective, because you can freeze ’em, nuke ’em with enough rads to turn a human into pot roast, hold ’em under water for 20 minutes or so, and they’ll survive. Ingested poisons don’t always work well because roaches “pre-taste” their food with special mouth structures, and they just move down the buffet table if one dish doesn’t appeal. This from a bug that will happily dine in the bottom of a birdcage or your cat’s litter box.

As for Ed, who seems more kindly disposed toward the things, “cute” is in the eye of the beholder, I think. Mom and Pop roach may go “Awww, kit'chy-coo,” but we mostly go WHAM WHAM. Baby roaches, fresh out of the egg case, look pretty much like the adults except they are tinier, more round than flat, and they’re wingless and white. A few minutes later, a tight skin they’re squashed into splits, they eat it, and they slowly darken into that familiar Crayola color, domestic-roach brown. After a few more weeks and molts, roach nymphs acquire wings and their adult size and shape. One common San Diego species, the German cockroach, lives maybe four or five months and spends four or five weeks of that as a nymph. So the little guys you see may be “babies” or they may just be a different species. Adult German roaches are less than an inch long; American roaches are up to two inches long.

Roaches are the independent sort and are decidedly alone until it’s time to hit the rack in the walls, when they sometimes sleep in piles. And as for looking you straight in the eye, they can do that times 100 or so. Each huge, bulging roach eye is made up of hundreds of smaller eyes. So if you feel like you’re being stared at, you probably are.

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