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  March/April 1996 Features:
Assault on Mauna Loa
Where the Mountains Have No Name
A Natural History of the Yellowstone Tourist
Fish Out of Water
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Hearth & Home
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Sierra Magazine
Hearth & Home: Old Acquaintance

Let's face it: we'll be gone before they will.

by Marc Lecard

The cockroach seems to have originated, like Homo sapiens, in Africa. The light from the first fire built by humans may well have sent a crowd of roaches scurrying into cracks in a cave wall; a hand- size rock may have been the first pesticide. Many thousands of years later, people still find cockroaches difficult to love, and it is not hard to see why. Most cockroaches, for instance, exude a greasy substance that allows them to squeeze into the small spaces they prefer. Cockroaches leave a strong, unpleasant smell behind where they have been feeding--better not to know why. Roach feces and moltings are annoying allergens. And, while cockroaches groom themselves fairly regularly, they track through some appalling things--and then march through your food supply.

There are many varieties of roach in the world, but only five especially concern American city dwellers: the German, the American, the Oriental (sometimes known as the waterbug), the smoky brown, and the brownbanded. Powerful new insecticides supposedly spell doom for these uninvited guests, but things may not go as planned. Cockroaches, after all, have a history stretching back nearly 400 million years. A mama roach produces a brood of 30 to 50 roachlings up to four times during her lifespan of 200 days or so; a roach family saga will go through three or four generations in a year. They are adaptable, and smart (for an insect). They may not learn how to metabolize the new poisons, but they will probably learn to avoid them.

If you want to avoid them as well, you'll be glad to learn that there are many ways of doing in roaches without powerful chemical pesticides. Boric acid is perhaps the most widely used roach-killer; it's effective, long-lasting, and harmless in small quantities. A nontoxic powder known as diatomaceous earth will also make short work of roaches. Its sharp, tiny particles cut through their chiton, or hard outer covering, causing them to dry up and blow away. It has no harmful effects on larger creatures.

Discouraging cockroaches in the first place is probably the best way to keep them from setting up permanent residence in your kitchen. Most cockroaches have a liking for warm, dark, damp places, with plenty of cracks to hide in, so keep dampness-prone areas like kitchens, basements, and bathrooms as well-ventilated as possible. This will help dry up potential roach habitat--and the movement of air currents may interfere with inter-roach communications, causing them to pack up for less "noisy" locales. Caulking cracks in walls or floors in these areas will also discourage cockroaches by depriving them of the hidey-holes they require.

You may want to ally yourself with a creature that loves cockroaches as much as you despise them--the gecko. This small tropical lizard comes in several species, some of which choose human dwellings as their favorite habitat. Geckos like to lunch on insects, and can squirm into places you can't reach. With any luck, you'll end up begging roaches from your neighbors to keep your resident gecko happy and well-fed.

Dubious folk remedies for roach infestation are legion: one popular elimination strategy is the "bottlecap cure": place bottlecaps alternately filled with dry plaster of paris mixed with sugar, and water; the roaches eat the plaster, drink the water, swell up, explode, and die. Howard Ensign Evans, in his classic tome of insectology Life on a Little-Known Planet (University of Chicago Press, 1984), records another method, from a 19th-century compilation of unusual insect facts: write a letter "containing the following words

... 'O, Roach, you have troubled me long enough, go now and trouble my neighbors.' " The missive is then placed where it can be found, and presumably read, by the roaches.

But no matter how many you kill, they will be back. Common Sense Pest Control by William Olkowski, Sheila Daar, and Helga Olkowski (The Taunton Press, 1991), the bible of low- to no-chem insect death and deterrence, has this to say about roach invasions: "If you live in a building with a large roach population, the best you can hope for . . . is to keep the number of roaches in your apartment low enough so that you don't see them at night when you turn on the light."

Marc Lecard, who likes most insects, is Sierra's managing editor.

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