With fossil evidence proving that cockroaches have been around for more than 300 million years, they are one of the oldest groups of insects on the earth. They are also one of the most common—perhaps because they have been around so long. There are around 4,600 species of cockroaches worldwide, and they live in every continent, except for Antarctica.
Due to this longevity, they are considered to be one of the hardiest groups of animals. This resilience can make their control "a homeowner's most difficult task because of the time and special knowledge it often involves," according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Cockroaches are speedy creatures—they can run up to three miles per hour, making them one of the fastest insects on the planet.
Why Cockroaches Survive
The success of the cockroach has been attributed to a variety of innate characteristics including:
- Adaptability: It is an incredibly adaptive insect, having adjusted to the changes of the earth and its inhabitants for these hundreds of millions of years. Most recently, not only adjusting to life with humans, but using our homes, businesses, and food as their own.
- Diet: Cockroaches will eat just about anything. They prefer food sources such as starches, sweets, grease, and meat products, but they will also eat cheese, beer, leather, glue, hair, starch in book bindings, flakes of dried skin or decaying organic matter (plant or animal)—even wallpapers and stamps, primarily because of the glues on them.
- Size: Since cockroaches are small—especially the German cockroaches—they can hide and make their homes in the tiniest of cracks, or squeeze through these to build a vast population behind a wall. They may be found under refrigerators, stoves, false bottoms in kitchen cabinets, in the backs of cabinets and crevices between baseboards and floors or cabinets and walls. They may also be found behind pictures or within electronic equipment.
- Nocturnal: Cockroaches spend the daylight hours in these dark, secluded sites then venture out at night in search of food and water. Thus, populations can build to large numbers before they are sighted.
- Reproduction: Cockroaches produce their eggs in capsules which they then carry or carefully place. Each capsule can contain up to 40 eggs and produce up to 400 offspring in one year, depending on the species. The hatched eggs then have a relatively short time to maturity and their own ability to reproduce and carry on the population.
- Variation: While most cockroaches prefer sites close to moisture, some species, such as the brown-banded cockroach can live for many days without water. Thus it can often be found in dry areas where others rarely venture.
All that said, because cockroaches cannot exist entirely without water and most need daily consumption, according to a University of Rhode Island fact sheet, the availability of water is the single most important factor in determining the cockroach's survival.
The Problems of Cockroaches
While it might be nice if humans could co-exist with this prolific insect, there are just as many reasons that they are hazardous to our health and well-being.
- Damage: Secretions that are produced by cockroaches can stain surfaces and affect the flavor of foods. If there are large numbers of the cockroaches, the secretions can even have a detectable odor.
- Disease: Cockroaches are known to carry disease pathogens such as Staphylococcus, Escherichia coli (E. Coli), Salmonella, and Streptococcus.
- Food contamination: When cockroaches walk on food, utensils, dishes, counters, or food-contact surfaces, they can transfer these bacteria to the food and onward to those who eat the foods, causing illnesses such as food poisoning, dysentery, and diarrhea.
- Allergies: A significant portion of the population exhibits some extent of an allergic reaction to the feces and cast skins of cockroaches. Reactions can range from skin rashes, watery eyes, sneezing, and nasal congestion to asthma or worse.
The most common cockroach species in the U.S. are:
- German cockroach
- American cockroach
- Oriental cockroach
- Brown-banded cockroach
While this resilient, contaminating insect, can be a home or business owner's nightmare, there are many control options that exist for cockroaches, from sanitation if the population is small to roach traps, to the services of professional pest control technician if an infestation is extensive.