Wednesday, June 29, 2022

My Little Cockroach: Friendship Is Magic

Concerning the cockroaches, there was an extraordinary phenomenon, for which none of us could ever account.

Every night they had a jubilee. The first symptom was an unusual clustering and humming among the swarms lining the beams overhead, and the inside of the sleeping-places. This was succeeded by a prodigious coming and going on the part of those living out of sight. Presently they all came forth; the larger sort racing over the chests and planks; winged monsters darting to and fro in the air; and the small fry buzzing in heaps almost in a state of fusion.
   —Herman Melville, Omoo: Adventures in the South Seas (1847)

American cockroach (Periplaneta americana)

It’s time we discussed the cockroach.

Is it misunderstood? Certainly. Most of us don’t trouble ourselves to learn about something that makes us shriek and dry heave. But since cockroaches aren't going anywhere, perhaps we should to become more knowledgeable of these contumacious neighbors of ours.

Cockroaches comprise the insect suborder Blattaria, whose earliest known species date back to the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous Periods, roughly 120–130 million years ago. There are over 4000 living species of cockroach today, but we’re best acquainted with four: the German cockroach (actually originates from Southeast Asia), the American cockroach (originally from Africa), the Oriental cockroach (originally from Africa and/or the Crimean Peninsula), and the Australian cockroach (origins unknown). Thanks to the miracle of global commerce, all four varieties can be found living alongside humans on every continent but Antarctica. For the most part, the rest of their kin have been content to stay put in their native forests, deserts, swamps, and caves.  

Oriental cockroach (Blatta orientalis)

Though the cosmopolitan roach species spent millennia scrounging for food in tropical and subtropical forests, the selective pressures of life in the understory produced a nuisance phenomenally adapted to thrive in the built environment. Our cities are riddled with open seams, ducts, conduits, crevices, and crannies; the cockroach, precision-built to navigate and make itself inconspicuous in a landscape abounding with leaf litter, fallen trees, half-buried stones, animal burrows, etc., had no problem reapplying its ancient talents to its new setting. A decomposer par excellence, the cockroach fed on decaying plants, rotting meat, feces, and other woodland detritus before going abroad, and arrived in our cities perfectly happy to make a morsel of whatever organic matter it came across. Having emigrated from warm climates, urban cockroaches don’t manage well in the cold, and prefer humid places—and we generously heat our buildings during the winter, place our furnaces in dank basements we seldom visit, fill our bathrooms and kitchens with steam, and ignore the leaking pipes under our sinks.

German cockroach (Blattella germanica)

We could go over any number of fascinating cockroach facts—they’re social insects that recognize family members and make decisions as groups; they’ve been seen to demonstrate the sort of individual variations in behavior which we might call “personality” in humans; tiny hairs on a cockroach’s posterior can sense changes in air pressure, prompting it to immediately running away from the source of the disturbance—but I sense you’re not interested. You feel vaguely uneasy just imagining a cockroach's butt.

It’s fine. It’s to be expected. The only cockroach facts that most people want to know is “how can I keep them out of my space, and how do I most efficiently kill them if they get here?”

None of us like cockroaches, but is there any other animal that arouses such visceral, unmitigated disgust? The bare glimpse of a cockroach’s dandyish antennae and ovoid form can pitch a grown-ass adult into a fit of abject terror or a murderous frenzy. The next time you attend a cocktail party, just say “cockroach” out of nowhere and watch how the room changes: the appalled gasps, the rapid jerking of necks, widened eyes sweeping the floor. Hysterics follow the cockroach wherever it goes.
Australian cockroach (Periplaneta australasiae)

To be sure, roaches make rotten houseguests. They get everywhere, crawl over everything, and aren’t renowned for their cleanliness. They leave their dung on our countertops, in our silverware drawers, and wherever else they please. Once they make themselves at home, it can be hard to persuade them to leave, even when make our case with lethal traps and toxic chemicals. They’re not the world's best-smelling critters, either.

But the roach is hardly the only nonhuman nudnik that imposes itself on us in this way, and yet we reserve a unique enmity for it. Mice gnaw at our food, breed in our crawlspaces, and use our kitchen cabinets as their latrines, and how have we thanked them? By embracing a falsetto-voiced mouse as one of the most beloved cartoon characters of all time. Remember Ratatouille? Heck, remember Pizza Rat? Remember how the representative of a genus that spread the bubonic plague, whose name is synonymous with sleaze and duplicity, became a viral symbol of plucky determination? What about the pigeon? The rat with wings, the dirty bird, desecrater of sidewalks, bald pates, and outdoor statuary across the globe—and the star of a beloved children’s book series that has been translated into 20 languages.

We find something in these other pests we can appreciate—something of the human we can see or otherwise project onto them—but the cockroach gives us no hints of ourselves we care to acknowledge, and resembles nothing towards which we’re disposed to feel affection. It has the face of an eldritch, carnivorous automaton, hard and inexpressive, with bulbous blank oculi mantling a pair of antennae (uncannily positioned where we’d find the eyes in the outline of a human face), and monstrous mouths, all mandibles and palps and chitinous labia. Its legs bristle with fierce-looking spines. Its armored underbelly suggests nothing of warmth or softness. Comparisons between its brown and/or black hue with excrement, and the texture of its segmented abdomen with that of a maggot, practically draw themselves.

kiss, kiss

Still—we could paint an equally unflattering picture of any other insect that lodges in our homes, and yet we still prefer most any of them to the cockroach. House centipedes in the basement, camel crickets in the garage, and spiders in the attic can be tolerated, at least to a point. When we see a line of ants marching in our living room, we don’t deign to waste energy pulverizing them with a rolled-up magazine, or drop what we’re doing and run out to buy traps tout de suite. Even though we're certain the housefly buzzing around us was standing on dog excrement before it invited itself in and walked all over our tables and fruit dishes, it still needs to put in some work to exasperate us to the point where we sigh and reach for the swatter.

But our thoughts to turn to extermination the instant we see a cockroach.

Our animus against the cockroach is all out of proportion to our concerns about hygiene and our repugnance at their appearance. The way we doggedly stamp the floor after a fleeing roach might give an observer the impression that these animals —roughly 0.00017% as massive as a human, with brains no larger than the head of a pin—had given us the sort of egregious collective offense that would engender a generations-long feud if they were people instead of bugs. With the cockroach, it's somehow personal. We regard them not just as parasites, but as usurpers. If we spot a cockroach in our dwelling, we seem to feel that it's no longer entirely our own. Many of us believe that a cockroach entering our sightlines while we're dining at a restaurant is grounds to demand a refund—even if on an intellectual level we understand we've willingly sat down in a place so attractive to roaches that it must adopt a siege mentality against them in order to stay in business, and still can't reasonably be expected to be completely and permanently free of them. Even so, surely somebody ought to pay for the insult.

Maybe on some obscure level, our contempt for the cockroach contains a germ of terror at the ease with which it undermines our assumptions about ourselves and of the world we’ve built. It brings an undesired and unnerving wildness into our illusions of tidy domesticity.

We are Homo sapiens, the ape that rose from the primeval mud, transcending its animality to become human. We’ve tamed animals and plants, remade the landscape to satisfy our wants, and pressed the very elements into our service. With electric lighting, we’ve liberated the rhythm of our lives from the cycle of day and night. We control the temperature under our roofs with the turn of a dial. We bring water into our homes to wash our skins and clothes, often before either has had a chance to get dirty, and we conceal our bodily odors with scented chemicals. The vegetables we eat arrive thoroughly scrubbed of the manure from which they sprouted, and we chew and swallow meat without ever seeing the blood or smelling the offal. We could be forgiven for daring to presume that this domain we’ve carved out for ourselves stands in contradistinction to the putrescence and the muck, the rank disorder, and austere scarcity of “nature.”

But the light of civilization casts a shadow—and that shadow is the cockroach.

The distinction between a “wild” space and the built environment is an abstraction. Like most enduring concepts, it’s often a useful one, and has a material basis, but we’re apt to ascribe more concreteness to it than is actually warranted. Self-interested as we are, we tend to assume the difference between a “natural” ecosystem and a city is a qualitative one—as though the operations of bulldozing the landscape, paving over the dirt, and erecting condos, shopping centers, and high-rises were a kind of alchemy, a chemical change wherein the space is brought under the sway of a wholly different set of influences and processes than those which governed it before.

This is nonsense. The metropolis is merely a novel (and perhaps destined to be short-lived) ecotype, with distinct physical characteristics, selective pressures, and (displaced) trophic networks. Of nonhuman animals, it favors scavenging opportunists—the tough, tenacious, thieving garbage-eaters that can get by without such niceties as soil, flowering plants, streams, or the presence of other species that typically congregate around such environmental fixtures. They have to be comfortable with noise and weltering diurnal activity, capable of avoiding motor traffic, and able to act with a degree of discretion proportional to their size. They must be efficient breeders. A knack for finding secluded crevices in which to hide is a must. Small fry have a definite advantage: not only can they seek shelter within the narrowest of openings, but they benefit from the limitations on potential predator species imposed by the stringent qualifications for residency.

All that we build for ourselves, we build for any creature that fits this profile. Ecology doesn't care about intention. Converting swathes of the planet's surface into fecund roach farms was never the goal of urban development, but the outcome is all the same.

Think about the kinds of animals you genuinely appreciate, the ones you’re glad to encounter from time to time, whose appearance gives a shot of joy and wonder to your life. For me, frogs and toads come to mind—especially spring peepers, singing in the April twilight. I think of fireflies, luna moths, and ebony jewelwing damselflies. The reverberating chants of cicadas and the haunting voices of wood thrushes. Water snakes. Green herons.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, certainly, but there are animals that most of us would consider graceful and beautiful, and those animals tend to have been adapted for particular lifestyles in particular habitats. Wood thrushes need deep forests; it's not negotiable. Evolution fitted the moths and butterflies of the world to survive just fine in environments without motor vehicles, and this apparent failure of anticipation on nature's part left them without a strategy for dodging bumpers and windshields charging them at high speeds. Amphibians need more than what's offered by a storm drain, sewer line, or a decorative fountain in a town square. Rabbits? Porcupines? Beavers? Not much of a life they can hope to eke out in the crowded asphalt desert, is there?

As development intensifies within and around cities, and as the exurbs between urban centers densify and join the megalopolitan sprawl, specialized fauna crowd into the diminishing margins. Fringe species that can live on the outskirts or in the interstices of civilization's pathways are placed at the mercy of real estate developers. If there's nowhere for them to go, if they don't have they space they require, they simply stop breeding and die out. But you know that already.

Given the consistent particulars of what development entails, evicting the rest of the animal kingdom is tantamount to offering a lease to the cockroach—and it swarms into the niche we've made for it as reliably as the coarser grains of sand sift to the top in a shaken jar.

Over everything else, we've chosen the cockroach.

Cockroaches live where we live, eat what we eat, and follow us wherever we go. The filth in which they crawl is our filth, the excretions of our very way of life. It makes itself more lavishly at home in the metropolis than it could in have in any forest or bog into which it might have scuttled before the advent of agriculture, architecture, and urbanism.

It’s a vile kinship we share: a pair of gregarious, omnivorous, and remarkably adaptable animals that emerged from the tropical forests to colonize the planet, intimately cohabitating in cities at every meridian. Certainly humanity and the suborder Blattaria are as unalike in their capabilities as they are in stature, but let’s not be so pleased with our thumbs and oversized brains that we imagine ourselves to be the unequivocally superior species. Cockroaches gnawed at dinosaur carcasses in the conifer forests of Godwana 100 million years before the first hominids lounged in their trees, and the Blattarian tribes will undoubtedly persist for another 100 million years, with or without our trash bins and crawl spaces. Compared the roach, Homo sapiens is an infant. A newborn. A gullible upstart blithely doing all it can to expand the cockroach’s range, chase off its predators, and provide it all the shelter and sustenance it could ever need.

Were it capable, the roach would acknowledge our loathing with a shrug. Fair enough, it might say, but we wouldn’t change you for the world.


  1. Beautiful change of pace. It still carries a little of the self loathing manifested these last months, but it is refreshing to see a new gloomy-but-not-as-gloomy essay.
    Cockroaches have a cool copper exosqueleton, nuff said.

    1. I can't NOT do gloomy. My goth phase was like long covid. I got better, but not completely.

  2. Eh, if you could pet them, maybe you could make a case for the cockroach. You can pet a rat or a mouse (after thorough cleaning), pigeons could be okay.

    Natural selection through petting, that's how it should be. Survival of the most pettable.

    1. Pettable is subjective. My gf pets horseshoe crabs like they were puppies.

  3. Hi, I found my way here via your EarthBound/MOTHER writing on SMPS. Is this the right place? You might like Mama Cockroach, I Love You, by Fiona Benson:

    I heard it on backlisted, where the reading starts around 12:30 in

    If you'd be willing to talk about Itoi and his video games sometime, let me know

    1. The poem's just lovely.

      Huh. Itoi? What do you want to talk about?