Field Notes on the Cockroach

By Amanda K. Jaros

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In the News

“Make no mistake. These migrants are like cockroaches,” said Katie Hopkins in her column in Britain’s newspaper The Sun. “They might look a bit like Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb.” Hopkins is a columnist and television personality whose no-holds-barred opinions and admissions of her own smugness award her a lot of attention. The Sun ran Hopkins’ column in her regular slot on April 15, 2015, choosing not to edit her.

Hopkins’ statements came as news filtered in of another capsized boat, and many deaths, in the Mediterranean Sea. The boat, a wooden fishing vessel, embarked from Libya carrying too many passengers. Nearly all of the men, women, and children on board hailed from sub-Saharan countries such as Mali, Ghana, Senegal, and Niger seeking refuge in the European Union.

This is an increasingly common situation. People fleeing their African homelands are often caught in the snare of human traffickers, who organize the boat trips. The traffickers demand payment of thousands of pounds, then pack in as many people as they can, without regard for sanitary conditions, boat capacities, or the physical needs of the travelers. Many ships don’t even make it halfway before sinking, and passengers are rescued by the coast guards and navies of nearby countries.

“Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants,” Hopkins said. “No, I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.”


Class: Insecta

Order: Blattodea (also known as Blattaria)

There are more than 3,500 species of cockroaches on Earth, classified into several families. Their thin, oval-shaped bodies range in size from a quarter of an inch to three inches long. All cockroaches have wings, though only some are able to fly. To grow, cockroaches metamorphose. They shed their skin three times throughout their life span in a process called molting: from egg to nymph to adult. Species vary in color from black to dark amber to sand-colored tan, and in some species, newly molted, juvenile roaches are albino.

Physical Features

The cockroach cuddles into carpets. She wends her tiny, flat body between the plush threads of your shag rug, like the morning glory vine that climbs the garden trellis. Thigmotropic, they call it. To be touched. The roach seeks soothing in tight fits where her body retains contact with something… anything. Nestled in blankets, squeezed into cracks between the wall and floor, slipped under the edges of welcome mats, tucked behind toasters. There is comfort in closeness.


Carl Linnaeus enjoyed receiving cockroaches in the mail. When a particular package arrived from Germany containing a half-inch long, black-tan cockroach, he set to work studying it.

Linnaeus was a Swedish biologist who, in 1735, developed a two-part naming system to universally identify plants and animals. In European scientific circles, the system had already caught on for plants, but Linnaeus was eager to classify animals as well. By the tenth edition of his book, Systema Naturae, he included details for the creatures he discovered in his travels, as well as insects sent to him from around the world.

The first step in identification was to understand the roach’s family and what it was related to. Then the insect could be given its own genera and species name. The new roach was easy; it was from Germany, so it became Blattella germanica.

The German cockroach is not native to Germany, however. It likely arrived with ships traveling from Asia on the trade routes in the 1300s. Germans abhor the name, and call the German roach die russiche Schabe. The Russian Roach. Russians call it the Polish Roach.

Linnaeus also classified the American cockroach, Periplaneta americana. This species is also not a native of its namesake. It probably hitched a ride across the ocean from Africa via slave ships. Now, the American roach can be found essentially everywhere across the globe.

And they’re not the only ones. Roaches like to travel. The Pennsylvania wood roach makes its home in the oaks and elms of Wisconsin. The Turkestan roach may have arrived in Texas via U.S .military equipment. The Asian cockroach prefers the outdoors of Europe. The Argentinian wood cockroach lives in the heat and humidity of Costa Rica. The Surinam cockroach established communities in Hawaii. The Florida woods cockroach has journeyed to Nova Scotia. The Japanese roach migrated to New York City in 2013. The Madagascar hissing cockroach inhabits zoos and science centers around the world.

Feeding Habits

An established symbiotic relationship enables cockroaches to eat a wide range of food matter. Active in the fat tissue of each individual cockroach is a colony of bacteria. The two species sustain an existence of mutual benefit; the roach provides shelter for the bacteria, and the bacteria provides all the vitamins and amino acids the roach will ever need in its lifetime. Because the bacteria is passed from roach to roach as a thin coating on the eggs, the roach has protected the bacteria from the threats of the outside world for millions of years. As a result of already having all the vitamins they require, roaches can consume any organic material they locate. Including glue.

Control and Elimination

In 1932, an economically depressed German population welcomed the enthusiastic Nazi party into government. Retaining power necessitated preserving popular support, and so the Nazis created the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda to create an enemy against which the public could rally. Who was the enemy? Anything deemed un-German, or, anyone not of the Aryan race.

The media engaged in a pervasive and all-encompassing campaign to manipulate the public mindset. The Nazis described their enemies, people of Jewish, Slavic, and African descent, as cockroaches—a species so vile that it was undeserving of compassion. It was unworthy of life. In every poster, radio program, film and newspaper, Jewish people appeared weak, repulsive, and ugly. Because the Ministry of Propaganda did not allow for any media other than their own, there was no nationwide contradiction to or challenge of what was presented.

With the goal of creating a superior society free of the plague of all that was weak, the propaganda led to laws that institutionalized discrimination of those deemed not German. This was followed by arrest and deportation to concentration camps. It didn’t take long for the Nazi government, backed by the media-managed public, to further radicalize their position and decide that complete annihilation of anyone different from them was the best course of action. The Nazis set out to exterminate Europe’s entire Jewish population.

Most people died at the Nazi’s hands via gas chambers, where various gases suffocated the victims. Upwards of six million people, including one million children, were mercilessly murdered.


A quiver of cobras.

A flock of lice.

A smack of jellyfish.

A knot of toads.

A business of flies.

A grist of bees.

An intrusion of cockroaches.

Social Behavior

I rented an Airbnb room in a house in Pittsburgh for two weeks one summer. It wasn’t what I expected. On my first foray into the dark and damp shared bathroom, I stumbled upon a dead roach, withering by the toilet. It shriveled next to curly, black pubic hairs and hard water stains that would never go away. Its small, brown body was desiccated and stiff; its six, hair-covered legs pointed upward into nothingness, as if it had only just let go.

Three graduate students had inhabited the house for the past few months. Why had no one cleaned it up? I had never lived in a house with roaches before and my instinct was to call the landlady and scream at her. But I didn’t. Something told me she wouldn’t have given a damn. Instead, I went to Target to buy shower shoes. Then came back and gave the bathroom a middling clean so I could at least stomach using it.

But I couldn’t bring myself to discard the roach. I didn’t want to touch it, even with a tissue. So there it laid. And everyone in the house ignored it.

Scientific Research

“Roach Hormone Hailed as Miracle Drug”

In May 1981, Dr. Josef Gregor, an entomologist from the University of Bogota, announced that he had invented an elixir of health that would protect humanity from all manner of common ailments, from colds to cramps. Better yet, the cure-all would even defend against the horrors of nuclear radiation. Through intensive cockroach research and breeding, Dr. Gregor had designed a species of the insect that altogether resisted toxins. The scientist then extracted a hormone from these super-roaches to create a vitamin pill for humans. He and his assistants were actively taking the vitamin, and the results were unbelievable. Dr. Gregor termed his scientific discovery “Metamorphosis.”

From his laboratory in New York City, Dr. Gregor convened a press conference to broadcast his discovery. Numerous reporters from United Press International attended to hear his public address. Press also had the exclusive opportunity to explore the lab, which concealed an astounding array of cockroach art, including a detailed fiberglass cockroach the size of a small dog. During the exhibition, Dr. Gregor expressed his wish to distribute his pills to anyone who wanted them. Free of charge. The media cleaved to the story and it ran in hundreds of newspapers across the U.S. People fell in line to procure the miracle drug.  

Dr. Gregor went on NBC’s Live at Five in New York to show off his work. With “La Cucaracha” playing in the background, Dr. Gregor and hosts Jack Cafferty and Sue Simmons chatted about everything from the research to Franz Kafka, while live cockroaches in petri dishes nibbled on apples for all the world to see.

The four species of common household roaches: A) the German roach, or Croton bug, Blattella germanica (length 9/16 inch); B) the American cockroach, Periplaneta americana (length 1 3/8 inches); C) the Australian cockroach, Periplaneta australasiae (length 1 1/4 inches); D) the wingless female of the Oriental roach, Blatta orientalis (length 1 1/8 inches); and E) the winged male of the Oriental roach (length 1 inch). Graphic by R. E. Snodgrass, courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The four species of common household roaches: A) the German roach, or Croton bug, Blattella germanica (length 9/16 inch); B) the American cockroach, Periplaneta americana (length 1 3/8 inches); C) the Australian cockroach, Periplaneta australasiae (length 1 1/4 inches); D) the wingless female of the Oriental roach, Blatta orientalis (length 1 1/8 inches); and E) the winged male of the Oriental roach (length 1 inch).
Graphic by R. E. Snodgrass, courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Life Cycle

When people find cockroaches dead in their homes, the roaches are often on their backs, legs in the air. There are two reasons:

First, many roaches die from insecticides made up of organophosphate nerve poisons. The poison inactivates the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which aids neurotransmitters throughout the cockroach (and human) body. As the enzyme breaks down and death approaches, the roach will have muscle spasms, which can result in the insect flipping over onto its back.

Second, cockroaches are evolutionarily adapted to the leaf litter and detritus of forest floors. In human bathrooms and kitchens, tile, granite, or smooth wood covers the surfaces. If a roach accidentally gets flipped over onto its back in these flat, grip-less places, it is unable to right itself and languishes there until it dies.

In the wild, roaches die in the stomachs of birds, bats, geckos, and frogs.

Human Interaction

The civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi groups of Rwanda had long been raging. But in 1994, afraid of losing power, the Hutu-led government backed the private media outlet Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLMC). The goal was to rouse the Hutus into increased fighting with the Tutsis. RTLMC began a hate campaign that preyed on the fears of the Hutus and vilified the Tutsi people.

When the Hutu President’s plane was shot down, the Tutsis were blamed. Already stirred up by hate media, a fanatical hysteria rose in the Hutus and they immediately launched a systematic process to “weed out the cockroaches.” RTLMC heightened fear by broadcasting the names of Tutsi people who would be killed. They then proceeded to detail how Hutus should go about the process, and where those named were hiding.

The genocide lasted 100 days, mostly carried out with machetes and clubs. Hutu neighbors killed Tutsi neighbors. Hutu husbands killed Tutsi wives. Hutu priests killed Tutsi parishioners. Hutu administrators killed whole classrooms of Tutsi schoolchildren. Almost 70 percent of the Tutsi population, more than 800,000 people, were executed.

Pop Culture

Two teenaged girls with long black hair sit at opposite ends of a two-foot long clear plastic tube. They both giggle, while a male announcer commentates loudly to the audience. Inside the tube, situated neatly halfway between the girls is a dead cockroach about two inches long. Still laughing, they both lean forward and put their mouths around the tube opening. They prepare to blow.

Welcome to AKBingo!, a Japanese variety show starring the girl idol group AKB48. The girls from Team A play various games, such as dodgeball, against the girls from Team K. The team which loses an event must perform a penalty. The cockroach blowing game is one of those penalties.

The referee yells “Go!” and the competition begins. The roach slides left then right, left then right again. The girls blow hard. Pushing back their smiles so they can concentrate on the battle at hand. Finally, one gives a good, strong puff and the roach slides swiftly into the other’s mouth.

This is a game no one wants to lose.

Musical References

La cucaracha, la cucaracha
Ya no puede caminar.
Porque no tiene, porque le falta,
una pata de atras.

The cockroach, the cockroach
can no longer walk
because he doesn’t have, because he lacks
a hind leg.


In September 1981, Dr. Josef Gregor offered an exclusive interview to People magazine about his super-roach vitamin pill. Gregor revealed that he was actually Joey Skaggs, a Manhattan artist and professor, and had concocted everything about “Metamorphosis.” From the laboratory to the research assistants to his scientific conclusions, none of it was real. No one in the media checked Dr. Gregor’s credentials, so the prank was easy to pull off.

“I use the media as a medium, as a painter would use a canvas,” Skaggs said in People. “Everything I do is a social political commentary. Dr. Gregor was a satire. . . . My purpose is to make reporters more responsible.”

Those in the press responded with everything from fury to indifference. The managing editor of United Press International, Don Reed, said, “We were hoodwinked.” UPI ran a follow-up story on newspaper hoaxes in general, but the story of Dr. Gregor was not directly addressed again. WNBC TV and UPI never retracted their stories.


Responses to the online article “The Five Most Hated Creatures on the Planet (Don’t Deserve It).”

#5 – Cockroaches.

  • I fucking hate them, and I’m not ashamed of it.
  • They look pretty disgusting particularly when you put into perspective the garbage and trash it has been in.
  • They themselves may not be filthy, but they shit everywhere and breed like hell. You don’t have one or two when you get an infestation, you get thousands.
  • Well, it’s not like anyone voluntarily develops a phobia. I tend to fear pretty much them all, no matter how harmless (even dead). 
  • Next time I kill one I’ll be like “Your services are no longer required” *squish* or “YOU’RE FIRED” *splat*.
  • I won’t accept that the world really NEEDS them.
  • Wow, I have a newfound appreciation for these animals. I’m still murdering the shit out of any one of them I see. Seriously, you don’t even want to know how hard I’m going to murder them.

Unique Adaptations

The cockroach needs all six of its legs for tripod-like balance, which allows it the speed to evade predators. However, if a predator manages to get a hold of a roach’s leg, it will detach at a preset point called the autotomy point. Despite being in such a damaged state, the animal will walk again, because leg regeneration is likely to occur. If necessary, the roach is able to put off molting and instead takes the time to grow a new leg. While this new growth will be functional, only four of the usual five segments of the tarsus (a part of the arthropod leg) will develop. It’s a close copy, but it will never replace the original.

Conservation Status

My friends Athena and Laura and I sat down at a table in a Mexican restaurant on Murray Street. We ordered margaritas and chatted about our lives while perusing the menu for the perfect combination of enchiladas, quesadillas, burritos, and chimichangas. Bean, cheese, beef. Too many choices.

The drinks came and as the cactus glasses clinked, I glanced past Athena’s shoulder to see a cockroach loitering on the yellow, fake-stucco wall. I pointed him out. They turned.

“Oh, yeah, look at that,” Athena said.

Laura nodded. “We should name him.”

“Carlos.” The name rolled off my tongue.

We turned back to each other and resumed our conversation, but I kept my eye on Carlos. Could I really sit here and eat a plate of fajitas with a cockroach present? Cockroaches don’t bite or sting. They don’t carry Lyme disease or malaria. Hell, they generally run and hide whenever a human comes near. Carlos made no move on us, so we made no move on him.

Our hot plates of authentic Mexican food came and went, and throughout dinner Carlos paced aimlessly from one crack in the wall to another, antennae waving. He might have been watching us, but maybe that was my imagination.

The waitress arrived with our check. “Gracias.”

Carlos left the wall and climbed onto the edge of the dining table directly into a shaft of light peeking through the curtains. I leaned in closer and he dropped suddenly to the floor.

In that brief moment, I saw him more clearly. Carlos was a German roach.

Further Reading

Franz Kafka’s classic novella, Die Verwandlung, celebrated its 100th birthday in 2015. “The Metamorphosis,” first published in 1915, is the story of Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman who one morning finds himself facing a new and unexpected life. The reader doesn’t know Gregor before this particular day, but the compelling narrative allows the reader to easily walk in his six-legged footsteps and begin to see the world from the ground up.

The story opens:

Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt.

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic vermin.”

In the News

After Katie Hopkins’ column equating migrants to cockroaches ran in The Sun, she stood behind her statements in her subsequent column, on radio programs, and on Twitter. She argued that Britain already offers extensive aid to poor countries, and griped that rescue missions were not their problem. She claimed that she spoke for the hard-working Brits, the small town families, the truck drivers who are harassed by “this plague of feral humans.” According to Hopkins, the regular, good, everyday people don’t want to be forced to be PC and multicultural all the time in having to deal with the “vagrants” overrunning their country. Hopkins’ solution? “You want to make a better life for yourself?” She said. “Then you’d better get creative in Northern Africa.”

The response was swift. Hundreds of complaints filed in to The Sun. Thousands of people denounced and attacked Hopkins on Twitter. Hundreds of thousands of people signed an online petition to get her sacked.

United Nations high commissioner of human rights Zeid Ra-ad Al Hussein spoke out against Hopkins. Her ability to easily separate us from them reminded Mr. Al Hussein of the xenophobia that shrouded the Nazis and similar genocidal groups. He denounced British media outlets for frequent demonization of refugees, and advocated for enforcement of international laws regarding incitement of violence. He said that Hopkins’ statements, and The Sun’s decision to publish her, would likely be found in “breach of law.”

“I am reminded of the power of the pen,” Hopkins said in response. “One should be brave enough to speak out, but be aware of the dangers which lurk in the depths of our vocabulary.”

She has yet to retract her words.



Amanda K. Jaros is an MFA candidate in Chatham University’s creative writing program. Her nonfiction has appeared in PilgrimageLiterary Mama, Cargo Literary, and Newfound. She lives in Ithaca, New York, where she divides her time between her writing and her life as a mother.

Header photo of cockroach by Somchai Som, courtesy Shutterstock. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.