They fly, they swarm, and they're headed our way

 

Originally published March 1, 1987

Ruby Bunch lives all alone. She has a little house on a little plot of land in Seffner, Fla., a little town just east of Tampa. She's been there since 1944. She's 75. She's a widow. Living alone.

She says she's not afraid of the things in her lawn. "They don't bother me, " she says. "They're quite clean, you know, they don't leave slime, like the others."

She pauses.

"But I guard this house with my life, " she says. "Because there are so many of them."

She's sitting in her living room, which is neat as a pin. The whole house is. She takes you outside, to show you the yard. It's very neat also. Nice trees. Nice, neat shrubs. Nicely trimmed grass, nice

WHAT WAS THAT?

Off to the left there, in those dead leaves. Something was . . . moving.

You walk over. Gingerly, you brush some leaves aside, and . . .

There they are.

Cockroaches.

Little brown ones. Five or six of them, maybe. Scurrying along purposefully, on Official Business, the way insects do. You move a couple of steps, and you brush aside a few more leaves.

More cockroaches. Maybe 10 this time.

You get a stick, because suddenly you're not crazy about touching this lawn. You're starting to feel funny, just standing on this lawn. You poke the stick some more -- in the leaves, in the grass, all around -- and everywhere you poke, you see more cockroaches. Everywhere. Gradually you realize that the entire yard is, literally, crawling with them. As you walk, you start to feel things on your legs. Sometimes you look down and realize you are just imagining this. Sometimes you look down and realize that there are, in fact, cockroaches on your legs.

Standing on her porch, Ruby Bunch says: "Sometimes you walk outside, and they fly up on your clothes."

You walk briskly back toward the safety of your rental car.

"If I have them, I bet everybody has them, " Ruby Bunch says. "I don't see why they would just pick me out."

* * *

OK. We don't want to cause a panic, here. We are a responsible newspaper. We are not some supermarket tabloid shrieking that sex-crazed Bigfoot UFO invaders have taken over the phone company. But we have been doing some factual checking on this Tampa situation -- a very unusual procedure for us -- and what we have found out, as simply and clearly and calmly as we can state it, without needlessly alarming anybody, is that A SCARY NEW KIND OF COCKROACH HAS INVADED THE UNITED STATES AND IT'S LESS THAN 250 MILES FROM MIAMI AND IT CAN FLY AND MULTIPLY LIKE CRAZY AND IT'S SPREADING AND IT COULD COME HERE AND INFEST YOUR YARD AND CRAWL UP YOUR LEG AND PRACTICALLY NOBODY IS DOING ANYTHING ABOUT IT.

You don't believe us, right? You think this is another case of blatant media sensationalism, like Halley's Comet? Well perhaps you will believe Dr. Philip Koehler, who is a professor of entomology (Latin or Greek for "the study of bugs") at the University of Florida AND a researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture AND one of the top cockroach men around. He is not afraid of cockroaches. He keeps giant Madagascar cockroaches, which grow to be 3 1/2 inches long and hiss, as pets. He is not afraid to just reach into the cage and pick one up. With his bare hands.

The new cockroach makes him very nervous.

"It appears that this is going to be a major pest, " says Koehler (pronounced KAY-lor). "We have measured densities of over 100,000 per acre around houses. Now with the palmetto bugs (a catch-all name for several species of cockroach) you get in Miami, you'd really have a problem, a serious infestation, if you had 1,000 per acre. So we're talking about infestations at least 10 times as bad as the palmetto bug. There are places around Tampa where you can't put your foot down without stepping on 25 of them. At night, they're landing on your TV screen, crawling up your leg, flying around, hitting you in the head. Even in daylight, the grass is teeming with them, and they fly up as you walk through the yard."

* * *

DO NOT READ THIS ANECDOTE: "We had a 14-year-old girl wake up with a burning sensation in her nose, " Koehler says. "She went to the bathroom, blew her nose, and an Asian cockroach came out."

* * *

Its formal scientific name, in case you want to invite it to a wedding or something, is Blatella asahinai, although everybody calls it the Asian cockroach, because its home stomping grounds are Okinawa, India, Burma, Thailand and Indonesia. It probably came to Tampa on a plane or cargo ship five or six years ago, although it wasn't identified correctly until last June. Until then, people who came into contact with it assumed it was the standard German cockroach, which is the kind that infests urban areas up North. The two species look exactly alike: smaller than the palmetto bugs -- maybe three- quarters of an inch at most -- and light brown.

But the Asian cockroaches behave very differently. For one thing, although they will infest houses, they prefer the outdoors, especially leaf litter. And they fly. Most other roach species can fly if they absolutely have to, but Asians like to fly. Toward your porch light. Right into your house at night, if you open the door.

And that's the third big difference, the scary one: Asian cockroaches don't run away from light. With a normal, polite, cockroach, if you walk into the kitchen, flip on the light and surprise him, down on the floor, eating a four-day-old piece of Hydrox cookie coated with Mop & Glo, his reaction is: "Oh! Gosh! Is this yours?! Sorry!! Well, I must be off!" And then -- SWIT -- he's gone. I mean gone. Sometimes it looks like he just vaporizes, rather than hang around in the kitchen with you.

But Mr. Asian Cockroach, he likes being around you. He flies right up to your outdoor barbecue, and he says: "Hey! What's for supper? OH BOY!! Potato salad! Don't mind if I do!"

* * *

"This is probably going to be a pest of the middle class and the upper middle class, " says Koehler. "It's not going to be a problem in the asphalt jungle. It's going to be a problem in the nice suburban homes and the nice suburban yards."

Finally. A yuppie roach.

"This, " Koehler says, "could be the end of the outdoor barbecue."

* * *

"It's a very friendly cockroach, " is the way Jemy Hinton puts it. She's the Home Environment Program Assistant for the Hillsborough County Cooperative Extension Service. Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, is right in the middle of the infestation area, which also includes Pinellas County (where St. Petersburg is) and Polk County. Hinton is the person curious homeowners bring bugs and snakes to, for identification. In her office she has various dead identified snakes in jars. Jemy Hinton is the person Ruby Bunch called, about a year ago, when she noticed that her yard was acting up. So Hinton and a USDA researcher went over to Ruby Bunch's house, and they found all these these strange-acting cockroaches, and they didn't know what to make of it.

"Driving back to the office, " she said, "we decided to see if we could find some more. We'd stop by the side of the road, and we'd spread the leaves, and there they'd be. And we'd stop again, and there they'd be. Again and again.

"Everywhere we stopped, there they'd be."

* * *

Part of the problem is, people don't want to admit there's a problem. Not with cockroaches, anyway. Not in the suburbs of Tampa. Or any other suburbs. You go to a party in the suburbs, and you want to be able to complain about a nice suburban problem, like mildew. Or, if it has to be an insect, it should be a nice suburban insect. Aphids, for example.

"I've got those damn aphids in my rose bushes!" you could say, at the party, loud as you please, and the other suburbanites would gather around and pat you sympathetically on your Lacoste shirt.

You would not get this kind of reaction with roaches. Roaches are not a prestige insect.

"People who have them just won't admit they have them, " says Hinton, who sometimes knocks on doors in neighborhoods she knows to be infested. "The people live in these nice suburban homes, and when I ask them, they say 'No! No! We don't have roaches!' There's definitely a stigma."

Indeed there is. I've been carrying around some dead Asian roaches, in a little vial filled with alcohol, sort of as a conversation piece, and no matter whom I show them to, they elicit the following remark: Yuck. Many people don't even want to look at them. They turn away from the vial and kind of shrivel up, similar to how the Wicked Witch of the West did when Dorothy threw the water on her. And these are dead roaches. The reaction is even more marked with live ones.

For example, the photographer for this story, Michel duCille, is, like all good news photographers, a basically fearless person, but when he had to take close-up pictures of live roaches stuck to a flypaper-like goo on traps in the Hillsborough County Extension Service office, he became very jumpy. Especially when one of them got loose and started to wander off. Fortunately, Jemy Hinton, professional bug-and- snake-identifier, was there to whap it.

"DID YOU SEE THAT?!" shrieked Michel. "She killed it with her hand!"

This is a man who has walked, camera in hand, right into a Liberty City crack house.

"I wouldn't touch that thing with my foot, " he said.

No question about it, we're talking stigma.

* * *

Somewhere, on somebody's lawn in the Tampa area, just below the tops of the blades of grass, a male -- let's call him Steve -- is scuttling along. He has been out of the egg for five weeks now, and, no longer a nymph, he is feeling strange stirrings as he enters a small clearing and encounters . . . Louise.

Right away, Steve knows she is something special. She is not food, for one thing. But there's something else about her, something that Steve can't put into words. It is the best feeling Steve has ever had, better even than the time he found the dog doody. He wants her. And he wants her to KNOW he wants her. So he makes his move. His move consists of running around and waving his antennae. Louise is tempted. She is only human. She runs around and waves HER antennae. They are taking risks now, wearing their hearts on their sleeves, but they don't care. They have 12 hearts apiece.

And now Steve is raising his wings and dancing around Louise, fanning her with an attractant substance he secretes -- the devil! -- from a gland on his back. This is more than Louise -- more than ANY woman -- can bear. She is overcome by her need to . . . to climb on his back and . . . eat . . . the substance.

* * *

Of course we feel superior to them. This is understandable. We are taller. We are better-looking. We have major appliances.

But accept this fact: They are much, MUCH more successful, as a life form, than we are. They were thriving 350 million years ago, before the dinosaurs, and they're thriving now. And if we ever get around to melting all our appliances in a nuclear war, they'll thrive when it's over. Nothing we can do would threaten their existence in the slightest. We can kill them by the millions, and there will be billions more. We can spray whatever chemicals we want on them -- if we can find them -- and they'll become resistant. They have been adapting and adapting and adapting and adapting, and they have perfected the art of -- of being. They can eat anything, live anywhere, and reproduce at a breathtaking rate. Survival machines.

We, on the other hand, with our laser beams and our factories and our American Express Platinum cards and our nouvelle cuisine, we're just passing through. But as long as we're here, they'll use us. They'll ride our ships and planes to new territories; they'll live in our cities; they'll eat the abundance of things we provide for them -- our food, our garbage, the residue of our toothpaste on our toothbrushes; our toenails. So accept it: When the Earth's orbit finally decays and the planet hurtles back towards the sun and flaming oblivion, the last creature to fry will probably be a cockroach. And by then we'll be long gone, a tiny moment lost among the eons.

Cockroach food.

* * *

And now their breath would be heavy with passion, except they don't have lungs, but fortunately Steve does have two structures called "phallomeres" on his genitals, and they seem to be made for just this moment. He inserts the left phallomere, which has a little hook on it, into a convenient area of Louise, thus attaching them together, and there is no turning back now. Louise and Steve know what they must do: They must rotate into the "linear" position, facing opposite directions, so that Steve can use his right phallomere to implant a sperm capsule into Louise. He does. And suddenly, as suddenly as it began, it is over. It has taken maybe 10 minutes. But it has been quite a 10 minutes.

Because now Louise can have babies for the rest of her life.

* * *

A female Asian or German cockroach can live six months, during which she'll usually produce six or seven egg capsules, starting with about 40 eggs per capsule and dropping off slightly. If all of her offspring survived (which thank God they don't), and all their offspring survived, and so on, by the end of the year you'd have, as a result of this one female, 10 million new cockroaches. To give you an idea how many roaches that is: If you were to stomp on five of them per second, and you kept this up for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, your shoes would be really disgusting.

Another handy way of grasping the cockroach reproduction rate, of course, is to relate it to large naval vessels. Researchers once used a computer to figure out that if you started with 100 fertilized female roaches, and they each reproduced for five generations, and everybody survived, the resultant cockroaches, combined, would weigh a little more than eight aircraft carriers. Think about that. Me, I would just as soon not.

* * *

We have good news and bad news.

The good news is: Any given Asian cockroach is very easy to kill. Just about any old pesticide will do it.

The bad news is, well, frankly, there is so much bad news, it's hard to decide where to start. For one thing, there's the problem of cross-breeding. Although the research on this is still going on, it looks as though Asian cockroaches can and will mate with German ones. This could mean big trouble, because over the years German cockroaches have become very resistant to many pesticides. You spray them with what you think is a real killer brand of bug spray, and it's all they can do to keep from bursting out laughing. What the bug people are concerned about is that Asian-German offspring could turn out to have the pesticide resistance of the Germans, combined with the mobility and attraction to light of the Asians.

But even if the two species don't cross-breed, odds are that the Asians will eventually become resistant anyway, according to Dr. Mary Voss, professor of entomology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and one of the world's top experts on cockroach genetics. (Somebody has to do it.)

"My feeling would be that if you have a large enough population, they'll develop a resistance, " she said. "Most insects do."

Ross, who has seen a lot of cockroaches, was in the Tampa area recently, collecting specimens of the Asians for her research. I asked her if she had ever seen infestations like that before.

"Never, " she said. "And my goodness, I've never seen a cockroach fly the way that one does."

* * *

Surely, you say to yourself, the government is doing something about this. Right? A potentially major new pest? Already infesting over 200 square miles, and clearly spreading? There has to be some kind of program to deal with it, right?

Let's just check with the state Department of Agriculture on this. Geez, lots of parts to the state Department of Agriculture . . . wait, here we go: Division of Plant Industry, Bureau of Pest Eradication and Control. That's what we need, here: Pest Eradication. I bet these folks have some surprises in store for the old Asian cockroach! Right?

"No, I'm not really familiar with it, " says Bob Griffith, bureau chief. "I just know what I've read about it in the papers. That was some time back. We aren't involved in any kind of control effort."

Griffith explains that the Department of Agriculture is mainly interested in controlling pests that go after agriculture. Your Mediterranean fruit fly, for example. You get an infestation of those babies, and you'll have official helicopters landing on your lawn. But cockroaches aren't interested in agriculture, at least not until it has been formed into useful products such as Ring Dings. We can count the state Department of Agriculture out of this fight.

"You might try the state health department, " says Griffith. "It may be they're involved in some way with that."

* * *

Louise has produced an egg sac, which she has been carrying for three weeks. She has not seen Steve in that time. He never calls. This is OK. She has no ears anyway.

Then, one day, the egg sac opens, and out pop the little nymphs: Joel, Janice, Doris, Digby, Jane, Walter, Linda, Zachary, Tracy, Paul, Suzy, Raoul, Jennifer, Heath, Pete, Patty, Libby, Buzz, Arlene, Gene, Molly, Danny, Tom, Lisa, John, Madeleine, Philip, Alison, Lou, Terry, Dwight, Mamie, Franklin, Eleanor, Fred, Ethel, Lucy, Ricky, Ralph and Alice. It is a proud moment for Louise. She eats Digby.

* * *

OK, let's see. The state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. Gosh, they're pretty big, too, with all these offices . . . Ah! This must be it! The Office of Entomology and Pest Control! NOW we're getting somewhere! I bet THESE folks will soon have the Asian cockroach on the run! Right?

"No, we're not involved in the control of the Asian cockroach in any way, " says Dr. John Mulrennan, director of the office. He explains that cockroaches are "not considered a public health pest in the true sense of the word."

This is because cockroaches are not absolutely necessary for spreading a disease, the way, say, mosquitoes are necessary to spread malaria (the little malaria-causing critter must reproduce inside the mosquito). Cockroaches can, however, transport disease organisms -- more than 50 different kinds. Also a lot of people are allergic, sometimes very allergic, to cockroaches. But the way things are set up, the state health department doesn't handle them. It can't anyway, according to Mulrennan.

"We don't have the resources to attempt to control them, " he says. "There are no state agencies set up to do that except the Department of Agriculture, but they're strictly . . . "

We know. Strictly interested in agricultural pests.

"The federal government has no real interest in cockroaches, either, " Mulrennan notes.

"Sometime, somewhere, somebody's going to have to take a look at this and decide what's got to be done and who's going to do it, " he adds. "But right now, there is no agency responsible for them."

* * *

A crack. A crack in the law. And the Asian cockroaches have scuttled right through it. Which means the responsibility for controlling them, of defending the entire nation from them, rests squarely on the shoulders of Mr. and Mrs. Average Homeowner, running around with their cans of Raid, or calling on Private Enterprise, in the form of guys like Ed Shower.

Shower (pronounced "shower") is the general manager of McArthur Pest Control in Lakeland, a town about 35 miles east of Tampa where the Asian cockroach was first recognized. Shower is the man who recognized it, just about a year ago.

"This woman had cockroaches in her house, so I went over and looked at them, " he recalls. "Then she told me she had the same things outside, only they were crawling up her walls at night and flying. I immediately knew she was crazy. German roaches don't fly. Then I went outside, and I saw one just take up and fly away."

Now Shower sees Asian roaches regularly. He says he still sees more Germans, because they prefer to be indoors. "As long as the Asians stay outside, people will put up with them, " he says. "Although we'll get calls in the warmer weather, when people want to sit outside by the pool in the evening, and they turn the lights on, and suddenly they're surrounded by roaches.

"The Asians are easy enough to kill, " he says, "but three weeks later they're right back in, because they're all around the property. It's going to be a never-ending problem, I'm afraid."

* * *

"Two characteristics make the Asian cockroach very tough to control, " says Dr. Austin Frishman, an author and expert who travels the world as a consultant to the pest control and food industries. He has a Ph.D. in cockroaches.

"They are very mobile and inquisitive. They appear to investigate all new things, including automobiles, trucks, anything that's parked. Because of that, the possibility of their being transported is excellent.

"Also the Asians are lighter and more subject to dehydration than the German cockroach, so they will go to moisture. We've aleady had a case of an Asian cockroach getting up . . . "

YES! Thank you. We heard. Somebody's nose.

"This kind of behavior is very, very rare with German cockroaches, " Frishman says. "I think what happened is, the nose was a nice moist cavity for this inquisitive insect to investigate, so it . . . "

YES! OKAY! Right. Thank you, Dr. Frishman.

* * *

Five weeks have passed. Bill, no longer a nymph, is scuttling through the grass, and suddenly, right in front of him, looking radiant, is . . . Natalie.

* * *

OK, let's get ourselves really nervous. Let's talk to Dr. Richard Brenner.

If you had to pick one person and say, this is THE expert on the Asian cockroach, you'd pick Brenner. He's a research entomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Laboratory for Research on Insects Affecting Man and Animals, and he's the only full-time, permanent federal employee in the country working on cockroaches. Brenner is the guy Ed Shower sent the mystery flying roach to a year ago, and he's been studying the Asians ever since. He is not a reassuring person to talk to.

"The Asian cockroach scares me to death, " he says, for openers. "The standard procedures for controlling noxious insects are all going to fall flat with this cockroach."

The idea in controlling insects, he says, is to try to get them when they're in one place, where you can get at them. You can't do that with Asian cockroaches.

"They're not concentrated, " he says. "They're extremely diffuse. Anywhere along a 50-mile area, I can stop at random and I can find them within two minutes. I can't think of a single other pest I could say that about. And they are extremely mobile."

A palmetto bug will move maybe 4 1/2 feet in 10 days, Brenner says; he has monitored an Asian cockroach that moved 120 feet in two nights. This means the one that lands in your banana daiquiri in the evening may have spent the afternoon several back yards away.

"How are you, as a homeowner, going to control them, if they're coming to your house from somebody else's property?" Brenner asks. "You have no jurisdiction over your neighbor's yard. The pest-control industry is simply not set up to deal with this insect."

OK, but what if the government decides to take this thing seriously and steps in? We could send some big planes over and spray the hell out of the whole area and just WIPE OUT all the little buggers, the way we did with the Mediterranean fruit flies! THAT would take care of them, right?

Nope.

"The Medflies were accessible, " Brenner says. "They were in groves, and they were in the tree canopy, very accessible to the spray. Asian cockroaches can be almost anywhere, but mostly they're in the leaf litter. They're protected, down there. How can you possibly get to them?"

Oh.

OK, so it's a problem. But you scientists are working on it, right, Dr. Brenner? You'll figure something out! In your laboratories! Wearing your white coats! Holding test tubes! We just know you will! Don't we?

"What we have here, " says Brenner, "is an unprecedented pest. An insect that acts like air pollution. It's like an alien invading from another planet.

"We don't know what in God's name we're going to do about it."

* * *

Well, at least the problem is up there in Tampa, right, Mr. and Mrs. South Florida Homeowner? Thank goodness for that! We may have insane drivers down here, and people shooting each other over minor sales transactions, but at least we don't have Asian cockroaches! And neither do our neighbors! Right?

Speaking of neighbors, do any of yours happen to drive cars? Oh, really? Do any of them ever happen to drive their cars to the Tampa area? Could be, huh? Could be there was one up there just yesterday. Let's say his name is Bud.

Let's say Bud pulled off to the side of the road for a second, to read his map.

* * *

"Huh!" thinks Madeleine. Or words to that effect. "Wonder what this is? Better check it out!"

* * *

"Oh yes, " says Philip Koehler. "They love to crawl into doors and windows of cars. A lot of people have driven off with those things.

"It's just a question of where they'll surface."

* * *

Whew! That traffic was murder, but finally Bud is back from Tampa, safe and sound. Back to the green, green grass of home!

He opens the car door.

* * *

"Hey!" thinks Madeleine, sort of. "Light!!"

(c) Dave Barry
This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Electronic or print reproduction, adaptation, or distribution without permission is prohibited. Ordinary links to this column at http://www.miamiherald.com may be posted or distributed without written permission.

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