FEBRUARY
2004

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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Check out these books by Tom Turpin:

Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?

 

 

 

02-26-04

Download the audio of On Six Legs: MP3, WMV.

If Human Hate Could Kill, Cockroaches Wouldn't Exist


Remember the old camp song that begins, "Nobody likes me"? The next line goes, "Everybody hates me," followed by, "Guess I'll go eat worms!" Of course, we all know that the lyrics aren't true -- for humans, at least. However, if a cockroach was singing the song, it would be right on. That is, if "everybody" refers to humans!

Not many people are fond of insects, in general, and, for sure, almost everyone has a disdain for the insects called cockroaches. An old saying holds, "A cockroach never gets justice when a chicken is the judge." That adage relates to the insect-eating habit of chickens and whether or not the potential of a meal would cloud judgment.

For entirely different reasons, it could also be said that a cockroach wouldn't get justice with a human judge. We just hate cockroaches. Not only do we not like insects called cockroaches, we loathe them. We even dislike the name cockroach.

Over the years, we have used the term cockroach as a slur. If we want to demean certain people or a group, we just refer to them as cockroaches. In Kafta's book "Metamorphosis," Gregor Samsa was changed into an insect. What insect? Not a butterfly, a moth or even a fly. Kafka turned Gregor into the most despicable insect around. Gregor woke up one morning and found that he was a cockroach! To be sure, he was described as a black beetle, but that is a common European term for cockroach.

So what is it about cockroaches that places them at the top of the list of animals that humans love to hate? For one thing, cockroaches don't like to be seen. They hide. They come out at night, and then scurry away when we turn on the lights. And, to make matters worse, they live right under our noses -- behind our kitchen cabinets, under our sinks and in our basements. And just help themselves to our food.

In addition, cockroaches have been around for a long time. These insects are among the earliest insects found in the geologic record. Cockroaches have, no doubt, been invading human dwellings for eons.

To make matters worse, we spend a lot of time trying to keep cockroaches out of our homes -- mostly with limited success. So, in spite of our best control efforts, these brazen, six-legged geologic relics, like Timex watches or the Eveready bunny, just keep ticking and going.

While human disdain for cockroaches is already deep-seated, some business elements fan the flames of dislike through marketing and advertising campaigns. These businesses benefit when homeowners buy cans of insecticide or contract pest control services in attempts to rid homes of cockroaches.

Cockroaches do have a health risk associated with them. Some people are affected by allergens produced by cockroaches. The human response is a respiratory ailment and can be severe, especially among children. In addition, cockroaches have been shown to be capable of physically transmitting disease organisms. Incidences of disease transmission by cockroaches are rare and would most likely to occur in hospital situations.

In nature, cockroaches play an important ecological role. They are recyclers in forested habitats in tropical regions, where they generally feed on dead plant material. But when they get into our homes and try to recycle dead plant material, like crumbs of cookies and crackers, we generally take a dim view of the process. But there is a positive side to all of this. There are more than 3,000 species of cockroaches, mostly living in the tropics. Only six or seven are considered pests. To that, cockroach haters say, "Thank goodness for small favors!"

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox