The first time I saw a palmetto bug, chilling on the wall of a New York City apartment, it scared the crap out of me. Not just because it was a bug that was bigger than my thumb (ew!), but because the freakin' thing could fly! I didn't think roaches could have wings. It turns out I was wrong.
After chatting with Michael Bentley, an entomologist with the National Pest Management Association, I learned a few more things about these all-too-common critters. Here's what I found out.
1. They go by a bunch of names.
Palmetto is just a prettier way of saying American cockroach (not to be confused with its smaller, non-flying, black-colored, even-more-common-in-NYC German cousin). Or maybe you know it by yet another name: water bug.
Whatever you call it, it's big and it flies. "It is the largest of the house-infesting cockroaches, averaging around 2.5 inches long, and has well-developed wings that allow this insect to take flight when disturbed," says Bentley. Now that's disturbing.
2. They don't just stick to the South.
The first one I saw was in an apartment in New York, so I sorta already knew this. But they seem to particularly enjoy warmer climes. "The American cockroach remains active year-round where the temperature is 70°F or higher," says Bentley. "In colder parts of the country, this cockroach thrives in protected areas such as sewers, storm drain systems, steam tunnels, subway systems, and basements."
3. They seek out creature comforts.
As unappealing as a storm drain or the subway tunnel might seem to you, these locations have something in common when it comes to palmetto bugs: they offer relative warmth, water for drinking, food (hey, roaches aren't fussy), and protection from the elements.
They also can get quite cozy in your home and yard, Bentley cautions. "Our garbage and other organic waste provides them with ample food. Leaky pipes and poor drainage offer them plenty of water. And our cluttered closets and garages provide cockroaches with ideal shelter."
4. They spread disease (and poop).
"American cockroaches' presence in areas where we eat and sleep can potentially spread disease by contaminating our food and cooking surfaces," Bentley says. They can also leave behind some nasty stuff, including droppings (roach poop!) and oothecae, or their egg casings (awesome, a sign they're procreating!).
To make your kitchen as unappealing (to roaches) as possible, keep trash in a tight-fitting lid, empty pet bowls at night, and wipe up any spills — even water — when they happen.
5. If you spot evidence of them, you have to act fast.
Sweep or vacuum — with a HEPA-filter machine, to contain the allergens — the droppings, egg casings, and dead bugs promptly, and clean counters and floors thoroughly to eliminate their scent trails, which fellow bugs can follow. If you dare squish a palmetto bug (gross!), be extra vigilant to sanitize the area with bleach- or alcohol-containing wipes.
Some people recommend treating the areas in question with boric acid powder (the roaches crawl through it, get it on their limbs, then die from ingesting it when they groom themselves), but it should be used with extreme caution around areas where food is prepared and where kids and pets might get into it — it's poisonous to mammals.
When in doubt, call for professional help. "Eliminating a cockroach infestation can require a number of different steps, strategies, and tools," says Bentley. "If the problem is not approached correctly, cockroaches can spread to other areas of the home, making the infestation worse." And, really, who wants to be the one to bring a knife to a gun fight?