Chemolution of a Species: Staying One Step Ahead of the Common Household Cockroach

by F. J. Kemp

      Australian cockroaches may not be as infamous as their cousins in New York, nor as impressive as the mammoth breeds in South America that can hold their own against a tribe of pygmies, but I dare say the cockroaches I grew up with might be worth a small footnote in the annals of insect ingenuity and indestructibility.

      Before I elaborate, let me just say that my mother kept a neat and clean house, but after a couple of mild winters we did find ourselves with a bit of a roach infestation. We tried going after them with shoes and rolled up newspapers, and we tried leaving out traps coated in a sweet, sticky substance that did nothing but prove a cockroach's desire to live outweighed it's desire to keep all of its legs.

      Finally, we tried a "bug bomb", which promised to deliver the cockroach equivalent of napalm to every nook and cranny of our house. Upon arriving home, six hours after setting off the first bug bomb, we were welcomed by the upturned carcasses of at least two dozen cockroaches. We vacuumed their remains and washed all of the sheets and went to bed that night believing that we had managed a feat that not even nuclear fallout could guarantee - we had triumphed over the common household cockroach.

      The next morning we were shocked to discover more cockroaches littered over the floor, but these roaches were not turned onto their backs. They were on their bellies, crawling slowly across the carpet in a beeline from the vacuum cleaner toward the bedrooms. We realized that these were the same cockroaches we had assumed were dead the day before. It was unnerving enough that they had survived (perhaps revived?) and escaped the vacuum cleaner bag, but it was truly disturbing that in the throes of their death struggle they were coming for us, in our beds, as we slept... to do what? What do cockroaches do when you engage them in battle? We didn't want to find out, so we scooped up the bodies and flushed them this time, down the toilet and out to sea. We must have flushed that toilet twenty times before we could bring ourselves to sit on it again, and even then we wouldn't linger.

      Bug bombs of various brands never did completely eradicate our cockroach problem, and I think the combination of chemicals and poisons we used over the years were conducive to the evolution of a master race of cunning, aggressive mutant roaches. These super-roaches appeared larger than they were because their wings stuck out at awkward angles and they had extra legs growing out of their backs (hence the awkward angle of the wings). The super-roaches did not scuttle under the refrigerator when the kitchen light turned on. They would run to the middle of the room, clicking their feet on the linoleum, shaking their wings in a Maori Haka dance. We learned not to make eye contact with them.

      I never realized that cockroaches could fly until I tried to sneak up on one of the super-roaches with a can of bug spray in one hand and a tennis racquet in the other. I hovered for almost a minute, working up the courage to take a swipe at it, and the cockroach launched its own offensive, leaping off the curtain and flying straight at me. I will never forget the harrowing sound of my own scream, nor the hissing of the cockroach's wings as they beat against the strings in the tennis racquet.

      I moved out of home less than a month later, and recently heard from my mother that a family of geckos have made short work of our mutant super-roaches. At least, she says, the cockroaches don't show themselves anymore, and the geckos have grown unusually large eating something. Our cat did go missing last May, but we can't prove the geckos had anything to do with that.