AskDefine | Define cockroach

Dictionary Definition

cockroach n : any of numerous chiefly nocturnal insects; some are domestic pests [syn: roach]

User Contributed Dictionary



Spanish cucaracha, woodlouse



  1. A black or brown straight-winged insect of the order Blattodea, with about 3,500 species divided into six families. Only a few of these take up residence with human beings. Among these are Periplaneta americana (American cockroach or palmetto bug); Blattella germanica (German cockroach or Croton bug); and Blattella asahinai (Asian cockroach).
  2. Disparaging term for individuals or groups of people regarded as dirty, or who breed like cockroaches.




Extensive Definition

otheruses Cockroaches Cockroaches (or simply "roaches") are insects of the order Blattaria. This name derives from the Latin word for "cockroach", blatta.
Though cockroaches are generally considered pests, only about 30 species (less than 1%) infest urban habitats; 55 species in total live in the U.S.
Among the most well-known pest species are the American cockroach, Periplaneta americana, which is about 30 mm (1.2 inch) long, the German cockroach, Blattella germanica, about 15 mm (1/2 inch) long, the Asian cockroach, Blattella asahinai, also about 15 mm (1/2 inch) in length, and the Oriental cockroach, Blatta orientalis, about 25 mm (1 inch). Tropical cockroaches are often much bigger, and extinct cockroach relatives such as the Carboniferous Archimylacris and the Permian Apthoroblattina were several times as large as these.

Selected species

Evolutionary history and relationships

Mantodea, Isoptera, and Blattaria are usually combined by entomologists into a higher group called Dictyoptera. Current evidence strongly suggests that termites have evolved directly from true cockroaches, and many authors now consider termites to be a family of cockroaches, as Blattaria excluding Isoptera is not a monophyletic group
Historically, the name Blattaria has been used largely interchangeably with the name Blattodea, though in most recent treatments, the latter name refers to a larger grouping that includes numerous fossil groups that were related to roaches, but not true cockroaches themselves. Another name, Blattoptera has come into use for this same paraphyletic group. These earliest cockroach-like fossils ("Blattopterans" or "roachids") are from the Carboniferous period between 354–295 million years ago. However, these fossils differ from modern cockroaches in having long ovipositors and are the ancestors of mantids as well as modern cockroaches. The first fossils of modern cockroaches with internal ovipositors appear in the early Cretaceous.


Cockroaches live in a wide range of environments around the world. Pest species of cockroaches adapt readily to a variety of environments, but prefer warm conditions found within buildings. Many tropical species prefer even warmer environments and do not fare well in the average household.
Cockroaches leave chemical trails in their feces as well as emitting airborne pheromones for swarming and mating. Other cockroaches will follow these trails to discover sources of food and water, and also discover where other cockroaches are hiding. Thus, cockroaches can exhibit emergent behavior, in which group or swarm behavior emerges from a simple set of individual interactions.
Research has shown that group-based decision-making is responsible for complex behavior such as resource allocation. In a study where 50 cockroaches were placed in a dish with three shelters with a capacity for 40 insects in each, the insects arranged themselves in two shelters with 25 insects in each, leaving the third shelter empty. When the capacity of the shelters was increased to more than 50 insects per shelter, all of the cockroaches arranged themselves in one shelter. Researchers found a balance between cooperation and competition exists in group decision-making behavior found in cockroaches. The models used in this research can also explain the group dynamics of other insects and animals.
Additionally, researchers at Tohoku University engaged in a Classical Conditioning experiment with cockroaches and discovered that the insects were able to associate the scent of vanilla and peppermint with a sugar treat.


Digestive tract

Cockroaches are most common in tropical and subtropical climates. Some species are in close association with human dwellings and widely found around garbage or in the kitchen. Cockroaches are generally omnivorous with the exception of the wood-eating genus Cryptocercus; these roaches are incapable of digesting cellulose themselves, but have symbiotic relationships with various protozoans and bacteria that digest the cellulose, allowing them to extract the nutrients. The similarity of these symbionts to those in termites are such that the genus Cryptocercus has been believed to be more closely related to termites than to other cockroaches, and current research strongly supports this hypothesis of relationships.

Trachea and breathing

Cockroaches, like all insects, breathe through a system of tubes called tracheae. The tracheae of insects are attached to the spiracles, excluding the head. Thus cockroaches, like all insects, are not dependent on the mouth and windpipe to breathe. The valves open when the CO2 level in the insect rises to a high level; then the CO2 diffuses out of the tracheae to the outside and fresh O2 diffuses in. Unlike in vertebrates that depend on blood for transporting O2 and CO2, the tracheal system brings the air directly to cells, the tracheal tubes branching continually like a tree until their finest divisions tracheoles are associated with each cell, allowing gaseous oxygen to dissolve in the cytoplasm lying across the fine cuticle lining of the tracheole. CO2 diffuses out of the cell into the tracheole.
While cockroaches do not have lungs and thus do not actively breathe in the vertebrate lung manner, in some very large species the body musculature may contract rhythmically to forcibly move air out and in the spiracles; this may be considered a form of breathing.

Nervous system

The cockroach nervous system is rather simple, with the vital functions distributed in the ventral Ganglions. Thus a cockroach will be able to survive sterile surgical decapitation for a very long period, especially if recently fed. A decapitated animal will even retain some limited learning capability, but will be severely hampered by the loss of feelers and sight as well as the majority of its central nervous tissue. A headless cockroach will of course be unable to feed and eventually die from starvation within a few weeks.

Eggs and egg capsules

Female cockroaches are sometimes seen carrying egg cases on the end of their abdomen; the egg case of the German cockroach holds about 30–40 long, thin eggs, packed like frankfurters in the case called an ootheca. The eggs hatch from the combined pressure of the hatchlings gulping air and are initially bright white nymphs that continue inflating themselves with air and harden and darken within about four hours. Their transient white stage while hatching and later while molting has led to many claims of glimpses of an albino cockroach.
A female German cockroach carries an egg capsule containing around 40 eggs. She drops the capsule prior to hatching, though live births do rarely occur. Development from eggs to adults takes 3-4 months. Cockroaches live up to a year. The female may produce up to eight egg cases in a lifetime; in favorable conditions, it can produce 300-400 offspring. Other species of cockroach, however, can produce an extremely high number of eggs in a lifetime, but in some cases a female only needs to be impregnated once to be able to lay eggs for the rest of her life.


Cockroaches are rather large insects. Most species are about the size of a thumb nail, but several species are bigger. The world's largest cockroach is the Australian giant burrowing cockroach, which can reach 9 cm in length and weigh more than 30 grams. Comparable in size is the Central American giant cockroach Blaberus giganteus, which grows to a similar length but is not as heavy.


Cockroaches are among the hardiest insects on the planet, some species capable of remaining active for a month without food, or being able to survive on limited resources like the glue from the back of postage stamps. Some can go without air for 45 minutes or slow down their heart rate. It is popularly suggested that cockroaches will "inherit the earth" if humanity destroys itself in a nuclear war. Cockroaches do indeed have a much higher radiation resistance than vertebrates, with the lethal dose perhaps 6 to 15 times that for humans. However, they are not exceptionally radiation-resistant compared to other insects, such as the fruit fly . The MythBusters of Discovery Channel tested this popular belief in an episode aired on January 30, 2008 and confirmed that fruit flies do indeed have a higher resistance to radiation than cockroaches.
The cockroach's ability to withstand radiation better than human beings can be explained in terms of the cell cycle. Cells are most vulnerable to the effects of radiation when they are dividing. A cockroach's cells divide only once each time it molts, which is weekly at most in a juvenile roach. Since not all cockroaches would be molting at the same time, many would be unaffected by an acute burst of radiation, but lingering radioactive fallout would still be harmful.

Pest control

Cockroaches are one of the most commonly noted pest insects due to their large size. Since they feed on human and pet food, they can also serve as vectors for disease transmission. In addition, a 2005 study on factors that affect asthma in U.S. inner-city children shows that cockroach allergens appear to trigger asthma symptoms more severely than other known factors. This study, funded by the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), was the first large-scale study to rank asthma triggers according to severity.
General preventative measures against household pests include keeping all food stored away in sealed containers, using garbage cans with a tight lid, frequent cleaning in the kitchen, and regular vacuuming. Any water leaks, such as dripping taps, should also be repaired. It is also helpful to seal off any entry points, such as holes around baseboards, in between kitchen cabinets, pipes, doors, and windows with some steel wool or copper mesh and some cement, putty or silicone caulk.
American cockroaches have been known to live up to three months without food and a month without water. Frequently living outdoors, although preferring warm climates and considered "cold intolerant," they are resilient enough to survive occasional freezing temperatures. This makes them difficult to eradicate once they have infested an area.
There are numerous parasites and predators of cockroaches, but few of them have proven to be highly effective for biological control. Wasps in the family Evaniidae are perhaps the most effective insect predators, as they attack the egg cases, and wasps in the family Ampulicidae are predators on adult and nymphal cockroaches (e.g., Ampulex compressa). The house centipede, is probably the most effective control agent of cockroaches, though many homeowners find the centipedes themselves objectionable.
Bait stations, gels containing hydramethylnon or fipronil, as well as boric acid powder, are toxic to cockroaches. Baits with egg killers are also quite effective at reducing the cockroach population. Additionally, pest control products containing deltamethrin or pyrethrin are very effective. In Russia, some people, after opening all cupboards, leave a saucepan half-full of sulfur burning on a gas ring, then quickly come back in to switch it off (with gas mask) and leave the residence for a few days. This is said to be protective for ten years.
Recently, a method called the Vegas roach trap has gained popularity as a sucessful way to control a cockroach infestation.
Some of the earliest writings with regards to cockroaches encouraged their use as medicine. Pedanius Dioscorides (1st century), Kamal al-Din al-Damiri and Abu Hanifa ad-Dainuri (9th century) all offered medicines that either suggest grinding them up with oil or boiling them. The list of ailments to be treated included earaches, open wounds and "gynecological disorders."

Popular culture

In popular culture, cockroaches are often regarded as vile and extremely resilient pests, due to their shiny exoskeletons (making them look slimy, contrary to their fastidious habits), and their size, unusual for a scavenging insect.
  • Scarface — The fictional character Tony Montana calls people "Cockroaches".
  • Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves — After some characters are shrunk by Wayne Salinsky's shrinking machine, they have to evade a hungry cockroach. Eventually, the insect is killed, but just in time before it eats Wayne's wife, Diane.
  • Joe's Apartment — The bugs are cheerful, swinging party-goers who help the titular human hero.
  • Creepshow — Swarms of them terrorize a cantankerous and verminophobic old man.
  • Damnation Alley — A post-apocalyptic Salt Lake City, Utah is infected with a four-inch long, flesh-eating mutant variety (played by the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach).
  • Bug (1975 film) also starred Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches, this time able to produce fire from their abdomens, wreaking havoc.
  • Men in Black — A giant cockroach-like alien's actions threaten to lead to the destruction of the Earth.
  • Team America: World Police — After his apparent death, a cockroach crawls out of Kim Jong-Il's mouth and flies away in a rocket ship, in parody of Men in Black.
  • Mimic — Diseased cockroaches are the target of the genetically-altered titular species.
  • Twilight of the Cockroaches — An anime film in which roaches live peacefully in a bachelor's apartment until he begins dating a woman across the street, who encourages killing the insects.
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Debbie is working out when she falls asleep on the bench, giving Freddy full reign of turning her into a cockroach (her biggest fear), and being squished to death.
  • An American Tail, the chief villain, Warren T. Rat, carries with him a cockroach named Digit who he forces to count his money and frequently abuses, even threatening to eat him at one point.
  • Naked Lunch, the main character, William Lee's "case worker" appears to him in the form of large cockroach that speaks through a hole in its abdomen. Later, this cockroach appears again as a hybrid of a cockroach/typewriter that has a keypad on its face. The case worker reveals his name as "Clark Nova", which also happens to be the name of Lee's typewriter model.
  • Godzilla vs Gigan, both King Ghidorah and Gigan are controlled remotely by Nebulans, an alien race of giant cockroaches that inherited a waste planet after the dominant species on it polluted it into oblivion.
  • The 1983 film Scarface, Tony refers to Gasper Gomez and the Diaz Brothers, rival gang leaders to Frank Lopez, as cockroaches in one of the film's most famous lines: "I'll bury those cock-a-roaches."
  • Starship Troopers — in one scene, a group of children show their support for the war effort against the huge alien insect creatures by squashing cockroaches in the school yard.
  • Enchanted features the magical Princess Giselle using her voice to summon various creatures from New York City to help her tidy the apartment she is staying in, including many cockroaches.
  • Mouse Hunt includes a scene at the beginning in which the mayor of New York City chokes to death on the head of a cockroach accidentally ingested during a dinner at a gourmet restaurant.
  • Pacific Heights — The Michael Keaton character breeds and releases cockroaches in the apartment building as part of his plan against the landlords.
  • X-Files episode "War of the Coprophages", cockroaches are seen to group together to murder people. The character Dr. Berenbaum (based on the University of Illinois entomologist) suggests that it is actually swarms of cockroaches that are responsible for most UFO sightings because they can generate an electro-static field which can be illuminated dependent on atmospheric conditions. In one of the scenes, a cockroach that escaped can be seen crawling over the camera, making it appear that the viewer's television has become infested. Though the shot was not planned, the producers decided to leave it in the episode.
  • ALF, Alf inadvertently releases a Melmacian cockroach in the house. When it is sprayed with insecticide, it grows bigger until it is large enough to eat him. He discovers that a bottle of perfume will kill the cockroach.
  • The short-lived kids television show Freaky Stories was hosted by a cockroach named Larry.
  • Heroes, Mohinder Suresh (a genetics professor) describes cockroaches, and not humans, as the pinnacle of evolution. The series' main antagonist, Sylar, is also associated with cockroaches in a couple of scenes.
  • They are referred to in the episode "Insect Inside" of The Powerpuff Girls.
  • In the television show "King of the Hill", the character Dale Gribble has been shown as a breeder of cockroaches. He attempts to breed a colony of Madagascar hissing cockroaches to do his bidding, theorizing that they will believe he is their mother and obey if he is the first thing they see when they hatch.
  • In the Travel Channel show "Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern", during the New York City episode, Andrew and special guest Anthony Bourdain eat teriyaki cockroaches.
  • Franz Kafka's story The Metamorphosis, the character Gregor Samsa awakes to find himself transformed into a giant insect, often interpreted as a cockroach. Actually, the type of bug into which Gregor transforms is not specified, though it is referred to as "vermin" and the little physical description offered could match either a cockroach or beetle. This novel has been parodied in various ways, including at least two other published works: Marc Estrin's 2002 Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, where Gregor Samsa prospers despite his transformation, becoming an important figure in society, and Tyler Knox's 2006 noir comedy Kockroach in which a cockroach wakes up one morning as a man and becomes a leading gangster in Times Square during the 1950.
  • Daniel Evan Weiss's novel The Roaches Have No King tells the story of a humanized colony of cockroaches, who swear revenge against their hosts for renovating the kitchen and thus preventing easy access to food supplies.
  • In the Discworld novel The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett, Ponder Stibbons is horrified to learn that the cockroach is actually the most highly evolved and advanced creature in the world, and not mankind as he had assumed.
  • Along with rats, cockroaches are frequently seen infesting various locations in Steve Purcell's comic book series Sam & Max, and one storyline features a race of gigantic cockroaches living on the moon.
  • Archy is a cockroach in an historic series of newspaper columns by Don Marquis.
  • Revolt of the Cockroach People, an autobiographical novel by Oscar Zeta Acosta, cockroaches are used as a metaphor for oppressed and downtrodden minorities in US society in the 1960s and 70s, particularly Mexican-Americans. There are several references to the folk song La Cucaracha throughout the novel.
  • The cult computer game Bad Mojo deals with a person turned into a cockroach, in clear reference to Kafka's Metamorphosis.
  • Deadly Rooms of Death (DROD), cockroaches are considered as flesh-eating monsters, which infest dungeons of all kinds.
  • The role playing game Werewolf: The Apocalypse feature a tribe of werewolf, the "Glass Walkers" who have the unusual totem Cockroach as their spiritual patron, the Glass Walkers find themselves semi-pariahs among their brethren for their love for the city (and, to a lesser extent, for their affinity for humanity and its technology).
  • In The Sims expansion pack The Sims: Livin' Large and up, cockroaches appear if the house is left in an untidy state for too long (even if beds are left unmade or such other trivial things). They are generally quite hard to kill, as they can move underneath furniture to avoid being removed.
  • "La Cucaracha" ("The Cockroach") is a traditional Spanish language folk song.
  • Los Angeles rapper Bobby Jimmy released the song Roaches as a parody of Timex Social Club's hit song Rumors. Its chorus line was Look at all these roaches / Around me everyday / Need somethin' strong / To make 'em go away.
  • Hardcore rapper Necro has a track called Cockroaches in which he raps about people's fear and/or dislike of cockroaches.
  • The album Infest from the band Papa Roach features a large roach on the cover.
  • The Shuffle Demons did a song in 1986, Get Out Of My House, Roach, on the album Streetniks.
  • Sleepytime Gorilla Museum's second studio album, Of Natural History features the song Cockroach, which describes cockroaches with disgust.
  • The album Lonesome Crowded West published in 1997 by American indie rock band Modest Mouse contains a song titled Doin' the Cockroach.
  • In 2007, American group Ween released their 11th studio album entitled La Cucaracha.
  • International pop superstar Madonna has famously quoted, "I am a survivor. I am like a cockroach, you just can't get rid of me."
  • Boxing coach Freddie Roach was nicknamed La Cucaracha (The Cockroach) when he was still competing as a fighter.
  • In Australian rugby league, the New South Wales State of Origin Team are informally known as the Cockroaches, due to the commonality of the cockroach as a household pest in that state. Their opponents, the Queensland State of Origin Team, are known as the Cane Toads, after that state's most common pest.
  • Former England cricket captain-turned-media cricket analyst and commentator Michael Atherton was nicknamed as 'The Cockroach' by the former Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh because he was extremely difficult to stamp out.
  • On the television series "The Cosby Show," the Cosby's son Theo has a best friend nicknamed "Cockroach."




  • Cockroaches: Ecology, Behavior, and Natural History, by William J. Bell, Louis M. Roth, and Christine A. Nalepa, ISBN 0-8018-8616-3, 2007
  • Firefly Encyclopedia of Insects and Spiders, edited by Christopher O'Toole, ISBN 1-55297-612-2, 2002
  • Insects: Their Biology and Cultural History, Bernhard Klausnitzer, ISBN 0-87663-666-0, 1987
cockroach in Arabic: صرصور
cockroach in Bengali: তেলাপোকা
cockroach in Min Nan: Ka-choa̍h
cockroach in Catalan: Panerola
cockroach in Czech: Švábi
cockroach in Danish: Kakerlak
cockroach in German: Schaben
cockroach in Estonian: Prussakalised
cockroach in Modern Greek (1453-): Κατσαρίδα
cockroach in Spanish: Blattodea
cockroach in Esperanto: Blato
cockroach in Persian: سوسک
cockroach in French: Blattaria
cockroach in Galician: Cascuda
cockroach in Korean: 바퀴목
cockroach in Croatian: Žohari
cockroach in Ido: Blato
cockroach in Indonesian: Kecoa
cockroach in Icelandic: Kakkalakkar
cockroach in Italian: Blattodea
cockroach in Hebrew: תיקנאים
cockroach in Latin: Blattodea
cockroach in Luxembourgish: Kakerlaken
cockroach in Lithuanian: Tarakonai
cockroach in Hungarian: Csótányok
cockroach in Malayalam: കൂറ
cockroach in Malay (macrolanguage): Lipas
cockroach in Dutch: Kakkerlakken
cockroach in Japanese: ゴキブリ
cockroach in Neapolitan: Scarrafone
cockroach in Norwegian: Kakerlakker
cockroach in Norwegian Nynorsk: Kakkerlakk
cockroach in Occitan (post 1500): Blattaria
cockroach in Polish: Karaczany
cockroach in Portuguese: Blattaria
cockroach in Quechua: Pallaysu
cockroach in Russian: Таракановые
cockroach in Simple English: Cockroach
cockroach in Slovenian: Ščurki
cockroach in Serbian: Бубашвабе
cockroach in Sundanese: Cucunguk
cockroach in Finnish: Torakat
cockroach in Swedish: Kackerlackor
cockroach in Tamil: கரப்பான்
cockroach in Thai: แมลงสาบ
cockroach in Turkish: Hamam böceği
cockroach in Ukrainian: Таргани
cockroach in Contenese: 曱甴
cockroach in Chinese: 蟑螂
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