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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Roach on a Lipstick

Roach. Its one quick syllable is a universal and codified symbol of filth, evocative of crowded apartments, dank streets on the wrong side of town, and restaurants with suspended health permits. It's a culturally loaded image: the roach skittering across the dimly lit and slightly sticky sidewalk in the evening rates an involuntary disgust response from me, even while spiders, worms, flies, mosquitoes and the roaches' closest relations mantids don't.

This is an American cockroach nymph (Periplaneta americana). These roaches are omnivores that can take advantage of habitats and food made available by humans. Common name notwithstanding the American cockroach originated in the tropics and prefers temperatures to be warm: mid 70s to mid 80s F. Our climate in So Cal usually fits the bill enabling periplaneta to be peridomestic here, meaning they may lurk around outdoors more often than coming inside our homes . . . yet another benefit to living here rather than somewhere colder. While they can and do eat a wide range of stuff (from what you would call food through leaf litter to fingernail clippings and soap) they can survive long periods without food, quite awhile without water, and a surprising amount of time with no air. Have you ever dispatched a roach down the toilet, only to have it resurface unflushed and only slightly flustered? Further adaptations of the cockroach are a remarkable escape velocity (human-sized equivalent of 200+ mph), a relatively long life (up to 2 years), and reproductive prowess (can produce an egg case with 14 or so eggs every week when conditions are prime). But just because roaches are relentlessly tenacious, fiercely opportunistic, and willing to force out their last ootheca in a primal procreational thrust even as they are being squished does not mean we must like them. Possibly this is because cockroaches were fully evolved differing little from what they are today long before humans were human, and even though it hasn't yet been proved roaches directly vector disease, and fewer than 10% of American humans are allergic to cockroach protein, still people prefer to dislike or even hate roaches more than other similar pests. They are, as stated above, iconic of filth and their possibly undeserved reputation dogs them as does their distinctive odor.

It's rare to see a roach around here, actually. In the fourteen plus years of my occupation of this patch of ground very few have reared their ugly hinged heads. So, we are a little concerned. Putting aside anthropomorphisms (this particular roach nymph strutted, nonchalantly groomed its antennae, stretched its jointed body jauntily; kind of freaked me out with it cocky air of confidence out in the broad daylight) and hasty overreactions (reaching for a can of Raid in knee-jerked revulsion) we've started a rational campaign to discover what these roaches are about, where they are breeding, why conditions suddenly encouraged their colonization of our yard. What has changed to support their presence at this particular time? We've had little rain but it's been quite humid. We've used some pyrethrid spray in the dog run to cut down on the flies recently; what effect might that have? It's been a year since the parkway was converted from lawn (not very good roach habitat) to slightly scruffy perennials (possible roach hangout, especially since the utility vaults are located there). I think the facts will reveal some adjustment we can make in our local environment to discourage the roaches before their population builds up to coup d'maison levels.

As for the lipstick, the plant this little guy with the bad reputation is seen on here is Aloe agavoides 'Lipstick'. Now there's a word that's developed a cultural one-two punch lately, although in this case it would accurately be called permanent lip liner since the red is not applied to the edges of the leaves but is embedded in the tissue of the plant. I guess "cosmetic tattoo" doesn't roll off the lips and inspire as nicely, and so we are expected to forgive this inaccuracy in labeling. Anyway, having rarely used lipstick if at all, I don't relate to the word--or even the actual cosmetic--and it has had little influence on me as a woman, voter, or even a gardener.

Info sources: NY City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, Wikipedia, Eugene Garfield: the Cockroach Connection

1 comment:

Moe said...

Well-done and well-thought piece on a bug most people would simply ignore, or, worse, squish.