Ahh, the palmetto bug. It is about as Southern as Sweet Tea, but is it a palmetto bug or a roach? Just about anywhere you live, you’ll have to deal with these nasty little creatures. While there are over 3500 species of cockroach worldwide, in the United States, you’ll have to deal with about 70 different varieties. The humidity in Florida and across the Southern United States makes a perfect environment for them to thrive. But what kinds of roaches do you have? Are palmetto bugs even roaches? For most homeowners, you will run into about seven main species of roach here in the Sunshine State. These species include the Florida woods roach, as well as the American, Asian, and Australian cockroaches. Those in multifamily dwellings will undoubtedly come across German roaches at some point. Less commonly, the brown roach and smoky brown roach varieties can also be found.   

Group of German cockroaches of different ages. Beautiful dead cockroaches pattern background on white. Roaches of different development stages
Group of German cockroaches of different ages. Beautiful dead cockroaches pattern background on white. Roaches of different development stages

There is no doubt that roaches, of any variety, are a pest. They can carry diseases such as Salmonella, Typhoid disease, dysentery, and in some severe cases, even Polio. Cockroach dirt leaves an oily substance over your dishes, and their feces leave a foul odor behind. Roaches spoil your food, clothing, and paper materials. Leaving behind molten skin, legs, antennae, and various body parts also produce allergens that cause rashes and other reactions in susceptible people.

All in all, they are a pretty gross bug. That may be how the name “palmetto” bug got started. Nobody wants to admit having roaches. You don’t have cockroaches; you have…“palmetto bugs.”

There is no such insect called a Palmetto Bug. The origins of the name are unclear. However, according to the Mallis Handbook of Pest Control, several species of cockroaches are often called palmetto bugs. These species include the death’s head cockroach, the Florida woods cockroach, the Australian cockroach, and the brown-banded cockroach. The most likely origin of the term “palmetto bug” is misidentification of the smokey brown roach. The name was probably adopted because this species of cockroach likes to hang out in the fronds of palmetto trees. Palmetto bugs Roaches are often called water bugs since all species prefer to live in warm, moist environments. Since roaches like humidity and damp environments, what can you do to prevent them, and how can you identify which one you have? 

Common Florida Roaches

Eurycotis floridana, or the Florida woods roach, is not generally found to create colonies inside homes. The species primarily feeds on decomposing plants such as leaves, bark, mosses, and molds. Little of this matter is inside dwellings; therefore, inhabiting human homes does not suit its purpose. When it is spotted within human habitats, it is typically because it has come inside via transport on another item, such as firewood. Florida woods roaches prefer decomposing plant areas such as rotting wood or leaves, but in somewhat more domesticated areas, it is found in greenhouses, sheds, or other outdoor areas where moisture and decaying material is abundant. This species is limited to the coastal areas from Alabama to Georgia and throughout the entire state of Florida. The species is large in size averaging about 1.5” in length with a relatively wide body. The color can range from black to reddish-brown. They do have wings, but they are underdeveloped and typically do not fly. The Florida woods cockroach are slower moving than other species of cockroaches. They generally do not scatter like most species as they have a defensive chemical present that has also given them the name stink roach and skunk roach. 

Periplaneta americana, or the American cockroach, is the largest of the common cockroach species. They are nearly the same size as the Florida woods roach, with an averaging just over 1.5” in length. Male insects in this species appear to be longer because, in adults, the wings extend 4-8mm beyond the base of the abdomen. These roaches do fly. This species is reddish-brown in color and will always display a yellowish band near the base of the head. The only other cockroach more commonly found in homes than the American cockroach is the German cockroach. While the American cockroach may sound like it hails from the United States, it comes from Africa and has spread, via commerce, since around 1625. Anywhere there is food, the American cockroach can is found; in commercial buildings such as restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores. Outside, like woods roaches, this species prefers moist, shady areas such as woodpiles, mulch, and decaying tree hollows. This variety is the roach you will typically see scurrying back under baseboards when the lights come on. You will find their colonies in and around bathtubs, sinks, toilets, and water pipes where an abundance of moisture is suitable for their survival. This species is an opportunistic feeder and omnivorous; it will eat nearly anything. However, it shows a preference for sweet/sugary substances. This roach is one of the few roach species that also has a penchant for alcoholic beverages, especially beer.  Of all the cockroach species, this one can become a public health concern due to their association with human sewage and waste. According to the University of Florida Department of Entomology and Nematology: At least 22 species of pathogenic human bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoans, as well as five species of helminthic worm, have been isolated from field-collected American cockroaches.  Yuck!

Cockroach feeding on bread
Cockroach feeding on bread

While American cockroaches can live simultaneously with humans or without them, the Blattella germanica or the German cockroach is unable to survive without human activity nearby. These roaches perish in colder temperatures. They quickly spread in multifamily dwellings through shared walls and along plumbing. They are a small species, averaging about .5” in length. Newly molted adults will be white, nearly opaque in color, but will harden and darken to a brown to dark brown color within only a few hours. Two distinct darker parallel bands run the length of the head. Males tend to be slimmer, while females are rounder and do not show their segmented bodies under their wings. While this species does have wings present on its females, it does not fly. In heavy infestations, German cockroaches have been documented biting humans and feeding off food residue from the faces of those sleeping. The name German cockroach is also a misnomer, as this species originates in Southeast Asia. It has been spread via commerce, like nearly all non-native insects. This species, like the American variety, is also omnivorous and an opportunistic feeder. They will eat human food scraps, pet food, and even paper products. Their population growth is exponential as they continuously breed. Growing populations have been reported showing 80% nymphs (hatched eggs) and 20% adults.

Periplaneta australasiae or the Australian cockroach, is very similar to its American cousin in both size and appearance. However, the Australian cockroach can be differentiated from the American by the reversal of the yellow band on its head. While the American cockroach has a distinctive yellow band at the base of the head, the Australian has a mostly yellow head with a distinctive dark brown to a black mark on the top of its head and band and its base. This species also has yellow bands on its upper forewings.  They are mostly found outdoors, but can be found living in human dwellings. This species is the most common outdoor roach found in Florida. They prefer locations that are shady and full of moisture, such as firewood piles, and decomposing plant materials. When colder temperatures are present, they will take up residence in greenhouses where they can destroy seedlings.

Finally, Blattella asahinai, more commonly called the Asian cockroach, actually did originate from Okinawa, Japan, and was first discovered in the mid-1980s in Lakeland, Florida. The pest control operator who first saw them initially misidentified them as German cockroaches, but noted that their behavior differed significantly from previous infestations that he had treated. This variety of roaches can be found from South Carolina throughout Florida and west to Texas. This species prefers an outdoor habitat in shaded areas where fresh plant matter accumulates. This species does fly and are active at night. They are also attracted to brightly lit areas, unlike many of their cousins. If disturbed, they will take flight. While the German and Asian varieties of cockroach are very similar, there are two small differences, though most looking at them with the naked eye will fail to catch this. Asian cockroaches tend to be smaller and slimmer than their German counterparts, and the head of the Asian has two distinctly darker parallel bands running down its head. Asian roach infestations are also more challenging to treat due to their mobility and adaptability in various habitats. 

Prevention and Extermination

While humans and cockroaches go hand in hand, sanitation is key to the prevention of cockroaches of any variety invading the home. Because of their association with human waste and refuse, the medical implications of keeping your home roach free is not without saying. Roach infestations can also cause adverse psychological damage to humans that are subject to outbreaks. It is often said that poor hygiene and lack of sanitation are the principal causes of roach invasions, but that is not always the case. Those living in multifamily dwellings are much more susceptible to roach infiltrations due to shared walls and plumbing, no matter how clean they keep their homes. 

Outside the home, keeping yards and lawns free from clutter and decomposing plant material will aid in the reduction of roach populations. Shrubs and trees that are allowed to grow to close to the house will also provide habitat for various species of roaches to colonize. Mulch beds are particularly attractive to outdoor cockroaches as this provides not only a moisture-rich environment but also decomposing bark and plenty of shade to create colonies. At night, around porches and patios, using yellow incandescent bulbs means attracting less of any adult insect populations to join the party. 

Inside the home, keeping food sealed and cleaning countertops is the first line of defense in roach prevention. Removing or covering garbage is also ideal. Prevent outsiders from penetrating the home by sealing cracks and repairing gaps in the concrete. This practice not only reduces roach infestations but also a host of other unwanted insect invaders. 

There are plenty of household pesticides that will work to help eradicate colonies that have taken up residence in the home, but for the five species mentioned in this article, toxic pelletized baits offer the best control. Of course, if you find your infestation is beyond home maintenance methods, calling in a pest control professional is always a good measure. 

Did you know?

Humans have long since joked that cockroaches are older than dinosaurs and will remain long after humans are gone from the earth. That is partially true. Cockroaches first appeared during the Carboniferous era, more than 280 million years ago. Dinosaurs did not appear until the Mesozoic era, about 245 million years ago.

Cockroaches can live without their heads. They breathe through holes in their body segments and have an open circulatory system. Therefore, they are not dependent on the mouth or head to breathe. Roaches only die after about a week because, without a head, it can’t eat or drink and dies of dehydration. Without food, a cockroach can live up to one month, but only one week without water. 

Some people keep cockroaches as pets. The Madagascar hissing cockroach can grow to be about 3” in length and about 1” wide and is popular as a pet around the world. They eat fallen fruit, vegetation, and other arthropods. They get their name from the hissing sound they make while mating, fighting, or warning colony members of danger. 


University of Florida Department of Entomology & Nematology: http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/

PestWorld Blog: https://www.pestworld.org/news-hub/pest-articles/fascinating-cockroach-facts/

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Dusty Showers has been in the urban nuisance wildlife and pest control field since 1993. Taught by Garon Fyffe, a pioneer in humane nuisance wildlife management, Dusty has a passion for finding humane solutions to human & wildlife conflicts. Dusty was the only individual invited by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission in the lat 1990's to help write legislation for legal protection of Florida bats. With an instinct for solving wildlife, Dusty found pest control to be an easy "add-on interest". Dusty started his first business "Animal Instincts Wildlife & Pest Management" in the Tampa Bay, Florida area in 1995. Eventually selling Animal Instincts in 2002, Dusty went on to start Creepy Creatures Termite and Pest Control in 2009, which he still owns and operates today in Palm Harbor, Florida.

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