UF entomologists warn Floridians new roaches may be on the way
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As if Floridians aren’t bugged enough by roaches, a growing interest among reptile enthusiasts to farm the insects as lizard food could result in several new cockroach varieties invading the state, University of Florida entomologists warn.
Phil Koehler and Roberto Pereira, researchers with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, wrote an article in last month’s Florida Pest Pro magazine, alerting pest control operators and homeowners to be on the lookout for several new species of cockroach.
Their main worry is the Turkestan cockroach, which has made itself at home in the southwest United States after being brought in by military personnel and equipment returning from the Middle East.
The other types of roach they say Floridians could soon be in danger of stepping on include the Madagascar hissing roach, the lobster roach and the orange spotted roach, none of which are known to be established in the state.
“We have 69 species of cockroaches in the United States and 29 of them were brought in from other countries,” said Koehler, an entomology professor. “And now we have these new species being shipped into the state.”
Pointing at a hefty, 3-inch-long Madagascar hissing roach, he noted wryly: “People just won’t like having that around their house.”
But with a few keystrokes and a credit card, it could certainly happen, said Pereira, a research associate scientist. “They keep telling us we live in a global economy and society,” he said. “All of these cockroaches you can get over the Internet — you can order something from the Pacific Northwest and have it here in two days or less. You can transfer things that way very easily.”
James Tuttle, a longtime reptile enthusiast who now runs a roach-supply company called blaberus.com that ships insects all across the country, said roaches as reptile food “is probably the most popular thing going these days.”
Crickets, which used to be a more popular reptile food source, are noisy with all their chirping, smell bad when they die and don’t reproduce quickly the way roaches do once a farm is up and running. And they cost more.
“It’s the economy,” he said. “You can spend $50 a month buying crickets, so that’s $600 a year, or you could spend $50 (on roaches) and in six months, never have to buy food again.”
Breeding roaches in captivity isn’t quite as easy as most think, Tuttle said, and roaches have so many natural predators — spiders, turtles, frogs, birds and rodents among others — that unless a large number escaped at once, they’d have a difficult time getting established in the wild.
And he said he knows of several pet-reptile owners in Florida who already have roach farms in their homes that haven’t disrupted the environment, even when a few escape here and there.
But under perfect conditions, he conceded, “it’s possible.”
“I would be stupid, and anyone else would be stupid, to say that they can or can’t, without a full-on study,” Tuttle said.
Tuttle said he agrees with the UF researchers’ contention that the Turkestan roach poses the biggest threat, given that it so easily settled in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
Ron Box, director of education and scientific affairs with West Palm Beach-based Hulett Environmental Services, said he is gathering photographs of the cockroach species mentioned in the Florida Pest Pro article for his technicians, so that they’ll recognize them if they see them.
“So far, knock on wood, we haven’t had any,” said Box, whose company has 10 offices throughout Florida. “But I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we did.”