You are here

Cockroaches and humans

A Passing Evolutionary Novelty

Cockroaches and humans

All cockroaches have an oval and flattened body shape, a thorax covered by a large plate that extends over part of the head, chewing mouthparts, compound eyes and prominent long antennae. Two spikes extending from the rear of the abdomen, known as the cerci, can sense minute air movements and send signals directly to the leg muscles, enabling the cockroach to rapidly detect and flee from potential danger.

Nina is the new member of our household. On the first day she declared, “I must organize. Everybody please cooperate with me.” I was happy. This house spills over with books, papers, clothes, shoes and all else.

Decades ago my lady tried to keep things in order while I and my sons went about our own ways not only undoing her work but also taking back the degree of disarrangement further. Later she gave up and now she lives happily ignoring the surrounding chaos. Nina is young and fresh with hopes. She also has a lot of energy.

In the evening I faced Nina. She was quite depressed. Apparently in the cleaning spree when she opened a drawer unopened for time immemorial she found it to be a house full of cockroaches. “I have never seen so many cockroaches in my life”, her eyes were nearly moist.

The behaviour of cockroaches is governed by thigmotaxis, the movement of an organism towards or away from any object, which is motivated by touch. Their impulse is to gather together in large groups in dark places where they can touch as many others of their species as possible. The cockroach has adapted to cities and thrives in warm, moist crevices of buildings. Bathrooms and kitchens in particular provide them with the environment and the sustenance they need to survive. They tend to move into places where other roaches are already there and also places which are not disturbed.

I asked her, ‘Do you know they are rather harmless and are our companions forever?’

“I can’t tolerate them. They are horrible.” I could not contradict her. Truly so, most humans, specially women have a strong repulsion to the innocent little roaches. I don’t clearly know why.

Looks, so looks are important…specially from human point of view. Who cares how we look like to the roaches? For that matter how we look like to the other humans, say to our partners? Looks are so deceiving even within the humans. How can we say an orang-utan is ugly! Who are we to say! To a male healthy orang-utan, most of its females must be very beautiful, isn’t it? Conclusion is inescapable…without glorifying the roaches we can safely say by applying reason that, we are not the people to judge the beauty of roaches.

Well, I could not apply this logic to Nina who was a bit upset. I asked her, “But Nina, they are not very harmful you know.” Now she lost patience, “Baba, you stay with your roaches, I quit. I will not touch your roach colonies any more. You say, they are not dirty?” She was aghast. I felt a little sad. Personally I do not like the roaches. And I wanted somebody to clean their colonies. Nina was a godsend. But what to do, some other strategy need to be adopted to tackle Nina, I thought.

There are commonly held beliefs that cockroaches are dirty and are carriers of disease, but cockroaches, like most insects, keep their bodies clean for their own protection. There is no definitive evidence of cockroaches transmitting disease, but as they often defecate near the food they eat, any food or surface they walk on will be contaminated.

In comparison, the humans are million times dirtier as they have not only polluted the environment—they have also very successfully polluted the whole society of humankind.

Dropping the idea of tackling the roaches for the time being, I got curious about them for the first time. They were with us for as long as I can remember. But I never took any special interest in their behaviour. As I thought about them, I perceived their rather innocent philosophy of life. I understood quite clearly that I have never seen any roach to attack any other roach or for that matter attack or harmfully bite humans. Their main philosophy of life is to live and let live—in itself a great one. They scurried away from light and human presence and took only the crumbs of food that were accessible. And they grew in numbers—a simple philosophy of life. Taken holistically they are not going to make any impact on the future of humanity or earth.

Homo-sapiens can be considered to be the most aggressive of all animal life forms on earth. They not only kill all other life for need and for pleasure, they also kill millions of themselves directly or indirectly. There is no other single species of life on earth as dangerous as the humans.

Humans are the only important animal on this planet with insatiable greed. They consume more as you give them more. They try to get more when they get some more. They fight with each other, in families, in countries and between countries — directly with weapons and indirectly with make-believe economic systems.

I was quite taken aback to perceive from my experience that roaches are not really fighters. They are rather meek. Also I remember them crowding together in one place. How did they do that I didn’t know.

Cockroaches are gregarious insects that benefit from living in groups. It increases their reproductive opportunities, promotes sharing of resources like shelter or food, prevents desiccation by aggregating more in dry environments, etc.

Belgian researchers have demonstrated that cockroaches are able to make decisions as groups. They approach problem solving in a democratic way, consulting with each other before making decisions. Researchers offered 50 cockroach larvae their choice of three shelters that could each house more than 50 cockroaches. All 50 tended to crowd into the same shelter.

When the shelters were swapped with smaller versions that could hold just 40 cockroaches, the group would typically split into two groups of about 25, leaving one house unoccupied.
“It’s better, in terms of group benefits, to have a 50/50 split instead of one important, large group and one that’s less robust,” said study coauthor Jose Halloy of the Universite libre de Bruxelles in Belgium.

When I stumbled on to this simple research result, I felt a little stunned. All roaches, even the smallest one knows that every other roach matters and they try to band together for survival and continuance—against the enormous odds of eradication efforts from the mighty humans. They have adapted themselves in every environment while we the homo-sapiens are successfully driving headlong towards total fragmentation of society and devastation of environment fighting with each and every other for tiniest to Himalayan greed. Cockroaches are “designed” to live communally and humans aren’t.

I remember our childhood. We grew up with cockroaches, the little scurrying insects, always present. When they grew too much in numbers, we took special measures to control them for a few days and then rested. In this time they quietly went about their business of consolidation again, till we renewed our efforts to eradicate them. It was always a cycle. As I advanced through time I understood that they can’t be eradicated altogether.

There are 3,500 different species of cockroach in the world, the small German cockroach being the most prevalent. It is suggested that, compared with the cockroach, humans may be ‘a passing evolutionary novelty’. The cockroach has been on Earth for 250–300 million years, and modern cockroaches are more similar to their ancient fossil ancestors than any other insect in existence today. In contrast, Homo sapiens first appeared around 100,000 years ago.

Cockroaches are among the hardiest insects on the planet. Some species are capable of remaining active for a month without food and are 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. In one experiment, cockroaches were able to recover from being submerged underwater for half an hour.

Cockroaches thrive in nearly every corner of the globe, despite our best attempts to eliminate them. In the case of a nuclear war their relative higher resistance to radiation means they would outlast humans, even if only for a short time.

Cockroaches are considered to be one of the most successful groups of animals on earth.

I tried to imagine a world without humans and full of roaches. In spite of being a person of high exposure and open mind, I could not stop my shudder.

After a few moments, the inescapable truth dawned on me—there may not be any earth full of humans, but our earth will definitely be able to cradle all the roaches that can be, along with all flora and fauna, but without any human.