Why not use science to end of cockroach infestations?
June 19, 2023 8:36 AM   Subscribe

You know how scientists beat back this worm by giving it lots of sterile mates? Why don't they do something similar with cockroaches...Start with Manhattan. It's an island!

Yes, I know it's an island where people are always arriving. You'd want to get the sterile roaches on the ships and by the docks, too.

My understanding is that German roaches basically infest human places -- like if you go out in the woods there aren't a bunch of german roaches living under a tree somewhere. So in a sense, every city (and surrounding sprawl) is an island.

I feel like I've also read versions of this where they're not sterile, but then all the offspring are male or something like that.

Could this work? How would this work? WOuld it require maintaining such high numbers of sterile roaches that it would basically be an infestation of sterile roaches? Is radiating roaches a bad idea for science-fiction-predicted reasons?
posted by If only I had a penguin... to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I mean I think it's a bad idea for reasons that have nothing to do with science fiction.

Cockroaches are an integral part of the ecosystem. Even pest control info stresses that it wouldn't be so awesome to obliterate all the roaches everywhere. Humans being inconvenienced or even harmed or killed by other creatures is just not a good reason to annihilate them.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 9:11 AM on June 19, 2023 [11 favorites]

Good for humans, but is it good for the ecosystem? I’d want to know what niche the roaches currently play in their interdependence with animals that eat them and how they contribute to soil health, microbe regulation, etc.

Lordy we have a troubling track record of trying to improve a single element of a system only to end up with way bigger down stream problems.
posted by Silvery Fish at 9:15 AM on June 19, 2023 [2 favorites]

My understanding is that corrugated cardboard is a spectacular breeding ground for cockroaches, a safe spot to lay cockroach eggs, etc. So (system-level arguments aside) as long as shipping containers from places other than Manhattan came in with cardboard on them, or as long as FedEx/UPS/Amazon trucks were zipping little brown boxes all over, there's probably a pretty regular influx of viable critters, even if you could nuke the locals.
posted by adekllny at 9:17 AM on June 19, 2023 [2 favorites]

A female german cockroach can lay 35,000 eggs in it's 20 week lifespan. A male german cockroach can fertilize them all.

Millions and millions of cockroaches call Manhattan home. If 1 out every 10,000 "sterile" mates turned out not to be, as is inevitable, you'll inevitably fail at population control
posted by BadgerDoctor at 9:22 AM on June 19, 2023 [3 favorites]

Well, we should start with bedbugs, but I don't think there's any reason not to wipe out every house roach. Well, other than the little problem of getting buy-in from all of Manhattan's building managers to allow intentional release of billions of sterile male German cockroaches into their structures. Roaches that live outside don't mingle with the species that infest buildings, so our glorious wild, free native roaches (and the jillions of outdoor-living exotic roaches that have joined them over the hundreds of years we've been shipping them around the globe) wouldn't have any truck with the sterilized males of house-dwelling exotic species of roaches, and the food chain would be left intact.

Meanwhile: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/in1190. Click on "Table 1" and, get all the different classes of baits. Rotate baits of different classes every few weeks or so to avoid pesticide resistance in the resident roaches. If I were not so horrifically lazy, I'd have done this ages ago.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:03 AM on June 19, 2023 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Cockroaches are an integral part of the ecosystem

My assumption was that they're invasive and thus not meant to be in the ecosystem (and that's why they're completley out of control). I wasn't talking about erasing every cockroach everywhere in the world. I was talking about german roaches infesting cities that are not in Germany (not sure what the germans should do).

I don't live in New York and don't have roaches (I have a pharoah ants but I can live them), so this isn't personal. I was just curious.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:38 AM on June 19, 2023 [1 favorite]

I feel like dropping millions of cockroaches (sterile or no!) in/around New York City *every week* would not be a very popular solution? One of the nice things about the rainforest in the Isthmus of Panama is that not a lot of people live there, which is not something you can say about the area surrounding Manhattan.

Also cockroaches are a lot less destructive and dangerous than screwworms - yeah, they're gross, and their frass can be an allergy/asthma trigger for a lot of people, and they can track poop onto your countertops and stuff. But they don't EAT HUMANS AND LIVESTOCK ALIVE.

Basically there are a lot of ways you could improve the health and economic lives of people in Manhattan that are cheaper and don't involve raising and distributing millions of cockroaches weekly for the next 100 years (TRASH CONTAINERS, e.g.).
posted by mskyle at 11:35 AM on June 19, 2023 [4 favorites]

Robin Dunn covers this in his very entertaining book Never Home Alone in the chapter titled (tellingly) "The Problem with Cockroaches is Us." Briefly, we've tried. They evolve. Fast. And we provide amazing habitat for them.
posted by carrioncomfort at 12:15 PM on June 19, 2023 [3 favorites]

One thing the article posted above doesn't mention is that roaches eat bedbugs. One theory for the Great Bedbug Explosion in 2010s NYC is that we got so good at roach control, their prey were able to expand unimpeded. You'd have to get the roaches and the bedbugs in one fell swoop.
posted by threementholsandafuneral at 1:11 PM on June 19, 2023 [4 favorites]

Best answer: With new technology, there are viable, or at least plausible, routes to do this. For example, CRISPR is the technology that can say "All your grandchildren will be male" and was seriously proposed with respect to A. aegypti, the most widespread of the disease-carrying mosquitos.

Practically speaking it hasn't been done because:
1) Scientists, even ones who kind of support this sort of thing in principle, are generally pretty cautious and for good reason.
2) Environmentalists tend to hate the idea.
3) People of almost all types are exceedingly nervous of the idea of "experimental genetically engineered pests released into the wild"
4) Trying to do this would be need more research first, then a pilot program in an isolated area, then maybe think about NYC. So it's a long term project that isn't popular that also wouldn't produce any benefits for years.
5) If we are willing to do this sort of thing, lots of other more dangerous pests would be on the list ahead of urban cockroaches.

Expanding on the first two, I think there's a lot of knee jerk fear to trying and eliminate a species. Also, I don't think this is a bad thing! The last time we took a crack at mosquitos it was with the new miracle technology of DDT, and it did save millions of human lives, but overuse wreaked havoc in unforeseen way on the ecosystem and bred resistant bugs. And that's the tip of the iceberg in terms of things we've gotten wrong.

We have learned a lot from those mistakes, but we have we learned enough? A lot of scientists aren't convinced enough that the answer is "yes" to try again.

OTOH, NYC cockroaches (and Caribbean-dwelling A. aegypti) are just as invasive as cats or rabbits in Australia and mongooses in Hawaii. There's a weird sort of quadruple standard in how people think about eliminating various invasive species.
posted by mark k at 1:16 PM on June 19, 2023

For example, CRISPR is the technology that can say "All your grandchildren will be male" and was seriously proposed with respect to A. aegypti, the most widespread of the disease-carrying mosquitos.
While CRISPR-based gene-drive mosquitos are still in trial phases, over 1 billion genetically modified A. aegypti mosquitoes with self-limiting genes have already been released to the wild in India and the Americas. (These are in addition to radiation-sterilized mosquitoes released in Cuba, and bacteria-sterilized mosquitos released in Australia.)

(Aedes aegypti is a non-native, invasive species in all of these regions.)
posted by mbrubeck at 3:49 PM on June 19, 2023 [2 favorites]

German cockroaches are as native to city ecosystems as the buildings and HVAC and imported food are. I mean, you might argue for getting rid of them due to their effects, but that’s different.

We may depend on them for organic trash removal more than you think — someone’s tested it, can’t find the paper.
posted by clew at 5:27 PM on June 19, 2023 [1 favorite]

I would like to nth Rob Dunn's book that was recommended above. It is pure awesome and the chapter on cockroaches is mind blowing.
posted by polecat at 6:04 PM on June 19, 2023

Mod note: Comment removed for not addressing the main question being asked, per the Content Policy
posted by Brandon Blatcher (staff) at 5:05 AM on June 20, 2023

Every short of chemicals have been tried on the roaches already.

There are long-kill formulas like Advion. Not only are the roaches killed by Advion poisonous, those who killed this way are also poisonous. I can't find the stats, but apparently the special ingredient in Advion, indoxacarb, can retain its potency across 3-4 generations like this.

There are chemical inhibitors, commonly called IGH (insect growth hormones) that are used where no poisons can be used (like food prep areas)

There are also borax, which are deadly to roaches, if you get get them to eat it.

Plenty of sprays that'll kill roaches... if you can find one in the open.

The truth is cockroaches breed fast and they're evolving. :)
posted by kschang at 5:46 PM on June 20, 2023

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