A Changing Population – Turkestan Cockroach Overtakes the American Southwest… and Possibly NYC

By Marcia Anderson

New York City isn’t the only place seeing changes in its roach population. (See Immigrant Cockroach found in NYC) In southwestern U.S. cities, the Turkestan cockroach (Blatta lateralis) is thought to be displacing the common oriental cockroach (Blatta orientalis). Now that they are permanent residents of the Southwest, they can join in the rodeo fun like their cockroach cousins in the 1996 film Joe’s Apartment.

The most unusual thing about this immigrant to the southwestern US is that they are being spread via the Internet. The Turkestan cockroach is popular as live food among reptile breeders and can be easily bought and sold online. As a matter of fact, “this may be the first time that an invasive urban pest species is widely distributed via the Internet through the sale of live insects,” according to University of California-Riverside scientists Tina Kim & Michael Rust in their 2013 Journal of Economic Entomology article. So beware New Yorkers, they can easily be sent to a location near you.

Good to the last bite. Turkestan cockroaches clean up dinner dishes. (Photo: Angela Simental, nmsu.edu)

Good to the last bite. Turkestan cockroaches clean up dinner dishes.
(Photo: Angela Simental, nmsu.edu)

The Turkestan cockroach is also known as the rusty red cockroach or the red runner cockroach. It is a close cousin of the Oriental cockroach. It is primarily an outdoor insect, not known as an aggressive indoor pest, unlike some cockroach species such as the German and American cockroaches. “They typically inhabit in-ground containers such as water meter, irrigation, and electrical boxes, raises of concrete, cracks and crevices, and hollow block walls,” remark Kim and Rust.

This new cockroach is primarily an outdoor-dwelling native to an area from northern Africa to Central Asia. The species is distributed through the Caucasus Mountains, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, northeastern Africa; Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Libya.

The Turkestan cockroach first appeared in the U.S. in 1978 near a California military base.  This was followed by other discoveries near bases in Texas and other locations.  By 2001, they had spread to Los Angeles and, in 2005, infestations were noticed in Georgia. Researchers Kim and Rust believe the species may have arrived in the U.S. on military equipment returning from Asia or Afghanistan.

We may be looking at a demographic shift in the U.S. roach population. Turkestan cockroaches have been rapidly replacing the common Oriental cockroach in urban areas of the southwestern US. The Turkestan cockroach nymphs have a shorter developmental period, and the adult female produce considerably more eggs than do Oriental cockroaches. With a faster life cycle and larger broods, the Turkestan cockroach is outlaying and displacing its Oriental cockroach cousins in many locations.

No need to feel sorry for the Oriental cockroach. Remember that the U.S. is a country of immigrants. The American cockroach is believed to have entered the U.S. from Africa with the slave trade and the Oriental cockroach was believed to have come from the Middle East.

Let’s put this whole cockroach immigration into perspective. There are roughly 4,500 cockroach species worldwide, and only about 70 in the U.S. Correction – make that about 71!  Of all of these cockroaches, only about two percent are pests. For all their creepiness, the majority of cockroaches do little actual harm. They can even be considered beneficial outdoors. They are scavengers that recycle dead animals and vegetable material, and aerate the soil.  Thus, they provide an important ecological cleansing and fertilization service.

Roaches are really smart. Perhaps that’s why they are constantly trying to get into schools, homes, and other places.  How else do you think that they were able to survive for 300 million years, outliving the dinosaurs and surviving multiple mass extinction events?

They are highly adaptable to hot and cold. Plus, they have a special tolerance for many toxic chemicals. They survive some chemical and pesticide exposures and live to tell the tale. For instance, they can detect the application of a pesticide, decide they don’t like it, and make a decision to avoid it in the future. They can do that because they are equipped with fat bodies – pockets of enzymes. (That’s the white gooey stuff that gets on your shoes when you step on one.) These enzymes can detoxify some pesticides, so the roaches can go on living. They can also pass on their tolerance to their offspring. Thus, they can easily build up a resistance through only a few generations making some pesticides ineffective after a relatively short time. This resistance certainly keeps the pesticide industry busy developing new controls for cockroaches, and building better roach traps. See why roaches are so hard to eliminate. 

2.Male (a) and female (b) Turkestan cockroaches. (Photo: R. McLeod, tamu.edu)

Male (a) and female (b) Turkestan cockroaches. (Photo: R. McLeod, tamu.edu)

Still concerned about a roach invasion into your neighborhood? Until recently, efforts to suppress cockroach populations in the urban environment have relied almost exclusively on repeated applications of pesticides. This approach has become increasingly less popular, primarily due to the development of multi-chemical resistance among cockroach populations and increased public concern about pesticide exposure in their living environments. These two issues have greatly emphasized the need for a more holistic and prevention-based approach to cockroach management.

Prevent cockroaches from taking over your school, home or office. You can do a lot to prevent a cockroach invasion by following an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach. Cockroaches are most easily managed by means of exclusion (preventing their entry) and sanitation (eliminating their food, water and shelter). Not only will these measures prevent a future infestation, they will also help to reduce an existing cockroach problem. If the preceding measures do not solve the problem to your satisfaction, you can incorporate cockroach baits and traps. For infestations, having a pest management professional provide IPM-based advice is a wise decision and may save time and money, and prevent the unnecessary use of pesticides. More on cockroach IPM in part 2 of this series.


For information, see EPA’s Cockroaches & Schools webpage and the University of California’s cockroach guidelines webpage.  You can also read an earlier blog on another invasive cockroach.


About the Author: Marcia is with EPA’s Center of Expertise for School IPM in Dallas, Texas. She holds a PhD in Environmental Management from Montclair State University along with degrees in Biology, Environmental Design, Landscape Architecture, and Instruction and Curriculum. Marcia was formerly with the EPA Region 2 Pesticides Program and has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology, and Oceanography at several universities.

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