The German Cockroach: A History

This is the backstory of how a small brown cockroach found harborage in baskets of peppercorns stored in caves in Borneo, got caught up in the spice trade, then traveled around the world to help create the pest control industry.

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July 22, 2021

Author's note: This is the backstory of how a small brown cockroach found harborage in baskets of peppercorns stored in caves in Borneo, got caught up in the spice  trade, then traveled around the world to help create the pest control industry.  German cockroaches spent thousands of years developing a biological ‘skill set’ in Borneo caves, and it all paid off in the 1600s. Growers on Borneo stored  dried Sarawak pepper in those caves for pick-up by spice traders. Blattella germanica, better known as the German cockroach, went along for the ride. The rest is history.
 

Now, the rest of the story. The German cockroach likely originated in the limestone caves in Borneo, a tropical island in the South China Sea. Related Blattella species still live there. The caves are massive and have a consistent climate with high temperatures and humidity—in fact, the climate kept peppercorns dry and the cave offered security from pirates. After the sale, baskets and sacks of dry peppercorns would be loaded onto ketches and schooners that would ride trade winds to the port city of Malacca, Malaysia. The warehouses there—spice capital of the world in the 1600s, were a stopover in the spice trade. Sacs of peppercorns shared the dirty floor with other spices, foodstuff, and fabric headed west on bigger ships.

Caves to Kitchens

The consistent temperature and humidity of the Borneo cave system and the limited number of natural predators would provide B. germanica an ideal habitat for success. Fast forward to kitchens and bathrooms in urban apartments around the world and consider the seasonal abundance of adults and nymphs. It reflects a habitat that has little variation in the temperature and humidity with little variation throughout the year. B. germanica got little spoiled evolving in the cave habitat—consequently, it does not live or survive outdoors and prefers indoor harborages.

The feeding cycle of the German cockroach may reflect the light availability near the openings of those large caves. The peak feeding activity for adults and nymphs is 2 hours after the local sunset, and then 1 hour before sunrise, whether Borneo or Boston it stays the same. This puts their feeding trips at ‘twilight’ when the temperature has dropped, and light is limited. Now think kitchens and bathrooms at night around the world. The habits that evolved in the cave would pay off later.

 

Malacca to Manhattan

The cockroaches in the baskets and sacks of peppercorns could easily endure the 13-day sail to India, and the 20-day sail or overland trek to Venice—the spice capital of Europe in the 1600 and 1700s.  German cockroach females can live for 12 days without food or water, and 42 days on just water. Large nymphs can stall development when there is limited available food. It seems B. germanica would have been well prepared for any storage or sailing environment. Add to that the ability of females to live about six months and produce all their 6 to 8 egg cases with one mating. Then add the fact that the first four egg cases have the largest number of eggs per case. This was a game plan for surviving any trip.

Once this small cockroach became established in the spice storage buildings in Europe, a Danish entomologist found it. After he gave it a brief mention and a name (B. livida), he sent a few specimens off to a colleague in Sweden. In 1767, Carl Linnaeus changed the name to germanica and we have called it the German cockroach ever since. It is likely that Martin Brunniche collected the original specimens in ports northern Germany, which was a part of Denmark at the time.

The German cockroach most likely took a direct route to the U.S. without a stopover in Europe. In 1796, Cpt. Jonathan Carnes left Salem, Massachusetts, and sailed to Borneo to buy Sarawak pepper. He returned with 140,000 pounds in the hold of his schooner but stopped off at the South Street Pier in lower Manhattan to sell some before heading to Salem. Cockroaches that made the trip from the Borneo ports could easily infest the port facilities on the lower east side of New York city. From there they caught rides on the pepper sacks to market stores in the city.

 

Croton Bug to Chlordane

Commercial spice shops and apartments were dry and often unheated, and ongoing cockroach infestations were few. Things would change in 1842 when the Croton Reservoir brought indoor plumbing to New York city apartments. That six-legged Borneo expatriate now had harborage, food, and water in every apartment it crawled into. German cockroach populations and pest status took off. Everywhere plumbing went, so did B. germanica. By the 1850s, it got the nickname Croton Bug. Homemakers quickly realized that after water pipes came the cockroaches, and the bugs never left.

As the song says: If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Indeed, by the 1900s, the German cockroach was becoming a widespread pest. After indoor plumbing gave it a foothold (tarsal hold) indoors, the electric refrigerator in the 1920s and 1930s sealed the deal. The drip pan at floor level provided a constant supply of water and the electric motor a cave-like temperature. The trip from Borneo caves to urban kitchens was now complete.

German cockroaches were difficult to control once they got established, and they spread easily in urban habitats. Chemical control products were as limited and ineffective as the application methods. But by the late 1940s, new insecticides were available, and the B&G sprayer was developed to apply them. Professional pest control had what they needed and went to work. Chlordane insecticide was inexpensive, and effective. But by 1952 that little cockroach from Borneo developed resistance to chlordane, then diazinon in 1959, and malathion in 1962. The list eventually included other organophosphates, carbamates, and pyrethroids.

The German cockroach owes its success to a skill set developed in Borneo caves, and put-to-use on the trip with Sarawak pepper corns to kitchens around the world. Professional pest control owes its success to the skill set of the chemists developing insecticides, and to the foresight of Bill Brehm and George Gilmore for designing a sprayer to apply them. Pest control managers around the world might consider keeping a small bottle of peppercorns on their desk as a reminder of how that small brown cockroach shaped the industry, the business model of their company, and their career.

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Editor’s note: This is the full-text version of the article that appears in July 2021 PCT magazine.