If it weren’t for a few unfortunate details, you might have a different opinion of the American cockroach. It might impress you for its speed and street smarts or for its contribution to the ecosystem as it chews stuff up, breaks it down and turns it into fertilizer.
But the devil is in the details with these dangerous little pests. And if you’ve got them in your house, your restaurant or your business, you’re going to want to get rid of them before they do you any harm.
Let’s take a closer look at the American roach–its appearance, behavior and diet–and discuss how to deal with them if they’ve gotten too comfortable in your home or business.
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History of American Cockroaches
Though its name might make it sound homegrown, the American cockroach isn’t native to the U.S.
It first climbed aboard African slave ships in the 1600’s. It ventured far on these ships, spreading across southeastern coastal lands before moving westward, northward and to other parts of the world. It’s become an extremely successful cockroach in the United States, second only to the German cockroach for sheer abundance.
How to Identify an American Cockroach
The first thing you’ll notice about an American cockroach is its size–because it’s big. In fact, at an inch-and-a-half or more in length (excluding the antennae), it’s the largest house-infesting roach in the United States.
It has two long antennae, six spiny legs, and both its wings and body are reddish brown in color. There’s also a cream-colored, cowl-like structure behind its head, with darker brown markings that look a little like a figure eight.
At the base of its body are a pair of short appendages called cerci. And if you’re looking at a male, he’ll have an additional, tiny pair of appendages called styli that jut out between them. He’ll also have slightly longer wings than the female, and a thinner abdomen.
Range and Habitats of American Cockroaches
American cockroaches live seemingly everywhere. They’re known by many different names, depending on where you live; Palmetto Bugs, Water Bugs, Sewer roaches, Tree roaches and more.
They’re a hardy and adaptable insect. While they do best in temperatures between 68 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit, they can survive in most areas of the United States simply by moving indoors. As long as there’s plenty of moisture and a fairly warm atmosphere, they’ll happily settle in and start causing problems.
What Do American Cockroaches Eat?
Eating is a full-time activity for an American roach. When living outdoors, they tend to eat fungi, wood particles, decaying leaves, algae and other insects. Inside, all bets are off–they’ll eat just about anything, including meats, grease, peanuts, sweets, paper, book bindings, cosmetics, leather, cloth, hair, wallpaper paste, pet food, dead insects (including their own kin!) and food crumbs of any kind.
The American Cockroach Life Cycle
With a lifespan that can easily exceed two years, it’s a long-lived insect that you can expect to stick around for quite a while.
Its life begins as an egg, which the female deposits into an egg case, called an ootheca. The egg case typically holds 16 eggs as they incubate for about a month-and-a-half. Then, they hatch into young roaches known as nymphs.
American cockroach nymphs are white at first, but quickly darken as their new shells harden. Within hours, they look nearly identical to adults; however, they’re smaller and lack the adult’s familiar wings.
It takes 6-12 months for a nymph to become an adult. As the nymphs grow and mature, shedding their old skins as they outgrow them. Eventually, in the final stage, they grow wings and gain the ability to reproduce.
Altogether, female American cockroaches are able to produce more than 150 young over a lifetime, meaning that their numbers can multiply quickly.
How You’re Likely To Come Into Contact with American Cockroaches
Understand what American roaches need to survive and you’ll understand what might bring you into contact with them. These roaches need warmth, food, and water – and spend most of their time seeking those three things.
When the conditions are right, American cockroaches prefer to live outdoors, around shrubs, garages or alleyways. You’ll find them in flower beds, under rocks, inside woodpiles and under mulch, pine straw, or garbage. Their wide-ranging diet means they can feed on almost any form of organic matter, whether it’s from a plant, animal or the trash.
When food gets scarce or the climate becomes too hot, too cool, dries up or floods, American cockroaches quickly move indoors to find better conditions. Then, they create problems. Restaurants, bakeries, grocery stores, schools, hospitals and homes are all at risk of American cockroach infestations. Their most common indoor habitats include boiler rooms, basements, crawl spaces, steam tunnels, and drains and sewers.
Mass migrations of American roaches are common: groups will frequently crawl into structures from sewers, making their way up through plumbing and drains. They’ll also fly in from nearby shrubs and branches, squeezing in through cracks and crevices in windows, foundations, and outer walls.
When they do infest indoor spaces, American cockroach populations can be enormous and gut-wrenching. In 2017, residents of one Philadelphia neighborhood witnessed thousands of cockroaches crawling out of a single sewer manhole and said that there were so many roaches, “you couldn’t see the ground.”
Are American Cockroaches Dangerous?
The American roach isn’t exactly dangerous. (it doesn’t sting or bite), but because it frequently lives, breeds, and feeds in filth of the very worst kind – the stuff inside sewers, rotting garbage, and decaying flesh – its body can pick up harmful bacteria, germs, and mold.
Then as it wanders in search of food or shelter, or simply defecates, the roach can deposit all of that into your restaurant, house, or apartment building. Scientists have found over 20 different bacteria, viruses, worms and other nasty things on American cockroaches.
American cockroaches contaminate any food or surface they come into contact with. They spread harmful allergens through the air, causing itchy eyes and sneezing. They also give off a strong smell that can permeate throughout a building when the population is large enough. If you detect a strange, unpleasant smell coming from boxes in storage or items in your garage, you’re probably smelling evidence of American cockroach activity.
American cockroaches deserve their place on your Top Ten Least Wanted list. They’re serious pests and if there are any around it’s important that you take steps to get rid of them quickly and prevent them from coming back.
How to Get Rid of the American Cockroach
Cockroaches are extremely resilient pests that’ll eat almost anything and live almost anywhere. They’re difficult to eliminate, especially if they’ve established a population in your home or business.
Pest control professionals often resort to insecticides to kill these roaches. You can apply insecticides to walls, woodpiles, crawl spaces and other locations where the roaches have moved in. It’s always important to read the instructions and be very careful when using dangerous chemicals.
Sometimes, using a residual spray or similar product can be an effective way to kill the cockroaches and prevent their populations from rebounding.
How to Safeguard Your Home and Prevent American Cockroaches
The most important aspect of your American cockroach control plan is a good defense. Give your home or business a thorough inspection and identify the areas that are most prone to infestation.
Make sure you seal any cracks or holes in the walls and foundation to keep roaches out. Don’t forget to pay attention to the area around your house, too: clear dead leaves and old wood; rake mulch into a thin layer to help it stay dry; and store firewood and garbage away from your house, if possible.
Finally, keep your house clean and tidy. Decluttering storage areas removes potential habitats. Cleaning up crumbs and spills frequently eliminates a roach’s easy food sources. Repair leaking pipes or faucets to take away a cockroach’s water supply.
American cockroaches are extremely prevalent and ruthless pests. It takes dedication to keep your house protected from these problematic insects, but you can do it. Start with small steps today, like cleaning and reorganizing, and you can keep your home or business cockroach-free in the future.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, American cockroaches can use their wings to fly. However, they’re not the best fliers and will typically only fly away from danger. Most of the time, they move on foot.
American cockroach egg capsules are tiny–about 1/3 inch in length–and have a mahogany brown color. You won’t see their eggs because they’re inside of the egg capsule (as many as 16 eggs in each).
There is no difference! “Palmetto bug” is simply another name for an American cockroach. If you’re from the southern U.S., you’ve probably heard this name used all the time to refer to American roaches. Don’t let the name fool you–whether you call them cockroaches or palmetto bugs, they’re dangerous pests.
Yes, badly. American cockroaches give off a strong odor. Apartment building tenants will know there’s an infestation based on the smell. In addition, these roaches will leave the smell on objects they come into contact with.
They don’t infest as intentionally as some other roaches do. But under certain conditions – such as when food becomes scarce or weather becomes difficult for them – they will enter your home, potentially in large numbers.
Written by Andrew Martin. Reviewed by James Miksanek, PhD.
Andrew writes for, and along with his daughter, publishes Cockroach Facts. You can read more about him here.
James Miksanek, PhD.
James is an entomologist and adjunct professor of biology. His background is in biological control, and he has a passion for ecology and environmental science. His research has addressed a variety of topics including pest control and the management of invasive species. You can learn more about our contributors here.
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- American Cockroach. Plant & Pest Diagnostics. Retrieved from https://www.canr.msu.edu/resources/american-cockroach
- Perot, Rachael C. and Dini M. Miller (2010) American Cockroach. Virginia Cooperative Extension. Retrieved from https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/444/444-288/444-288.html