Public enemy No. 1 How to get rid of the Palmetto bug and its kin

OK, everybody all at once now - ewwwwwww. The cockroach. These guys are German cockroaches.

Oh, the skin-crawling disgust of it - switch on the light and the cockroaches scurry. Maybe no insect is more detested in the Lowcountry than its piquantly parlanced "Palmetto bug."

Rats might be bigger but they can be captured.

Cockroaches breed by the zillions, skitter like the wind, climb into cracks that can't even be seen and lie in stealth by the food on the shelf.

More than 15 kinds of cockroaches are found in South Carolina, according to Clemson University, but only a few are likely to be creeping about your baseboards.

They can carry germs such as salmonella, spike allergic reactions with their shed skin and, er, droppings, or just horrify the invited household guests.

An infestation doesn't necessarily mean poor housekeeping. They show up for the same reasons you do: food, water and shelter. And it's that time of year: As summer turns to fall, cockroaches turn to cover.

"American cockroaches (aka the Palmetto bug) definitely move indoors in the winter, or at least closer to structures," said Clemson University entomologist Eric Benson.

Not that it really matters.

"I think they're just always around and always in the building. They're just so numerous," said College of Charleston biologist Jeff Triblehorn, who, believe it or not, studies the mind of the cockroach. It turns out cockroaches are more like you than you want to believe. They process and respond to sensory information much like humans.

And they're very good at it. They have the ability to detect puffs of wind as fine as a shift of the air above them and the hair-trigger reflexes to "turn and run from that predator, whether it's a toad or a slapping newspaper," Triblehorn said.

Impressive? No doubt. But Triblehorn is no big admirer. If one escapes in the lab and can't be recaptured, "No, I don't hesitate to try to kill it," he said.

These are some tough critters to tame. Discouraging them is a matter of making the habitat less inviting. It takes insecticides, sure, and sometimes repeatedly. But it takes a lot more. Keep them from getting through the sills and away from the goodies.

Here's a few cautions on just how fearsome a foe you're facing, a few suggestions from the pros and some great send-ups from The Post and Courier's Facebook site readers.

Think you can outsmart a roach? Think again.

Cockroaches evidently have conditioned reflexes, instinctive responses they learn, just like Pavlov's dog, according to a Tohoku University study.

Like preying mantises, cockroaches evidently detect wind and vibration so sensitively that even though they are deaf, it doesn't matter once a boot starts to drop.

Cockroaches can react in 8.2 milliseconds after sensing a puff of air from an aggressor and go 80 centimeters per second, or about 20 mph.

Cockroaches eat virtually anything and some can go as long as six weeks between meals.

Good sanitation is important, both inside and outside the house. It is often the best control measure for cockroaches.

Outdoors

  • Remove as much mulch or debris around the building as possible. Prune tree limbs and shrubbery so they do not touch the house. Stack wood away from the house and raise the piles off the ground.
  • If you have pets, do not leave food bowls out overnight and keep kennel areas clean.
  • Dispose of garbage in sealed bags and in garbage cans with lids. If you recycle, rinse out cans and bottles, and keep your recycling areas in a dry location away from the house. Do not let your recycling area become too cluttered.
  • Keep screens and weather stripping in good repair. Check attic vents and windows. Caulk large openings around outside drainage lines and sewer vents. Steel wool can be used as a temporary filler until you can caulk openings properly.
  • Check grocery bags, boxes and firewood for cockroaches.

Indoors

  • Keep food and garbage in tight containers.
  • Clean crumbs and spills on floors, counters and shelves as soon as they occur.
  • Keep faucets and drains under sinks and appliances in good repair. Do not let water stand in the sink for long periods of time.
  • Keep clutter from accumulating, especially in kitchens and bathrooms. Cockroaches often hide in messy cabinets and in stacks of newspapers, bags and rags.
  • Vacuum often.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.