A few weeks ago, I was enjoying one of my favorite activities: reading an enthralling piece of fiction before bed. This time it was Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Just as I was being transported to 20th-century Japan, I heard a loud, fluttering sound near my window. I saw some movement and assumed a moth had flown in. (No, my window does not have a screen. But my air conditioning was broken, and I needed some air flow, Thank You Very Much.)
Upon closer examination, I realized one of my deepest, darkest fears had been actualized: it was a cockroach.
The roach was huge, an absolute unit, probably reaching up to three inches in length. It scuttled from the desk under my window onto the side of my bookshelf as I frantically grabbed for my weapon of choice, my chunky, size 12 New Balance sneaker. I struck with precision and strength, landing a direct hit. But it only seemed to daze the hellish creature, which briefly took flight again and sought refuge behind the bookshelf.
For what felt like years, I waited, shoe in hand, for the son of a bitch to reappear. When it finally did, I crushed it with the heel of my sneaker. I double-tapped—and triple-tapped, and quadruple-tapped, and quintuple-tapped—to ensure it wouldn’t escape that time. After flushing it, I doused the site of the kill in Clorox bleach.
I consider myself lucky that I can count the roaches I’ve killed on one hand. Because, honestly, fuck cockroaches. They’re lightning-fast, nearly indestructible, and carry bacteria that cause diarrhea, food poisoning, staph infections, and more.
I always reach for my trusty New Balance, but was curious what methods others use—so I asked the staff at the office what they do when confronted with a New York City cockroach.
Brian Kahn over at Earther also uses a shoe, but occasionally sucks them up with a vacuum, which he says is “highly satisfying.” Emily Lipstein, also at Earther, fills a big reusable bag with old National Geographic magazines, gets up on a high stool, and drops it like an anvil in an old-timey cartoon. She says it works, mostly. She misses sometimes.
But the most out-of-left-field approach—at least in New York City—is that of Gizmodo’s managing editor, Andrew Couts. After trying bug bombs, traps, and aerosol sprays, he purchased six house geckos online. He set them free in his apartment under the impression they’d eat the roaches. Aside from one gecko that liked to hide out under his microwave, he didn’t see the others ever again. Nor did he see any cockroaches for six whole years. “It worked great,” he said.
Cockroach experts aren’t phased by out-of-the-box methods for killing roaches. In addition to geckos, Philip Koehler, an entomologist at the University of Florida, had heard of people releasing banana spiders in their houses to eat the roaches. It is beyond me why anyone who is already averse to creepy-crawlies would release more creepy-crawlies into their home, but to each their own.
Koehler also said he knows a guy who poured boiling water behind his kitchen appliances and cabinets to kill the roaches hiding there. “He killed a lot of cockroaches, but also shorted out all the appliances, like the refrigerator and stove,” Koehler told Gizmodo. “When people are scared, they do stupid things, like releasing spiders and pouring boiling water on roaches hiding in electric appliances. The problem is that they don’t know the best approaches for cockroach control.”
The best way to rid your home of roaches, though dissatisfying in the short term, is by using poisoned bait. That’s according to Len Douglen, the executive director of the New Jersey Pest Management Association, and Koehler suggested the same approach. The roaches eat the poison, go back to the nest and poop and puke some of it up, where other roaches will eat it. Then they all die. Absolutely vile, but effective.
Ideally, this process kills all of these disgusting creatures nesting nearby. But similarly to how bacteria can evolve resistance to an antibiotic, roach populations can evolve resistance to certain toxins in the bait we give them, according to Coby Schal, an entomologist at North Carolina State University. He said as long as the one bait is rotated out for another every few months, that can be avoided.
Schal suggests also using roach sticky traps—commonly referred to as roach motels—baited with peanut butter. “They love peanut butter,” he told me. This sticky-trap-and-poison-bait combo works well anywhere in the United States, he said, not just New York.
Douglen also noted that sprays and aerosols are generally very ineffective. “We always tell people not to spray,” he told Gizmodo. “You’re just repelling them. They’ll come back.”
When I asked Schal how he’d approach a big flier like the one I had, he said, “I’d approach it with my foot.” Koehler said he might reach for a frying pan.
And thank god I killed the one that came in through my window because, Koehler said, cockroaches eat people’s skin when they’re sleeping and crawl into their ears.
I will say, though, that the one upside of my conversations with Douglen, Schal, and Koehler was that they debunked a terrifying myth: that smashing a female cockroach will disperse her eggs everywhere. At least for German cockroaches, which are most common in NYC apartments, females keep their eggs in an egg case (ewwww) that needs to be attached to her in order to survive—she provides the eggs with water. So if you kill the mama cockroach, her eggs are toast.
Another heartening detail was that only about 20 percent of roaches in New York can fly—and even then, it’s less of a flight and more of a sputtering glide. Most German roaches can’t glide, but adult American cockroaches can. The latter don’t live in apartments but dwell in wet, nutrient-dense habitats like the sewers. The roach that invaded my home must have been an American cockroach, and probably ascended the foul, haughty sewers of Williamsburg to terrorize me. As if.
Sadly, we’ll probably always have to deal with roaches.
“Pests will be around for a long time,” Schal said, “even through nuclear war.”
So stop throwing boiling water on your appliances and releasing giant spiders in your house and just do what the experts say: get some poisoned bait and peanut buttered sticky traps. And, perhaps, a shoe.