Quintessentially Lowcountry: 'Palmetto bugs' -- the downside of Southern living

July 9, 2010 

Clobber them with a shoe, let a pet rip their bodies apart, or when the messy, all-over-the-floor methods get old, hire an exterminator.

It takes an arsenal of weapons to win the never-ending fight against the Lowcountry pestilence known as palmetto bugs.

And don't let the name deceive -- "palmetto bug" is just a Southern euphemism for the humidity-loving, allergen-carrying pests more universally known as cockroaches, said Patricia Zungoli, professor and interim chairwoman of the Clemson University Department of Entomology, Soils and Plant Sciences.

Beaufort County residents typically award the palmetto bug title to American cockroaches, which once mature, can measure an inch long and live as long as a year, according to Gary Thomason, general manager at Island Pest Control.

About 70 percent of Island Pest Control's service calls are cockroach-related, he said. Their love of hot, moist environments make the Lowcountry a "nice and steamy" breeding ground for the quick pests.

"They love to enter structures through the attic and then pilfer through the rest of the home," Thomason said. "It's nothing to see dozens and dozens in attics, especially in some of the older homes that have gone untreated."

In Charleston, smokybrown cockroaches earn the palmetto bug title, Zungoli said.

Both species can fly but are better gliders, Zungoli said.

A palmetto bug's wings took Lowcountry transplant Lisa McKenna by surprise 25 years ago when she moved from Baltimore to the Beaufort area.

"The first time I ever saw one, it started flying and hit the TV," said McKenna, who lives in downtown Beaufort. "It scared me to death. ... I'd never seen anything like them before. We were used to pretty, little lightning bugs."

Some residents might be surprised to learn cockroach "pest species" like the American and smokybrown aren't even supposed to be here, Zungoli said.

They originated in tropical climates and were later introduced to the U.S., Zungoli said. As non-native species, ecosystems throughout the Lowcountry likely wouldn't miss them if they were gone,Zungoli said.

In a tropical environment, they serve a larger purpose as food for small mammals, birds and other insects, and as a consumer of all kinds of organic matter, Zungoli said.

"In our environment, not so much," she added.

As for cockroaches serving as disease-spreading agents, "there's a lot more hype about it happening than is actually happening," Zungoli said.

"They are, however, a serious source of allergens," she added. "Even people who tend to not be allergic to standard allergens like ragweed and pollens can be allergic to cockroaches."

So how can Lowcountry residents reduce their chances of a run-in with a palmetto bug inside their homes?

First purge the house of the creepy crawlers and then have an exterminator perform regular treatments in attics, along baseboards, cracks and crevices and crawl spaces, Thomason said.

Homeowners choosing to battle the pests themselves can use baits, liquid insecticides or other products designed to kill cockroaches and keep them at bay, Zungoli said.

In any case, the best way to control any insect includes identifying the three things they need most -- food, water and safe harbor, she added.

"Try to break that triangle on any of the sides," she said. "If you have a bowl of cat food sitting outside your door, take it away."

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