Three hundred million years ago, during the Carboniferous period, cockroaches (or palmetto bugs) and their insect relatives (crickets, grasshoppers, dragonflies, cicadas, and mayflies) made their appearance on earth. It took another 150 million years, and the development of flowers, before butterflies, moths, bees, wasps, and true flies appeared. While thousands of species have become extinct, the cockroach thrives. It is truly an ancient survivor and is well adapted to its current circumstance.
The American cockroach or palmetto bug is the largest of the cockroaches to infest our homes and is well known by citizens of the South Carolina coastal plain. The smokey-brown roach is closely related to the American cockroach, and they are often lumped together by pest-control specialists as the palmetto bug. They differ from the German cockroach, another of the cockroach pests, in size and habitat. The palmetto bug may grow to one and a half inches in length and has reddish-brown wings. Both males and females have fully developed wings and can run fast and fly. They live in moist, warm areas and are usually found in basements, under decks, in ivy outside the home, in mulch, and in tool sheds and garages. They love city sewer systems. The palmetto bug survives for a single year, and during that time the female produces approximately 150 offspring.
The German cockroach is smaller, less than an inch in length, and is light brown with two dark stripes traversing the length of the body. Like palmetto bugs, they eat food of all kinds. However, they prefer produce departments in grocery stores and may actually ride home with you from the market in shopping bags. They tend to hide in kitchen cabinets and under washing machines and refrigerators, and they are rarely seen in daylight.
There are several myths concerning the origin of the term “palmetto bug.” One is that the insect drew its name from its home in the stubs of palm fronds left on the trunks of palmetto trees. Another is that proper South Carolinians did not have common cockroaches in their homes, but rather a more genteel insect they dubbed the “palmetto bug.” With the advent of electricity, homeowners found that with a flick of a switch in the kitchen, they might see dozens of roaches heading for a hiding place. Rural women sometimes jokingly referred to the vain attempt to stomp the intruders as the “bug dance.” Whether native or immigrant, the palmetto bug is very much a part of South Carolina from the mountains to the sea.
Bennett, Gary W., et al. Truman’s Scientific Guide to Pest Control Operations. 6th ed. West Layfayette, Ind.: Purdue University, 2003.
Farb, Peter, et al. The Insects. Rev. ed. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life, 1980.