Hey Mr. Green,
I live in a row house in the Capitol Hill Historic (read: very old) District in Washington, D.C. My next-door neighbor just found her residence swarming with cockroaches. She called an exterminator, who advised her to warn her neighbors that spraying her roaches will send them scurrying to the houses on either side, suggesting maybe we should also hire him. I do not want a toxic house. Neither do I want cockroaches. If her bugs migrate, is there a green way to deal with them? -–Patricia in Washington, D.C.
Don’t panic. Stay on the line. We’re here, on full cockroach alert, ready to talk you through this crisis.
I know cockroaches well, having coexisted with them for some years in roach-friendly climes and structures. One of the more terrifying critters I have ever seen was an albino cockroach peering up with beady red eyes from a crevice in my kitchen table—surrounded by a streaming, squirming swarm of its brown brethren.
I survived, and so will you.
Pesticides should only be used as a last resort. Your first line of defense is scrupulous cleanliness. Scrub everything well. Don't leave food out, not even a crumb; rinse the bottles and cans you plan to recycle (roaches love to wade in reeking beery backwash) and place them outside as quickly as possible. Eliminate surface moisture, especially around all pipes, vents, conduits, etc. Roaches thrive in damp, dark places, and openings around pipes are one of their favorite routes. The cabinet under a kitchen sink is a roach’s Buckingham Palace.
After every surface has been scrupulously cleaned and dried, get rid of all clutter, in which roaches love to retreat to plot their next foray.
Next look carefully for even the tiniest crevices--cockroaches can squeeze through extremely narrow gaps--and seal these cracks with caulk. A really thorough seal is the best way to keep them out or prevent their escape. In addition to sealing more obvious places, like around pipes and cupboards, look for cracks under and over mopboards and door frames. Be sure to ask at the hardware store for a nifty plastic device you can skim along the caulk bead to make it neat and uniform. If you’re simply too klutzy for caulk, you can seal cracks with duct tape. You can also apply tape that is sticky on both sides and let them get trapped on it.
If roaches do appear, sprinkle a thin band of boric acid, diatomaceous earth, baking soda, or other fine powder anywhere you detect emergence. This will make them die a horrible death, which is exactly what they deserve. But do not put boric acid where children or pets might touch it.
If you find evidence of resident roaches, conducting surveillance late at night offers a very satisfying strategy. Dump a tablespoon or so of cornstarch or baking soda in your vacuum cleaner bag, scout with a flashlight and vacuum in hand, and suck them up if you see them. The fine powder and dust in the bag will annihilate them. For inspiration, read Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis to see just how miserable life can get for an insect struggling in dust.
Much can be learned about a civilization from the way it deals with domestic insects. Turning instantly to fumigation may be a symptom of cultural deprivation. Fumigation robs you of the zesty sport of going mano a mano against bugs—or mandible a mandible, as it may seem from the insect's point of view. It's like a nuclear attack compared to a medieval joust or a Wild West shootout: impersonal, inelegant, dependent on anonymous technicians to inflict instant annihilation. Zip, zap, whoosh--they’re gone, and now we have more time to watch television. It’s like when instant foods supplant the art of cooking, or when languishing in a sealed-up, air-conditioned house blocks the scent of dew and the music of frogs and crickets: just another example of how the religion of convenience robs us of simple joys.
No doubt many people aren’t the least bit bothered by such miserable changes. There might even be some perky futurists who welcome such “progress” as an evolutionary imperative nudging our DNA toward perfect adaptation to the abiotic interiors of spacecraft--which our genetically modified species will need in order to escape a planet engineered to be uninhabitable.