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Burning Questions: What Exactly Is a Palmetto Bug?

I thought it was too late in the year to run this Burning Question. But then my cat killed an enormous cockroach last week and left it on my bedroom floor. Sure, it’s November, but it’s Columbia.

Ever since I moved to South Carolina, people have been telling me that some cockroaches here — palmetto bugs — are different. The lore varies: They’re bigger than other cockroaches, or lighter in color, or possibly darker, or they live outside, or inside, or they fly.

Search the internet for help, and you’ll find answers aplenty, many of them conflicting; cockroach identification is apparently a fertile SEO source for pest control companies.

So I asked a more neutral party: a cockroach expert at Clemson University.

A palmetto bug is a cockroach, professor Eric Benson told me.

But what kind of cockroach? That’s where it gets tough.

“There are thousands of species of cockroaches,” Benson said via email. “There are several dozen species in South Carolina. Most live in the woods and mind their own business. Several can be serious pests such as the American cockroach, Periplaneta Americana; the smokybrown cockroach, Periplaneta fuliginosa; and the German cockroach, Blattella germanica.”

Those are the officially approved common names for those species of cockroach, by the way. Not so with “palmetto bug.”

“The problem with an unapproved, generic common name like palmetto bug is that different people will use it to name different species of cockroaches,” Benson says. “For some in South Carolina, a palmetto bug is an American cockroach. For others, especially along the coast, a palmetto bug is a smokybrown cockroach. In Florida, many people call Eurycotis floridana, the Florida woods cockroach (the approved common name), the palmetto bug.” 

So if you think a palmetto bug is a reddish brown cockroach 1 to 2 inches in length, that’s probably an American cockroach. If you think it’s a cockroach of a cooler brown hue, up to 1 ½ inches in length, that might be a smokybrown cockroach. (Both of those species can fly, by the way.) Or you may have a different definition of a palmetto bug altogether.

“From my experience the rule of thumb for most in Palmetto State is your neighbor has cockroaches — you just have palmetto bugs,” Benson concludes.


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