Palmetto bugs are as Southern as sweet tea and barbecue. But what are they really?
They are big, ugly, gnarly, flying roaches who somehow got saddled with a cute name.
Eric Benson, an entomologist with Clemson University, said the name’s origins are unclear. But one abundant species of palmetto bug, the smokybrown, likes to hang out in palmetto trees. So Benson suggests that may have resulted in the name.
The moniker likely stuck, he said, “because nobody likes to have roaches. A cockroach is something your neighbor has. You have palmetto bugs.”
The term palmetto bug came to be a euphemism for a wide range of large cockroaches.
Among them are the death’s head cockroach, the Florida woods cockroach, the Australian cockroach and the brown-banded cockroach, according to the Terminix website, citing the Mallis handbook of pest control.
“There are thousands of species of roaches in the world and dozens of species in South Carolina,” Benson said. “But we call the big ones palmetto bugs.”
The two varieties of palmetto bugs that are most common in South Carolina are the American cockroach (Periplaneta americana) and the smokybrown (Periplaneta fuliginosa).
The American is native to the Palmetto State. The smokybrown migrated here in the 1860s.
Both species are large and winged. But the American cockroach has a cream-colored prothorax (upper back) that has dark markings that look like sunglasses. Smokybrown roaches are darker and don’t have the sunglasses.
Glenn Matthews of Modern Exterminating in Columbia believes the most common of the two in the Midlands is the American cockroach. But Benson said it can vary from area to area or even street to street.
Both American and smoky brown cockroaches love moisture, hence their widespread existence in the Southeast, particularly along the coast. (It may be a myth that palmetto bugs are bigger and more plentiful in Charleston, or it may not.)
They especially love piles of wet decaying stuff.
So if you have ringed your home with well-mulched flower beds or pine straw, you have built one big, huge, comfy palmetto bug nest.
Oh! And if you have decorative rocks in your flower bed, that’s even better (or worse).
“They need a dark, cool, damp place to hide,” Matthews said. “They love it under rocks.”
And to fuel your nightmares, Matthew tells this story:
Sometimes, when he is called to treat the outside of a house and sprays a well-mulched bed, scads of palmetto bugs swarm up the walls of the house to get away from the spray.
Both smokybrown and American cockroaches are also detritivores, meaning they eat decaying matter such as feces and decomposing plants and animals. Which means, unless you’re really gross, it’s unlikely that they actually want to be in your house.
(That’s unlike the pesky little German cockroaches that will infest your home in a heartbeat, eat your food and lay eggs under anything that’s warm, like a microwave, dishwasher or fridge.)
But Benson said in a pinch, palmetto bugs will eat anything.
“I’ve seen them eat dried gum,” he said. “In the lab we feed them dog food and beer. The love the fermentation in beer.”
Those palmetto bugs that you occasionally find (hopefully) upside down in your house? They were either A) trying to get warm, or B) lost, Matthews said.
On a cold day, they might crawl into the house to get warm. (When you are as thin as a dime it’s easy to find a crack under a door, window or eave to crawl in).
Or they may have flown in an open window or door at night because they like to chase light, which, if you are the one opening the door or window, can be a pretty freaky thing.
But they aren’t very good fliers. It’s more like a flapping glide from a higher place to a lower one.
“Kinda like flying squirrels,” Benson said.
And really, to be honest, they don’t pose much of a threat to humans. They don’t bite like mosquitoes. And they don’’t carry diseases like ticks.
But they can “mechanically vector germs,” Benson said.
“If one comes up your sewer pipe and walks across your hamburger, that could vector germs,” he said.
But their presence is disconcerting.
“They are just scary looking and they creep people out,” Matthews said. “And they will sometimes crawl up your wall at inopportune times.”
Which is anytime, right?
So, how to ensure you won’t find one crawling on your bed in the middle of the night?
First, get rid of their nesting areas around the house by cutting back shrubs and eliminating mulch and pine straw beds.
“If you have a ridiculous amount you might want to kick it back,” Benson said.
And seal up cracks with caulk and make sure your screens are in good shape.
There also some pesticide products you can DIY, Matthews said.
Or you can call an exterminator (you just might not want to be around when they spray).
But completely eradicating them is, well, impossible.
“It has nothing to do with keeping a dirty house,” Benson said. “You can have the most immaculate house in the world and they’ll still be around.”
But enough of the bad things about palmetto bugs. Surely they have some benefit in the world?
“The only benefit that I can see,” Matthews said, “is they make people call me.”