UF lab takes aim at a hardy roach


Published: Wednesday, January 3, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 2, 2007 at 10:59 p.m.

Working with cockroaches might sound disgusting, but Phil Koehler said there's one major benefit.

"We have job security," said Koehler, an entomology professor who directs the University of Florida's Urban Entomology Laboratory.

Koehler's lab is developing new ways to fight the German cockroach, the common household pest. The newest problem is the insect has developed an aversion to widely used household baits, he said.

The lab is studying what turns off the pest and looking for replacements that are more attractive, he said. The lab has found that two baits used by pest-control operators are effective, but he said battling the cockroach means anticipating that the insect will adapt to change.

"They've been around a long time for a reason," he said.

Cockroaches have been a fixture for more than 300 million years. They are capable of living a month without food, staying alive a week without a head and surviving under water for 45 minutes, according to researchers.

The insects can carry bacteria and viruses, said Paul Myers, director of environmental health for Alachua County. While there is little evidence linking cockroaches to major disease outbreaks, he said the insects can trigger allergies and cause other related impacts on public health.

The department inspects institutional food service operations such as hospitals, schools and jails. Myers said he didn't have any statistics, but he's seen an increase in the numbers of cockroaches found in the last six to nine months.

"It certainly seems ... to be more prevalent now than in the past," he said.

Roaches can be killed with chemical sprays or baits that attract the insect to eat a lethal chemical, said Robert Long, service manager for Arrow Exterminators in Gainesville. Baits come in containers, gels that can be distributed through a gun and granules that can be spread around buildings.

He said no matter what the treatment, cockroaches that survive ending up multiplying and creating a population that is harder to kill.

Koehler said one problem is some baits use common sweeteners containing glucose, for which roaches have developed an aversion in recent years. The lab is studying whether other sweeteners are more effective.

The lab, part of UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, studies urban pests from bed bugs to red imported fire ants. Barbara Bayer, a graduate research student, said the lab raises the cockroaches used in tests.

She said she left any aversions to the insect behind when she became involved in the work.

"I got over that pretty quickly," she said.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gvillesun.com.

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