A Bug's Life Defending Your Home Against Six-Legged Invaders

Although spring ushers in a host of good things–like warm weather, longer days, and lower heating bills–the season also brings with it a proliferation of critters, not all of them welcome.

Unfortunately, most condo and co-op dwellers are familiar with New York City’s most prevalent indoor insect: the cockroach. Other pests–such as ants and termites–tend to be less of a problem in a city with the size and climate of New York. According to several pest control professionals, even bedbugs (numbers of which have increased in New York City in recent years) are still not nearly as pervasive a problem as roaches.

Profile of a Cockroach

Aside from just being plain "gross," roaches can be unpleasant–even harmful–in less obvious ways, too. Their fecal matter can contaminate the air, which can cause respiratory trouble in people with allergies, or people with weak or delicate lungs–particularly young children and the elderly. Roaches also track germs and bacteria into the apartment that can also cause respiratory distress or sickness.

Three types of cockroaches predominate in the United States: the German, the brown bandit, and the American (known rather euphemistically as "water bugs"). In New York City, German cockroaches are the most abundant. Unlike American cockroaches, which flourish in the warmer, more humid climates of the South, German cockroaches can survive even in the chilliest, draftiest New York apartment. And while brown bandit roaches are more or less "nomads," according to Nana Kojo of Kojo’s Pest Elimination and Pest Control in the Bronx, often traveling individually or in small groups, German cockroaches tend to "cluster" in groups, resulting in sickeningly high reproductive rates. Considering the fact that a roach, which reproduces every six weeks, can produce forty to forty-two eggs in one egg sac (adding up to roughly a million new roaches per year, if you count the offspring’s offspring), "clustering" does not bode well for apartment dwellers.

Kojo adds that roaches are elusive creatures. "German cockroaches don’t require a lot of food in order to survive, and they have flat bodies, so they can slide under objects and not make any noise."

And if overall heartiness and top-notch bioengineering isn’t enough, speed is another thing that the cockroach has on its side. "The American cockroach is the fastest land animal," Kojo says. "He’s faster than a horse. He can run about 120 miles per hour. Of course, he’s never run that far. He’s a sprinter."

Don’t Freak Out…Yet

Before you pick up the phone and call an exterminator just because you saw a black blur skitter across the kitchen floor when you got up for a late night snack, know that there are a number of simple, inexpensive preventive measures you can take to alleviate bug infestation on your own.

Roaches may very well be able to outrun humans, but that doesn’t mean they can outsmart them. No matter how clever and tenacious they may seem, it’s important to remember that we’re the dominant life form here, and to act accordingly. The trick is to determine what roaches need to survive, and then take steps to deprive them of it.

The first step to combating roach infestation is to insulate–well. This means filling every crack and crevice in your walls and floorboards, repairing damaged window seals, and investigating all the places you most likely never look at or think about: under the sink, the space behind the oven and the wall, and inside cabinets. Keep in mind that roaches are looking for food and warmth; this means that behind your refrigerator or under the stove are idyllic spots for a roach to settle down and raise a family.

You can fill in potential roach hangouts with sealants like hardening foam, silicone gels or pellets, cork board, and pest-proof copper mesh. A word of caution about metal fill-in materials, though: According to Barry Beck, an extermination expert with Assured Environments in Manhattan, if you are insulating and then plastering over the area, however, you should avoid using steel wool to fill gaps in walls because, "Steel wool will oxidize immediately [if covered] with [damp] plaster, so it will become moist and rust." The resultant rust can discolor the area around it, and will eventually render the metal fill useless anyway.

One good way to determine where you have holes and crevices in your apartment is to use a flashlight and mirror at night. Shine the light into the kitchen cabinets and see if any light comes out the sides. Use the mirror to investigate hard-to-see places behind the stove and under the fridge. Roaches also seek water, making damp basements and areas near sweaty pipes favorite roach hideaways. Reducing moisture in your apartment is essential to creating a pest-free environment. A dehumidifier can help in hotter months, and seeing to it that steam and water pipes are well-insulated and maintained makes for fewer of the dank areas bugs find so appealing.

Garbage and open food will also attract roaches. Reduce the bug buffet by keeping dirty dishes from piling up in the sink, storing food in tightly-sealed containers, and getting rid of garbage in a timely manner. Managers and supers can do their part by keeping the building’s public and common areas clean and by making sure that the garbage is collected on a regular basis. Between pick-ups, garbage should be stored in sturdy, unripped bags. If a building has a compactor, the chute should be vacuumed and steam cleaned regularly to prevent bacteria and garbage-sludge from building up and presenting bugs with an irresistible piece of real estate. Building staff should also be attentive to structural problems in the building, like broken or cracked windows, leaky pipes, or worn down weather stripping that provides entry to unwanted guests.

In order to keep on top of problems in various units, Ben Weisel of Metro Pest Control in Queens advises owners to regularly slip questionnaires related to bug problems and structural damage under tenants’ doors. "It can just be four or five simple questions about what problems people might be having. This way an owner can accumulate a list and not overlook trouble spots," Weisel says.

Bringing Out the Big Guns

Sometimes, even the most thorough gap-filling and pipe-wrapping isn’t enough to stop the invasion. If, despite your best insulation efforts, you find that roaches are still thinking of your home as theirs, it’s probably time to resort to chemicals. According to Weisel, there are three main methods to chemically exterminate roaches: chemical sprays, baits and traps, and insecticide dust.

"Sprays are what most people associate with insect extermination," says Weisel. "The guy walking around with the spray can; that’s the old way of doing things."

Despite tradition, chemical sprays have a few drawbacks and are therefore becoming less popular with experts. One is that the chemicals–which are usually emulsified with water–can poison the air and cause respiratory discomfort or illness in humans. Another is that most apartment dwellers spray randomly, thus not ensuring that nesting areas are targeted. Finally, sprays have a "repellency," Weisel says. "The chemical burns and makes the roach uncomfortable. It tends to chase them into other areas and cause a great scampering."

Beck concurs. "Homeowners think that bombing [with chemicals] is the solution, but it only makes the situation worse. Spraying kills 80 percent of the roach population, but drives the other 20 percent deeper into the walls to reproduce. That’s going to come back to haunt you."

Baits, on the other hand, which are usually sold in a gel form, attract roaches rather than scare them away. "Roaches eat the bait and have mortality within 24 hours," says Weisel. "It’s nice because they have time to bring the bait back to their nesting area and share it with the others. The results are not as quick [as chemical sprays], but the residual effects are greater."

Baits generally work for a period of 90 days. Over-the-counter baits work very well, Weisel says, but for a serious infestation problem, professional bait will be more effective.

Baited traps such as snap traps, mechanical traps, and glue boards are some other recommended devices for those who wish to avoid pesticide. According to Kojo, "Glue boards are the safest traps to use. Roaches like glue because it’s sticky and greasy. It’s simple, too. Take some glue and spread it on cardboard; there’s your glue trap." Kojo recommends using commercially made traps, however, rather than homemade versions.

Another extermination method is insecticide dust, which is applied to walls using 40 to 60 pounds of air pressure, causing the dust to fan out and permeate an entire wall void. The dust is essentially a pyrethrum chemical, typically used against head lice, which acts as a desiccant. The chemical dust sticks to the insects’ outer shells, destroying their protective layer of moisture and literally withering them on the spot. This method is usually used to fumigate wall voids behind sinks, because the poison will travel along pipes and reach deep into the walls.

Risks to Higher Life Forms

Because baits pose the least health risk to humans and their pets, they are the preferred extermination method among most professionals. Because they are a solid product, baits are less dangerous than dusts or sprays. If you put bait in a certain location, that’s where it stays–whereas with sprays, there might be minor splash off into an area you didn’t intend to hit, or atomized chemicals lingering in the air you and your family breathe.

Sprays pose the most potential harm to humans–especially young children and seniors–and companion animals by contaminating the air and causing or exacerbating respiratory ailments like asthma and emphysema. People with allergies and low tolerance levels are also susceptible to dangerous effects. "The problem is that you’re dealing with a closed environment," Kojo says, "so the effects are more concentrated."

Illness is by far more the exception than the rule, however. "I’ve been in business for 30 years, and I’ve never had any health problems," Weisel says. "As long as you follow the label’s instructions and are diligent about using the product correctly, you will not create a dangerous situation."

Schedule a Date

Most exterminators work on a retainer basis, visiting co-op and condo buildings every month or so. Although there is no law explicitly requiring buildings to provide extermination and pest control service, there is, according to Kojo, an "unwritten rule," that 30 days is the appropriate time period between visits from the anti-pest pro.

Having a building inspected and cleaned as a whole, rather than by individual units, is also more cost-effective. According to Weisel, servicing individual apartments usually costs anywhere from $25 to $100 per visit, depending on the severity of the pest problem, whereas cleaning an entire 100-unit building with "no real glaring problems," costs a fraction of that per unit per month.

Overall, implementing a regular extermination schedule–if your building doesn’t have one already–is an important investment, right up there with insurance and general maintenance. The most beautiful, most serene living space loses serious points (and value) if human inhabitants have to put up with something as distasteful and embarrassing as infestation. If both residents and building staff take it upon themselves to make their building a bug-free zone, the only little feet you’ll hear pitter-pattering are those of kids and pets.

Nicole LaPorte is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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2 Comments

  • This comment is more related to non chemical prevention. II never go to garage sales, buy used articles that might harbour roaches, avoid boxes/bags and use net bags when I shop. It may not always work but I have never had a roach invasion yet.
  • West Side Cooperator on Saturday, June 29, 2013 3:31 PM
    Exterminate the little buggers yourself! I live in one of those co-ops that are so socially concious that they have allowed rats to run rampant on the grounds at night, because (literally) two squirrels died because they did not read that the signs were rat bait. I live above two restaurants and doubt that I have seen 10 roaches in the twenty years because I use roach baits that I purchase directly from the drugstore, and also use gels and egg eliminators. Needless to say, one never leaves dirty dishes in the sink overnight, and never leave trash sitting inside the house overnight either. However, my co-op spent over $250;000 in trying to eliminate bedbugs with that stupid dog's company. The cheapest and easiest way to eliminate any pests is by utilizing the heat of the summer on its hottest days. If you are going away for even a few days at a time, close all doors and windows, and keep the apartment as hot as you can while you're gone. This will kill anything moving. Of course, be careful to remove all pets and combustibles. Me, I prefer the chemical treatments, which can cause problems for pets roaming around the house, and small children, but can be used with children who are old enough to understand not to touch anything while wet. During those days, it is best to evacuate your space for up to eight hours. I knew that I was in trouble when one of my neighbors sniffed and asked wheter I had bedbugs, and when I replied no, sniffed and said that I would. I had exactly one (that's another story, but be careful to shake out your clothes after you leave your friends homes). I used a twenty year old unopened bottle of Dursban, which I was too cheap to throw out, and was just the thing that I needed to inssure that I had no bedbugs. I move all furniture and clothing into the middle of the floor of each room; washed everything washable (even rugs and carpets) with ammonia to wipe out bug trails; and sprayed into every crack and crevice with the Dursban. You must spray twice -- the initial spraying of everything, and a second spraying ten days later. I have never had a roach or bedbug problem, but get friends of mine out of state to purchase professional exterminator supplies, specifically Bayer Professional exterminator supplies like Suspend, or Cyanara 9:7, and they bring them back into the city. Ironically, the New York City Council asked for permission to use these insecticides to kill off bed bugs too.