Who let the (exotic) bugs in? Internet buyers

UF entomologists Phil Koehler, left, and Roberto Pereira watch as a lizard peers into a jar of Madagascar hissing cockroaches. The two say trade in exotic roaches could lead to infestations.

Associated Press

UF entomologists Phil Koehler, left, and Roberto Pereira watch as a lizard peers into a jar of Madagascar hissing cockroaches. The two say trade in exotic roaches could lead to infestations.

Try to get this image out of your brain.

A cockroach 3 inches long, an inch wide. Are those horns on its head? Look, it's hissing at you like a snake. That's what this roach does when threatened or seeking a mate.

Relax. This bug's not looking for romance.

Meet the Madagascar hissing roach, one of a handful of exotic cockroaches from around the world that may one day infest your home.

University of Florida entomologists are sounding a warning that Florida lizard owners are increasingly buying exotic, non-native roaches on the Internet to feed their pets.

Some cockroaches invariably escape, and as Bob Potts, owner of the Herp Hobby Shop in Oldsmar said, "All it takes is a boy and a girl."

Like Florida pest control wasn't complicated enough.

"It's not that they're any harder to kill than any other cockroach," said UF entomologist Roberto Pereira. "But that doesn't mean you want your wife seeing one of them crawling around the house."

Pereira and UF colleague Phil Koehler have published an article in Florida Pest Pro magazine telling exterminators to be alert.

Koehler is a scientist with cachet: He may be the only Gator ever to talk roaches on Nightline with Ted Koppel. Top that, Tim Tebow.

It's not just the Madagascars they fear will get a foothold.

Smaller bugs like the lobster roach, the orange-spotted roach and the Turkistan roach may all one day settle in Florida, too.

The entomologists said these roaches are no more dangerous than the ubiquitous German cockroach. They are no more likely to carry disease. They aren't harder kill. They won't devour family pets.

But new critters always pose unforeseen dangers and can eliminate native species, throwing ecosystems out of whack.

And anyway, said Pereira, who needs another roach? "We've got plenty already," he said.

It's illegal to import roaches into the state without a license, but it's impossible to stop illicit purchases over the Internet.

Consumers can buy cockroaches online as easily as checking the weather. Some insect lovers even buy the Madagascar as a pet.

Melissa Coakley, 29, a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of South Florida, doesn't feed her lizards roaches because they are too expensive. So her lizards enjoy a fairly pedestrian menu.

Coakley's pair of 3-foot-long Tagu lizards prefer turkey and tuna fish. Alas, a third lizard, an Uromastyx, is a vegetarian. Lizards aren't finicky. "Whatever you give them, they eat," Coakley said. "Crickets. Eggs. A finger."

One last thing. Don't call the military if you find a gargantuan cockroach in your kitchen. Uncle Sam's got his own roach ills. Turkistan cockroaches hitchhiked with troops returning from the Middle East and now infest the Southwest.

The pest control folks at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa say they've seen no weird roaches — yet. But a 5-foot-long monitor lizard dropped out of a plane's landing gear a few years ago. Startled airmen found it wandering near the flight line like a drunken tourist at Mardi Gras.

In Florida, it's always something.

Who let the (exotic) bugs in? Internet buyers 11/30/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 2, 2008 7:46pm]

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