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How to repel palmetto bugs

How to Get Rid of Palmetto Bugs

Palmetto bugs, otherwise known as cockroaches, are a Florida homeowner’s nightmare. The climate of South Florida in particular lends itself unfortunately well to these nasty bugs—Miami ranks third nationally in terms of roach-iest cities (32.1% of Miami residents reported signs of palmetto bugs’ presence in their homes).

You may have noticed a palmetto bug in your own home—or you might just be wondering what they are and whether they’re different from cockroaches. Read on to learn the basics on palmetto bugs and how to get rid of them for good.

Key Takeaways

  • The term “palmetto bug” is a regional phrase used to refer to certain species of cockroaches.
  • Palmetto bugs are large compared to other cockroaches, reddish-brown, and can fly.
  • Palmetto bugs don’t pose an immediately life-threatening health concern, but can trigger asthma and allergic reactions, administer itchy bites, carry harmful bacteria, or simply be a signal that your home’s sanitation is not up to standard.
  • There are a variety of DIY methods for preventing or eliminating a palmetto bug problem, such as spreading boric acid or diatomaceous earth, paying special attention to eliminating food sources, or caulking holes in your walls.
  • It’s never too early to call a pest control professional, as seeing one palmetto bug is a sign that there are likely more nearby.

What Is a Palmetto Bug?

Contrary to popular belief, palmetto bugs are actually cockroaches. The term “palmetto bug” is simply a regional phrase used in the Southeastern U.S. to refer to certain species of cockroaches and similar-looking insects.

In Florida, “palmetto bug” typically refers to the Florida wood cockroach or American cockroach, also referred to as “water bugs.” In South Carolina and Georgia, palmetto bugs might be smokybrown cockroaches. 

Palmetto bugs infest humid areas indoors, like basements, crawl spaces, boiler rooms, sewers, storm drains, and baseboards. They’re most common in large, commercial buildings as opposed to homes, and love food preparation areas and garbage cans. Outdoors, palmetto bugs nest in mulch, woodpiles, and hollow or decaying trees, including palm trees.

How to Identify a Palmetto Bug

Palmetto bugs are typically 1 1/2 -2 inches long and reddish-brown, with a yellowish or pale brown border around their head shields. Wings completely cover their oval-shaped abdomens. They have six legs and two straight antennae.

These critters are typically distinct from smaller, rounder, light brown German cockroaches, which are more likely to carry dangerous bacteria and known for their ability to reproduce at an alarming rate. This means that palmetto bugs are one of the easier types of cockroaches to deal with.

Palmetto bugs are attracted to moisture, so if you find a suspicious critter in your kitchen, bathroom, basement, attic, crawl space, or near leaky pipes, it’s likely a palmetto bug. You might also notice capsules containing about 15 eggs near the site of the infestation, or find nymphs (smaller, grayish brown bugs with underdeveloped wings). 

Palmetto bugs also shed skins as they grow, leave behind a musty smell, and leave cylindrical droppings with blunt edges and ridges on the side.

Palmetto bugs eat almost anything, from human food scraps (meat, starches, grease, sweets, baked goods) to pet food to leather, wallpaper paste, and book bindings. This means nearly anything can be a valuable food source, but especially crumbs and spills (which is why you may find an unwelcome visitor in your kitchen cabinets).

Adult palmetto bugs can fly short distances, though they aren’t particularly good at navigating and glide haphazardly towards light when disturbed or frightened (this frantic flight may make it look like the bug is headed straight for you). Palmetto bugs can also bite, but it’s typically not painful. Since they’re nocturnal, you might notice bites at night or when you wake up, which are not inherently dangerous but are vulnerable to infection.

Are Palmetto Bugs a Health Concern?

Palmetto bugs are not particularly dangerous themselves, but are associated with poor sanitation. They’re also known to carry harmful bacteria (albeit not as many as German cockroaches). This includes 22 different species of pathogens (including salmonella), viruses, fungi, and protozoans, as well as helminths (worm-like parasites). 

Moreover, if you are allergic to palmetto bugs (many people have an allergy to a protein found in the bodies of cockroaches), being around them may trigger asthma attacks. Other allergy symptoms include a runny nose, sneezing, itchy/red/watery eyes, itchy nose/mouth/throat, stuffy nose, post-nasal drip, a cough, itchy skin, or even a rash. 

If your asthma is aggravated by palmetto bugs, you may also experience difficulty breathing, chest tightness or pain, a whistling or wheezing sound when you exhale, or difficulty sleeping because of coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath.

Cockroaches may also bite, although it’s rare. Since they’re omnivores, a non-threatening sleeping human may look like an enticing snack (particularly if there is food residue somewhere on your body). 

If a cockroach bit you in the night, you’ll notice a bright red, raised bump on your skin, small but bigger than a bed bug bite. However, cockroaches will rarely become aggressive enough to attack a human while they’re awake. Cockroach bites are typically painless, non-venomous, and do not transmit diseases. 

However, due to the allergens cockroaches carry, your bite may become swollen or itchy, and due to the powerful force with which cockroaches can bite, the bite may be sore after the fact. Don’t scratch cockroach bites—this will make them become more inflamed. If you feel sick or suspect an infection, contact your healthcare provider.

Due to their association with a lack of cleanliness and their ability to spread disease and cause allergic reactions, palmetto bugs are considered public health pests as well as nuisance pests.

How to Keep Palmetto Bugs Away

  • Use caulk to fill any open cracks and crevices in your walls, and keep doors and windows sealed tightly—palmetto bugs can squeeze through a space the size of two stacked pennies, so almost any open space is fair game as an entry point.
  • Spread boric acid—while it cannot kill roach eggs, this natural insecticide is lethal to adult roaches (but not to humans). It works by disrupting the digestive and nervous systems, as well as scratching the bugs’ exoskeletons.
  • Spread diatomaceous earth—this powder made from fossilized algae works to kill insects in two ways. First, it dehydrates them by absorbing the fats and oils from the cuticles of their exoskeletons. Meanwhile, each granule’s sharp edges are abrasive, slowly destroying the bug’s exoskeleton from the outside.
  • Clean crumbs and spills immediately and eliminate sources of standing water. Store leftovers in airtight containers. Do dishes immediately. Roaches will eat virtually anything you can leave out and can be sustained for a long time on a small amount of food.
  • Keep a clean home and try to confine dining to one area or room.
  • Consider investing in a dehumidifier—palmetto bugs love moisture and humidity.
  • Diffuse essential oils like lavender, peppermint, citronella, bergamot, thyme, basil, pine, or peppermint—these scents repel insects, including roaches.
  • Spray roach repellent around your home.
  • Invest in bait stations.
  • Eliminate dark hiding spots around your home.

When to Call a Professional Pest Control Service

If you suspect a palmetto bug infestation (where you see one, there are likely more), it’s never too early to call a pest control professional. The aforementioned DIY methods are effective, but may not completely eliminate a palmetto bug population. 

A pest management company is the best course of action for cockroach control, as a professional exterminator will have access to the most effective methods and will be able to eliminate the problem at its source. 

A pest control professional can also give you tailored advice to ensure the problem doesn’t come back—one palmetto bug sighting is more than enough.