Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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I am dismayed to reveal that my apartment is home to uncounted numbers of freeloaders. In fact, every evening, when I turn the lights on, I witness these tiny marauders’ mad dash for the cracks in the walls and the space under the refrigerator. I am talking about the East Coast plague: cockroaches. You know; vile, disgusting, nearly ubiquitous bugs. However, I feel much better knowing that everyone’s home, regardless of how sterile it is, is occupied by a vast collection of invertebrate roommates. In fact, as you will learn from reading A Field Guide to Household Bugs: It’s a Jungle in Here by Joshua Abarbanel and Jeff Swimmer (NYC: Plume; 2007), these pests can be found absolutely everywhere; from your pillows to your eyelashes, from your pantries to your panties, and especially lurking in your kitchens and bathrooms in apartments, homes, restaurants and hotels.

This charming little book provides basic fun facts about these insect pests — for example, did you know that the dust mite is the most common household pest? It’s true. When you go to sleep, you are sharing your bed with as many as 10 million of them. This gives a whole new meaning to “sleeping alone”, doesn’t it?

The book describes ways to kill these unwanted houseguests, using methods ranging from sticky traps to thermonuclear devices. Of course, most of these unwanted roommates are difficult, at best, to kill en masse, but this serves to give you a whole new appreciation for the sheer toughness of the insects that occupy your homes. For example, I can personally attest to the toughness of cockroaches since my numerous attempts to microwave them to death have been distressingly unsuccessful.

As all good field guides should do, this book also includes many gorgeous images — electron micrographs that provide stunning detail of the creatures that we love to hate. So throughout the pages of this book, you can come eyeball to eyeball with creatures such as bedbugs, earwigs, termites, assassin bugs and fleas. As if the information and images are not interesting enough, the book also comes with a magnifying glass so you can examine these critters first-hand when you find them walking along your bathroom sink or sucking blood from your arm.

This inexpensive and charming little paperback consist of 128 pages and is relatively well-written. I especially recommend it to kids and to those who are suffering from an indoor wildlife problem (basically, everyone). I also think that entomologists, those who admire insects and those who work in pest control would enjoy this book.

Joshua Abarbanel is an artist who uses cutting-edge graphic software to create large-scale works on paper that have been exhibited in Los Angeles and New York, and designs fabric patterns for the textile industry.

Jeff Swimmer is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. He has produced and written programs about science and history for PBS, BBC, National Geographic, Discovery, CNN and other major broadcasters.


  1. #1 Hank Roberts
    September 25, 2007

    Seems as long as we have our one spider per room, things are pretty stable. Just don’t remove your top predator!

  2. #2 Another Kevin
    September 26, 2007

    In a word: borate.

    Use borate correctly, and you will not have a cockroach problem. has a fairly good summary on what’s available. I know that ‘Roach Prufe’ is one brand of borate roach powder sold in NYC.

    You might want to pretreat with a pyrethroid first, because borate can be slow to work. Don’t use permethrin around the birds, but a natural pyrethrum+piperonyl butoxide should be fairly safe. ‘Bug Buster’ is one brand that I remember seeing around NYC.

  3. #3 Oldfart
    September 26, 2007

    To hell with turning your house into a toxic waste dump.
    One real active non-decorative cat is enough to control all your cockroaches.
    Of course, some think a kitty litter box is a toxic waste dump.

  4. #4 Barn Owl
    September 26, 2007

    Is the book biased towards particular regions of the US? “Household bugs” takes on a new and different meaning here in South Texas. For example, the smaller German cockroaches are not as fearsome as the gargantuan American cockroaches, Periplaneta americana, aka palmetto bugs. Palmetto bugs are large enough to wake you up as they scuttle across paper or plastic, and they have an unnerving propensity to become airborne (and trichotaxic).

    Scorpions are another common “household bug” here-they aren’t especially poisonous, but their sting is painful, and they’re fond of dropping out of air conditioning vents, and tend to be carpet-colored. Tarantulas are occasional houseguests, but they aren’t aggressive, and can be removed by gentle sweeping.

    Our college apartment in Houston, in an older building, had a German cockroach infestation, and we kept several house geckos to control their numbers. We had pet cockatiels and saltwater aquaria, and didn’t want to risk using pesticides.

  5. #5 "GrrlScientist"
    September 27, 2007

    this book does indeed cover american cockroaches (palmetto bugs, also known as “water bugs” in NYC) as well as a host of other multilegged beasties. it does NOT however, discuss scorpions, nor any spiders (probably because spiders and scorpions keep the numbers of these other pests under control). well, that’s my guess anyway (i don’t really know for sure). although my romance with spiders was short-lived, since i grew up in black widow country and especially since a rather ferocious wolf spider chased me around the kitchen when i was a wee one, trying to sweep the floor.

    as a cat lover, i would love to have an active, non-decorative cat to take care of all the wee beasties that plague my apartment. unfortunately, i think that cat would also take care of my parrots during its free time.

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