Page 1 of 2 | by Michael Jacobi
This article was originally published in print in early 2006 as part of ARACHNOCULTURE 2(1). It has not been edited or expanded for this E-Zine release.
Roaches have increased in popularity as the feeder insect of choice of arachnoculturists and herpetoculturists. These mantid relatives are also enjoyed as pets, particularly the large hissing roaches of Madagascar (Gromphadorhina species). Roach keeping, whether raised for food or simply kept as fascinating captives, used to be limited to a handful of species. But roach breeders now offer almost as many species as arachnid dealers do of tarantulas.
Crickets were the most popular feeder insect species for decades, but recently have started to fall out of favor with owners of insectivorous animals. Their many undesirable traits include chirping noise, odor, short lifespan, and expense. They can also kill the arachnids they were intended to feed. Too many keepers have discovered that a molting tarantula was killed by a hungry cricket. Another important reason that arachnoculturists, especially tarantula keepers, have ceased using crickets is the evidence that they carry parasites that can cause fatal health problems such as nematode infestation.
Of the many types of roaches raised for arachnid food, keepers tend to raise one or more species of Blattodea, including Blaptica dubia, Eublaberus prosticus, and several Blaberus species. These roaches are large and adults make ideal food for large tarantulas, while nymphs are used for young tarantula specimens, scorpions, and other arachnids. However, even the young of these roaches are too large for most tarantula spiderlings, scorplings, and true spiders. Even keepers who primarily use roaches may find it easier to buy or raise pinhead or one-week-old crickets for small arachnids. Over the past few years, some keepers have tried Nauphoeta cinerea, an adult cricket-sized species popularly called the lobster roach. Many have found these almost as distasteful as crickets. Because these roaches can climb smooth surfaces escape must be prevented by a messy barrier of Vaseline™ [petroleum jelly] at the top of their enclosure. If you place a number in a cup to distribute among your arachnids they will constantly be crawling out faster than you can retrieve them. Many keepers share the wish to have a readily available roach species of the same size as N. cinerea and as fast to breed, but lacking the ability to climb smooth vertical surfaces. Over the past year, that roach has arrived. It is Blatta lateralis, popularly referred to as the Turkestan roach, and it just may be the perfect roach species. Some sources may alternatively list this species as Shelfordella lateralis or S. tartara.
Unlike the large species popularly raised as feeders, B. lateralis do not look exotic; they look very similar to roaches that have given all roaches a bad name. These roaches are members of the family Blattidae, which also includes household pest species like the German cockroach (Blattella germanica) and American cockroach (Periplaneta americana). Other members of the genus Blatta include B. orientalis, the Oriental roach that is a household pest. In fact, this native of tropical northern Africa and central Asia has recently become established outdoors in the southwestern United States. First discovered on a west coast military base, this roach prefers living outdoors and has not been known to infest homes. It has been found in some buildings though, including Phoenix, Arizona schools.
Blatta lateralis differ from most other roaches raised in captivity by producing egg cases that hatch outside the body. Popular roaches such as Blaberus species produce an egg case externally, rotate it, and then draw it back inside the body where it later hatches and live nymphs are deposited.
Blatta lateralis is a sexually dimorphic species with males having wings and a golden color while the wingless females are dark reddish-brown. Adults are approximately one inch [25 mm] in length, and females are more heavily-bodied and slightly longer than males. Although the males cannot truly fly, both sexes are very fast and males will jump and flutter their wings, carrying themselves a short distance. When freshly hatched, nymphs are less than one-eighth of an inch [2 mm] and are a blonde color similar to that of adult males. This small size makes them perfect food for many small arachnids, especially tarantula spiderlings. As the nymphs grow, they become a burgundy red and then darken to the more mahogany color of an adult female.