Bugs That Look Like Cockroaches (But Aren’t!)

Written by Brandi Allred
Published: January 23, 2022
Image Credit gan chaonan/Shutterstock.com
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Have you ever found a strange, creepy-crawly bug, and wondered if it’s a cockroach? Not to worry, you’re not alone; many bugs look similar to cockroaches. Cockroaches themselves are hated and feared by most people, though there are the odd few who love them. Cockroaches range in size from four inches long for the Australian rhinoceros cockroach, all the way down to ¼ inch long for the three-lined cockroach. They can be anywhere from deep brown (almost black) to pale tan in color.

With so much species variation, and over 4,500 species to choose from, it’s no wonder so many people mistake other bugs for cockroaches. Here, we’ll learn more about just what types of bugs are often mistaken for cockroaches, and how to tell them apart. Then, we’ll go over a few of the other names cockroaches are known by, and how these species got their nicknames.

What Bugs Can Be Mistaken for Cockroaches?

There are many bugs that can be mistaken for cockroaches, and vice versa. Cockroaches can be found in homes, apartments, restaurants, and outdoors. Many urban species move from place to place using sewer lines; when they feed, they leave behind terrible odors and smells. With so many types of cockroach in so many places, it makes sense that any insect that even vaguely resembles a cockroach might be mistaken for one.

Though most people know cockroaches as foul-smelling, disease carrying, asthma inducing pests, most species never come into contact with humans. In fact, only about 1% of the 4,500 (and counting) species of cockroach live among humans. The rest spend their lives in the wild, minding their own business. Let’s take a closer look at a few of the insects most commonly mistaken for cockroaches.

Beetle vs. Cockroach?

American cockroach crawling
Cockroaches have longer antennae than beetles; beetles don’t have large spikes on their legs like cockroaches

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Beetles and cockroaches have very similar appearances. Both are medium sized insects that dwell on the ground. Both have six legs, segmented bodies, and are usually darkly colored. But, cockroaches and beetles have a few key differences.

Types of beetles - dung beetle
Beetles have smaller antennae than cockroaches.

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First, cockroach antennae are significantly longer than beetle antennae. Beetles may have antennae scarcely the length of their head, while cockroach antennae often exceed the length of their body. Cockroaches also have longer legs, and while beetle legs are mostly lacking in any adornment, cockroach legs have thick, visible spikes. Finally, beetles have heads visible from above; cockroach heads are covered in a thick shield called a pronotum.

Water Bug vs. Cockroach?

Water Bug vs Cockroach
Water bugs have large pincers that separate them from cockroaches.

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Water bugs usually live in aquatic settings, like ponds or marshes. However, they can occasionally make their way into homes, where they’re often mistaken for cockroaches. Water bugs and cockroaches bear a passing resemblance, but there are some easily identifiable differences.

First, and easiest to spot, are the water bug’s pincers. Unlike cockroaches, whose mouthparts are actually on the underside of their body, water bugs have very large, visible mouthparts. They stick out in front of the head, and resemble a small pair of pincer-like arms. Water bugs also have much larger eyes than cockroaches, and an abdomen that ends in a point. Cockroaches, on the other hand, have flattened, ovoid abdomens, and many species have wings.

Termite vs. Cockroach?

Animals That Spit Acid
Termites have extremely large heads while cockroach heads are smaller.

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Both termites and cockroaches are bad news for any home, but it’s important to be able to determine which you’re looking at. Cockroaches feed on garbage, leftover food, and waste; they leave behind nasty smells and stains. Termites, in contrast, eat wood, and can cause an incredible amount of damage to buildings.

The easiest way to tell a termite apart from a cockroach is to look at the head: how big is it? Termites have massive heads and black, wicked looking pincers. They’re also honey colored, whereas most cockroaches are reddish or dark brown. Most termites are also wingless, while many common cockroach species have body length wings.

Bed Bug or Cockroach?

Check for bed bugs
Bed bugs have much larger, rounder abdomens than cockroaches

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At first glance, bed bugs look very similar to cockroaches. But, take a closer look: there are distinct differences. The biggest distinction is the body shape. Cockroaches have narrow, ovoid bodies, while bed bug bodies are much rounder, with abdomens that terminate in a tip like a rose petal.

If you’re still not sure, check out the antennae. Cockroaches have super long antennae, while bed bugs have tiny antennae by comparison. Additionally, bed bugs tend to be much more orange in color than cockroaches. Their abdomens are also much larger than those of cockroaches. There are about 90 known types of bed bugs, but only 3 commonly infest homes.

What is the Difference Between a Palmetto Bug and a Cockroach?

You may also be wondering: are palmetto bugs the same thing as cockroaches? Palmetto bug is actually a nickname for the American cockroach. These cockroaches are often called palmetto bugs in the southeastern United States, particularly in Florida. The name comes from their love of palmetto trees; since they can so often be found on palmettos, they’ve gained the nickname ‘palmetto bug’.

Roach or Cockroach?

Many people also wonder: are roaches the same thing as cockroaches? In fact, a cockroach is the same thing as a roach, and vice versa. ‘Roach’ is simply the shortened version of ‘cockroach’. It’s a term used by many for convenience, but don’t worry—it doesn’t refer to a different type of insect.

Wood Roach or Cockroach?

Finally, we have the notorious wood roach. Are wood roaches cockroaches? Once again, wood roach is nothing more than a nickname given to a particular species of cockroach, the Pennsylvania wood roach. Wood roaches are so named because they favor wooded areas and piles of firewood. They don’t generally come into homes, like other species of roach, but they may catch an accidental ride on firewood.

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About the Author

I am a professional writer by day and a fiction writer by night. My nonfiction work focuses on animals, nature, and conservation. I hold degrees in English and Anthropology, and spend my free time writing horror, scifi, and fantasy stories.