Palmetto Bug vs Cockroach

Written by Brandi Allred
Published: January 22, 2022
Image Credit iStock.com/ViniSouza128
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We’ve all heard of cockroaches, but have we all heard of palmetto bugs? Unless you frequent the southeastern United States, you’ve probably never heard of a palmetto bug. But, in places like Georgia and Florida, the name palmetto bug is synonymous with medium sized, dark, crawling insects. But—are palmetto bugs the same thing as cockroaches?

Cockroaches belong to the Blattodea Order of insects; there are over 4,500 distinct species of roach. Each species has its own set of unique characteristics. They range in color from light tan to very dark brown, and they can grow up to four inches long. Though there are thousands of species of roach, only about 30 ever come into contact with humans.

Here, we’ll take a look at a couple of these species, and find out if palmetto bugs are cockroaches—or something entirely different. Then, we’ll go over whether or not you should be worried about palmetto bugs infesting your home.

Are Palmetto Bugs the Same As Cockroaches?

The polls are in: palmetto bugs are the same thing as cockroaches. Here’s the catch; cockroaches are only called palmetto bugs in certain places. Specifically, two species of cockroach (the American and German cockroaches) are known as palmetto bugs. ‘Palmetto bug’ is the regional dialect name for cockroaches in the southeastern United States.

You may be wondering, why are they called palmetto bugs? Well, in the warm, humid environment of the southeastern United States, palmetto trees are common. Cockroaches, as it turns out, love palmetto trees. They’re often seen on or around them; hence, they’ve become known as palmetto bugs.

Cockroach silhouette
Palmetto bugs are the same thing as cockroaches

supasart meekumrai/Shutterstock.com

5 Key Characteristics of the American Cockroach

When people call a cockroach a palmetto bug, they’re most often referring to the American cockroach (Periplaneta americana). Let’s take a closer look at just what makes the American cockroach distinct from other species of roach. And, by the way—cockroaches and roaches are the same thing. ‘Roach’ is simply the shortened version of ‘cockroach’.

1. Size

American cockroaches are the largest species of urban cockroach commonly found in the United States. Adults grow up to two inches long, and have two sets of body length wings. They can run incredibly fast (as anyone who’s ever turned the lights on only to see cockroaches scatter knows), with a max speed of about 3.5 mph. If humans ran as fast as American cockroaches, they would run at over 200 mph.

Though they have fully developed wings, American cockroaches aren’t capable of true flight. Rather, they lift off in short glides, sometimes coming in through open windows or doors. They’re more common in restaurants and around food preparation areas than they are in homes. Further, they’re most often found on first floors and in basements.

2. Life Cycle

American cockroaches start life the same way that all cockroaches do: as eggs. Females can produce up to 14 egg cases in their lifetime, with up to 16 eggs per egg case. Each egg case takes about four days to incubate. Then, brand new baby cockroaches emerge. At this stage, they’re known as nymphs, and they’re so pale that they’re practically translucent. 

After hatching, it can take anywhere from 200-400 days for the nymphs to reach maturity. In that time they will molt up to 14 times. Each time they molt (which means, literally, to shed their skin) they grow a little larger, and a little crunchier. Once they reach adulthood they can live up to two years, with an average total lifespan of three years.

3. Coloring

Cockroach on a piece of wood
Palmetto bugs are usually American cockroaches

luis2499/Shutterstock.com

American cockroaches are lighter than many other species of roach. Their body (composed of the thorax, abdomen, and wings) is a light reddish brown. They tend towards darker nearer the head, and lighter near the base of the abdomen. One could go so far as to call them ombre; if cockroaches didn’t have such a bad reputation, we might even call them pretty.

Palmetto bugs have a hard shield called a pronotum covering the back of their head. The pronotum is a light, amber color, with two red-brown, circular, markings that look a little like large eyes. Their most characteristic feature comes from the amber colored band at the base of the pronotum.

4. Habitat

American cockroaches are thought to have originated in Africa and the Middle East. Today, they inhabit just about every area colonized by humans, though they’re more common in some regions than others. They’re particularly good at moving to new areas using sewer lines.

American roaches are particularly prevalent in the southeastern United States, which is why they’ve been dubbed palmetto bugs in that region. They thrive in the warm, humid environment and have a particular love for palmetto trees. These roaches can also be found in homes, restaurants, and near any kind of food waste.

5. Diet

Like many cockroaches, palmetto bugs are opportunistic omnivores. They’ll eat just about anything, though they have a particular preference for fermented foods and starch. They can cause devastating damage to books and paper by eating the starch laden bindings. They’ll also attack corrugated cardboard. 

American cockroaches don’t stop at books though; they’ll also feast on skin flakes, crumbs of food, other (dead) insects, and fecal waste. In some ways, they’re fantastic cleaners; in other ways, they’re very messy. When American cockroaches feed and perform normal life activities, they leave behind a stinky trail of stains.

Can Palmetto Bugs Infest Homes?

Out of over 4,500 species of cockroach, only about 1% of all species pose problems for humans. Unfortunately, these few species give all cockroaches a bad name. Palmetto bugs are one of these pestilential creatures. Though they prefer palmetto trees and food preparation areas, they can certainly make their way into homes and cause problems.

The best way to tell if you have a palmetto bug infestation is simple: the presence of American cockroaches. If you see what you think is a palmetto bug in your home, your next step is to look for shed exoskeletons, droppings, and egg cases. If you see any of these things (try looking near plumbing fixtures and around food preparation areas) then you may have an infestation. 

American cockroach crawling
The American cockroach's body is made up of three sections: the head, thorax, and abdomen.
iStock.com/ViniSouza128
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About the Author

Brandi is a professional writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her nonfiction work focuses on animals, nature, and conservation. She holds degrees in English and Anthropology, and spends her free time writing horror, scifi, and fantasy stories.

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