By Catherine Bartlett, education specialist, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Is your ex, like, totally gross? Did they fail to do anything around the house, whether cleaning up or feeding the kids, and mixed the recycling with the trash? Did you find their sluggishness tiresome, their personal hygiene questionable? Or, worse, was that person was far from monogamous, or leave you with a disease?
In an effort to help animal lovers exact a modicum of revenge from their terrible exes during a season that celebrates couplehood, a number of zoos are playing into an existing stereotype about the animal kingdom. The Hemsley Conservation Centre outside of London, for a mere £1.50, will let people name the institution's roaches after their exes for Valentine's Day. The Bronx Zoo in New York is offering naming rights for $15 in a holiday-themed promotion. And the El Paso Zoo in Texas is not only offering Facebook fans the chance to name cockroaches after their exes, they're going to feed those exes to the zoo's meerkats live on camera.
However, this is totally unfair... to cockroaches. They are almost assuredly better than your worst exes.
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True, cockroaches give many the heebie-jeebies (though your friends might say the same about your ex); it could be their flattened, oval bodies, their long antennae or that they tend to be be fast movers. They are also, rightly or wrongly, associated with debris and decay — but, of the over 4,000 described species of cockroaches, only a very few are considered pests and none are known to be vectors of human disease.
Actually, cockroaches, like vultures and worms, are part of nature’s clean up crew, helping rid the world of decomposing and decaying matter. They are generalist feeders and snack on foul food: Rotten wood, fungi, guano and dung get eaten by ravenous roaches. And, if they’re doing it, we don’t have to deal with it. Gross? Perhaps, but so is taking out the trash or changing poopy diapers. Necessary? Absolutely — and they do it without having to be nagged.
Nature’s original recyclers may also be cockroaches. In helping break down organic waste since the Jurassic period, their own waste, rich in nitrogen, has been nourishing growing plants just as long.
Cockroaches are also more useful than a lot of exes: As easy pickings, they are readily available snacks for a variety of other animals. Birds, lizards, other invertebrates and some mammals (like the aforementioned meerkats) often dine on crunchy cockroaches, thereby ingesting necessary proteins and fats. After all, who doesn’t love chowing down on some wings?
Cockroaches are quite useful for humans, too, and have been utilized in experimental research. Like white rats, Manduca (caterpillars), and Drosophila (fruit flies), they are so-called "model" organisms that have helped researchers investigate everything from medicine, antibacterial resistance and bioengineering. Their size and behavior has even “provided inspiration for soft, legged search and rescue robots that may penetrate rubble.”
And due to their size and ease of care — unlike many exes — they are frequently used in the educational arena. School children everywhere have been delighted when a Madagascar hissing cockroach forces air out its spiracles or observed the beauty of a green banana roach. (The same can not often be said for an ex.)
One roach, a wood roach, even exhibits extended parental care. A monogamous pair of wood roaches will live together in rotting logs for years, eating wood and raising their young together. However, since cellulose is so difficult to process, they (like termites) have gut symbionts to break it down for them. Those symbionts get passed down to their young through protodeal trophallaxis — that is, the nymphs feed on excreted liquids from an adult’s anus for up to a year. It’s not unlike the process in which a mammalian baby establishes a healthy gut microbiome from breastfeeding, and arguably as adorable.
Being named after an insect is, when it comes to other species, a badge of honor. Many a celebrity has been bestowed with an arthropod accolade. Gary Larson of "The Far Side” fame has an owl louse named after him, Lady Gaga got a wasp and Leonardo DiCaprio and Stephen Colbert each got a beetle. Even the Queen Bey herself, Beyoncé, has a horse fly named after her; Scaptia beyonceae happens to have an impressively large golden-haired booty.
Cockroaches are clean, devoted to their young and beautiful. So, if an insect is named after you, take it as a point of pride this Valentine’s Day. These animals aren’t bad; they just got a bad rap (possibly like you have). So thank your ex and brag to your friends because the bug bearing your name isn’t so icky after all.
Catherine Bartlett is an education specialist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a nonprofit focused on conservation, science, and inspiring others to live in harmony with the natural world. She is a 2018-2019 Tucson Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.