It wasn’t exactly the Kentucky Derby, but things got exciting at a small racetrack in Augusta this past weekend.
More than 40 participants at the Maine Entomological Society’s winter workshop had the chance to try their luck racing Madagascar hissing cockroaches, an insect known for its size and speed.
“My cockroach aced the race,” said Kathy Murray, a retired Maine state entomologist. “It was a clear winner.”
It was the first gathering of the Maine Entomological Society since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and cockroach racing kicked off the weekend. In addition to providing entertainment, the races allowed attendees an opportunity to bond with an insect that has a rather disgusting reputation.
Even in a roomful of insect aficionados, there were some shudders and grimaces as cockroach wrangler and University of New Hampshire zoology student Samual Jupin matched-up people to roaches.
Jupin is something of a cockroach specialist and his research focuses on the Madagascar hissing cockroach. All the insects raced on Saturday were from his own personal stable.
“I think they are neat and often overlooked and stigmatized insects,” Jupin said. “There is a lot of good they do.”
A healthy adult Madagascar hissing cockroach can grow up to 3 inches in length and reach a top speed of 3 mph on an open track. That’s the equivalent of a human running 100 mph.
Murray and the other competitors had only met their athletic racers minutes before the action started. There were no trophies, medals, wreath of roses or winning bets. Races were for bragging rights only.
That left little time for training, not that it would have helped. What had been billed as a series of head-to-head — or byjus-to-byjus in strict entomological terms — sprints down the inside of a long wooden box quickly turned into a cockroach version of NASCAR.
At times a dozen or more were trundling their way toward the finish line next to or over each other, while their human coaches cheered them on from the sidelines. Or at least cheered for the one they assumed was their racer, given that to the untrained eye one Madagascar hissing cockroach looks pretty much like every other hissing cockroach.
Soon there were cockroaches skittling in every direction within the confines of the racing box. Some were executing U-turns to head back to the start line. Others were zig-zagging back and forth. Several attempted to make a break for freedom by climbing up the sides of the box.
Loud cheers erupted every time a cockroach crossed the finish line.
Once across the line, some cockroaches continued running around in a victory lap, while others piled on top of each other in a corner.
If things got a bit too raucous on the track, or if a roach seemed to be suffering from pre-race jitters, people were advised to place the insect in their pockets to calm them.
“This is a wonderful idea and some friendly competition,” Murray said as her winning roach relaxed in the palm of her hand. “It’s a great way to get people used to living insects.”
Roaches like the Madagascar hisser play important roles in the ecosystem in decomposing organic matter.
It’s the German cockroach that gives the entire genus a bad name, according to Jupin.
That species has adapted to exist alongside humans and are considered 100 percent domesticated. German cockroaches are opportunists who eat just about anything, and are the ones that infest apartments, homes and buildings across the country.
Not even Murray could come up with anything good to say about the German cockroach.
The saliva, feces and shedding body parts of cockroaches can trigger both asthma and allergies. Just about every part of its body can carry bacteria harmful to humans.
“Every organism has some purpose,” Murray said. “But we really don’t want German cockroaches in our buildings.”
In Maine, the wood roach is a common cockroach found in wooded and forested areas where it eats decaying organic matter. They can be a temporary nuisance if they end up indoors but they are incapable of establishing a permanent colony inside.
Madagascar hissing cockroaches, on the other hand, take great care with personal grooming and are considered quite clean. It’s one of the reasons they are a popular pet for insect collectors.
At the races on Saturday, the finish line was also the end of the line for the roaches. They became laboratory specimens for the dissecting workshop the following afternoon.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly identified Kathy Murray’s credentials and misidentified Tulle Frazer in the featured image caption. Both have been updated.