Cockroaches and Termites

Wood cockroach crawling on tree
Scientific Name
Over 100 species of cockroaches and termites in North America north of Mexico
Blattidae, Ectobiidae, Termitidae, and other families in order Blattodea (cockroaches)

You might be startled to learn that there are over 100 species in the cockroach order in North America north of Mexico. A great majority of cockroaches and termites are not pests to people. Only a few species are pests in homes, and many of these originally came from the Old World, having traveled around the globe with people. The rest are humble decomposers that live under rocks, bark, rotting wood, or leaf litter and never enter homes.

Most people know a typical cockroach when they see one: they are flattened, oval, usually small, with long, swept-back antennae, colored reddish brown, brown, or black, and often shiny. They usually have a pair of antenna-like cerci at the end of the abdomen. They can hide in tight crevices and lack specialized appendages or mouthparts. Those with wings fold them overlapped over their back. The head is tucked under the body.

Some typical cockroaches in Missouri include various species of wood cockroaches (Parcoblatta spp.), which live in wooded areas and rarely enter homes, as well as common household pests such as the German cockroach (Blattella germanica) (originally from northeast Africa or southeast Asia), American cockroach (Periplaneta americana) (originally from tropical Africa), and Oriental cockroach (Blatta orientalis) (originally from the region between Europe and Asia).


Recently, termites have been included in the cockroach order, making the combined cockroach-termite order, as a whole, more difficult to describe. The families of termites are clearly different from the families of typical cockroaches.

Termites, which used to be separated in their own order (Isoptera), have been folded into the cockroach order based on DNA evidence: They are closely related to one of the families of cockroaches, so all share a common ancestor. In North America, there are five families (about 70 species) of typical cockroaches and four families (about 40 species) of termites.

The various families of termites are grouped together is an epifamily, Termitoidae, which recognizes how distinct they are from the typical cockroaches in the cockroach-termite order.

People often confuse termites with ants. Both are small insects that live in colonies and live on or near the ground, under rocks, wood, and leaf litter. Ants, however, have the middle part of the body narrowed to a relatively tiny stalk between the large head and the large abdomen. Termites, however, have a fairly cylindrical body, only slightly narrowed behind the head. Ants lack a pronotum (a shieldlike plate behind the head, where their shoulders would be), while termites and cockroaches have a pronotum.

Other Common Names

Adult length (not including appendages): ¼–2 inches or more (varies with species).

Where To Find

Statewide. Different species have different distribution patterns.

In nature, cockroaches and termites are creatures of the soil and of rotting wood. In Missouri, most are woodland species. Some introduced species, however, are indoor pests.

Globally, cockroaches and termites are most abundant and diverse in the tropics. Some species, such as the so-called German cockroach, cannot tolerate freezing and survive in northern climates only because they live in homes with people.

Cockroaches and termites have been studied for their intriguing social behaviors. Many cockroaches are gregarious, essentially being loners that nevertheless join together in groups once a group of cockroaches start to join together. Termites, like ants, are eusocial, with groups of closely related individuals living in a colony, with separate castes performing the various duties.

Typical cockroaches are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of materials, including decomposing vegetation and dead insects, and other detritus. Because of their ability to make a living on a wide variety of foodstuffs, some cockroaches are found in people's homes, where they can consume food scraps and other materials. The so-called American cockroach, a common pest species, may eat food particles, paper, leather, glue, flecks of skin (dander), and even dirty clothes.

Termites are famous for being able to eat wood, that is, plant material with cellulose. Cellulose is indigestible to most animals, but most termites have symbiotic microscopic organisms in their digestive tracts that help them digest cellulose.

One family of termites has lost the ability to host the symbiotic, cellulose-digesting organisms, so this family of termites eat lichens, leaf litter, grass, fungi, and other materials.

Of the great many species of cockroaches and termites, only a few are pests to humans.

Life Cycle

Cockroaches have simple metamorphosis, with their series of juvenile stages looking very similar to adults, but lacking wings and sexual maturity. After mating, female cockroaches produce egg cases (oothecae) that contain their eggs. Often, the egg case is carried around on the hind end of the female until the eggs are ready to hatch. This is an adaptation that prevents the eggs from being preyed upon or parasitized.

The termite life cycle is much more complicated. A colony includes reproductives (individuals that mate and lay eggs), workers (which do most of the work, collecting food, building tunnels, feeding the rest, and so on), and soldiers (specialized for colony defense).

As with ants, a case can be made for calling termite colonies superorganisms, since individual termites cannot survive for long by themselves, and survival and reproduction, by the individuals capable of mating and laying eggs, cannot occur without all the castes present.

Typical Cockroaches

People have considered cockroaches as pests for millennia, although only a handful of species share quarters with humans. Because of the pest species, cockroaches are detested and are associated with filth and decay. Indeed, cockroaches may carry unhealthful microbes. Some people are allergic to cockroaches.

Artists, writers, and other creative people have used cockroach imagery as a symbol of all that is creepy and repugnant. An example is Franz Kafka's novella "The Metamorphosis," in which the main character, a salesman, awakens one morning to discover he has become a "huge insect," which most people have interpreted as a giant cockroach.

A vigorous pest-control industry keeps busy helping people get rid of cockroach infestations. It is difficult to control cockroaches for many reasons, especially in apartment buildings in urban areas.

Meanwhile, people in several cultures use cockroaches as food. Cockroaches have been used medicinally. Some people keep the larger species of cockroaches (such as the tropical giant Madagascar hissing cockroach) as pets. In 2007, Russian scientists sent a cockroach into space to see how her offspring might differ from those conceived on Earth.

Scientists use cockroaches in a variety of experiments, since they are hardy and easy to keep in captivity.


Termites are notorious for their role in destroying wooden structures: homes, fenceposts, even pianos. Only a fraction of North American termite species are responsible for this damage. The rest are important decomposers that enrich the soil.

If you think you have a termite problem or want to prevent problems, consult a licensed pest exterminator.

Globally, termites have been used as food and fodder, medicine, and more.

Architects have been inspired by the impressive, tall termite mounds in the Southern Hemisphere. For example, a commercial building called the Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe utilizes a clever passive-cooling and ventilating architecture similar to that of termite nests. Side vents, and a solar chimney, keep cool air flowing naturally through the building.

Typical Cockroaches

Only a small fraction of North American cockroaches are pests in homes. The majority are secretive insects that live under rocks, bark, and leaf litter and play an important role in nature as decomposers.

Cockroaches may be eaten by a variety of animals, including spiders, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds. Some species give off a stinky smell, no doubt to deter predators.

Some species of wasps are parasitoids of cockroaches: adult wasps capture and sting the roaches, lay eggs on them, and the wasp larvae eat the paralyzed roach.

Cockroaches apparently arose some 300 to 400 million years ago, making them some of the most ancient insects on earth. They share a common ancestor with mantids, which are in their own order. Their antiquity, adaptability, and relatively simple body structure all add to the idea that they may survive on Earth long after an apocalypse puts an end to life as we know it.


Only a fraction of North American termite species are responsible for damage to human structures. The majority are important in nature as decomposers. Without termites and other animals such as ants, springtails, and beetle larvae, plus fungi and bacteria, our woods would be filled with tree debris: fallen logs, branches, sticks, and twigs.

Termites, as prey, help to feed a variety of animals, including spiders, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds.

In some parts of the world, termites and their huge mounds are important for other species, which may live symbiotically or parasitically with them in their mounds.

Termites apparently arose from a cockroach ancestor during the Jurassic or Triassic periods. Although in many ways they seem primitive, their extremely complex social organization, adaptive behaviors, and nest-building put them in a category by themselves.

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Invertebrates are animals without backbones, including earthworms, slugs, snails, and arthropods. Arthropods—invertebrates with “jointed legs” — are a group of invertebrates that includes crayfish, shrimp, millipedes, centipedes, mites, spiders, and insects. There may be as many as 10 million species of insects alive on earth today, and they probably constitute more than 90 percent all animal species.
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