The kings of summer

Your time here in San Antonio’s summer insectary will be spent in close proximity to every Roger Corman B-horror bug imaginable. You’ll see neurotic and resilient ants; scorpions, if you’re in one of the northern land-gobbling developments upturning new angry earth and poison stingers; and, as Matthew 26:11 said, omnipresent mosquitos that we will have with us always.

In this urban entomology course you will also encounter King Periplaneta americana, the giant flying American cockroach, a native of the African continent (the Motherland also gave us that other summer wonder, the watermelon; Deutschland gave us those teeny fast-breeding roaches).

In these parts, the Periplaneta americana bears the deceptively delicate moniker “Palmetto Bug,” like the tree.

“Here’s my safari story: the easiest kill I’ve ever had,” my mother begins the tale of the early-rising Palmetto Bug, who at 6 a.m. greeted her in the bathroom. “That roach was bigger than you can ever imagine, and on my sink! Next to my curling iron! And it probably walked all over my makeup!”

Her dog, a skittish Doberman mix who cringes when she meets anyone new, unwittingly blocks the bug’s escape route into the master bedroom while my mother retrieves what Texans merely call “the spray.” This could be any of the billion-dollar pesticide industry’s top-selling toxic formulas, all of which are a human-health hazard if touched or ingested. I personally prefer Weitech’s Ultrasonic Pest Repeller — a plug-in device made in China that A&M Texas Cooperative Extension urban entolomolgist Molly Keck says is as effective a pest repellant as plugging in my toaster. Recently I picked up the last Dead-Fast (TM) Insecticide Chalk for $3.99, which was sitting up by the impulse-item check-out area at Anna’s Linens on Austin Highway.

“They’ve been going fast,” says Debra the cashier. Unsettlingly, Dead-Fast’s ingredients list says 1-percent Tralomethrin, a neurotoxin that disrupts insect sodium channels and the toxicologists at the EPA dubiously deem OK as an animal-feed additive. Dead Fast’s other 99 percent is listed as “other.” Hopefully that’s just boric acid, which the bug boys over at the University of Kentucky say is “low in toxicity to people, pets, and other non-target animals.”

As far as offing the cockroaches goes, the idea is, they get the chalk on their bodies and since they’re always grooming themselves, they ingest the poison. I’ve also got covert bait stations in the cabinets and closets.

I guess I could get some environmentally safe bug killer from Whole Foods, if I really want to drown them in pure, organic, orange-peel oil for $8.99. (I want to kill bugs, not underwrite their lavish insect sendoff; no wonder the grocer’s known as “Whole Paycheck.”)

All this to say that, as of press time, I hadn’t seen the first Palmetto Bug of summer.

It was brief, the face-off between my mother and the brainless bug — they only have a central nervous system: just a bundle of nerves guiding their metabolic urges. The neurotoxins sent the Palmetto into spasms strong enough to hurl it into the drain. Even before the paralysis set in, my mother had turned on the faucet, and hurried it on its way, like Miriam pushing Moses’s basket down the Nile.


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