Why cockroaches will survive a nuclear holocaust

A lot of people have heard the predictions that the humble cockroach, those unwelcome denizens of our homes and workplaces,  will out-survive humans if we should ever be so unfortunate as to experience nuclear holocaust.  I have to say that I was skeptical about this broad, sweeping statement the first time I heard it.  I’m a scientist after all and we tend to be a rather skeptical bunch.  However, I have since witnessed firsthand how resilient those little buggers really are and have decided this is absolutely true.  Allow me to share the observations that led me to this opinion. This is the building I work in:

Forbes building

My building

I think it’s an amazing building.  It is the second oldest building on campus, so it’s got this great old feel to it.  There are columns and pillars and marble and old, old wood everywhere.  Some of the windows can still be opened, unlike most of the windows on campus, and there is a lot of natural light in most rooms.  I have an antique brass doorknob on my office door that I absolutely love that’s probably been on my door since it was installed in the early 1900’s.  My office itself is this bizarre little narrow room with an enormously high ceiling.  I have it all to myself AND it has a window that opens.  Love it, love it, love it!

However, every room has it’s downsides.  My office has a roach problem.  In fact, the whole building has a roach problem.  I’m commonly greeted by large, dead roaches when I walk into the building in the morning.  Dead roaches litter the otherwise elegant marble staircase.  They wander across my desk in broad daylight.  I’m scared to eat off of anything that’s been sitting in the entomology department kitchen because the brown banded roaches in that room just might number in the millions.  I don’t mind roaches, but there are SO very many in the kitchen that even I am a little disturbed.

Brown banded cockroaches. Image from a University of AZ publication on roach control, http://ag.arizona.edu/urbanipm/buglist/ cockroaches.pdf.

Allow me to relate one particularly memorable roach experience in the entomology kitchen to give you a better idea of the level of infestation.  At some point, everyone stopped loading paper towels into the dispenser and started setting them on top. After several months of finding the paper towels on top, I decided to do something about it.  I popped the front off the dispenser, happy that I was finally making things right.  But I was greeted with a horrific sight: about 300 roaches were hiding among the pile of 30 paper towels in the dispenser!  They didn’t take too kindly to my exposing their roachy hideout either and decided to flee the scene.  This unfortunately meant that they all came out the front of the dispenser and down my arms.  Having 100+ of them scurrying rapidly down my arms toward my face was a little much even for me.  I slammed the dispenser shut and never complained about the paper towels being on top of the dispenser again.

So there’s a serious roach problem in my building and the center of activity seems to be the entomology kitchen.  However, the microwave and the fridge are in the kitchen, so it’s hard to avoid going in there.  Furthermore, if you’re me, you have to drink at least 12 cups of hot tea a day, which means you go into the kitchen several times a day.  Sometimes there are roaches in the microwave.  Normally, I scoop them out before I put my mug of water in, but one day the roaches on the walls were irritating me more than usual.  I decided I was going to be really mean and microwave my water with the roaches still inside.

I spent the next three minutes reading all the snarky notices telling people to wash their own dishes and keep their dead animals out of the fridge.  I watched some roaches crawling on the walls and thought about the four in the microwave that were meeting their demise.  Upon hearing the buzzer, I opened the microwave door and pulled out my steaming mug, expecting to see four dead roaches in the microwave.  Instead, all four of them were not only still alive, but scurrying about inside the microwave like nothing had even happened!  They were microwaved on high THREE MINUTES and it didn’t seem to faze them a bit.  Amazing!

Armed with this new observation, I have since microwaved several other roaches.  I have yet to see one die, regardless of how long they’ve been nuked.  I cooked a frozen meal for 7 minutes once and the roach accompanying my delicious mac and cheese looked fine.  I think this is simply astounding! The microwaves almost have to be doing something bad to them.  I do worry a little that I’m creating a breed of giant super roaches by microwaving so many of them.  After all, this is the sort of thing that results in giant insects going on rampages in horror movies.  Ever see Mimic?  I’m sure there are giant roaches like those lurking in the basement of my building somewhere!



But I can’t help it.  I am absolutely fascinated by the fact that these insects are able to withstand 7 minutes in the microwave.  And if they can stand that, I’m pretty sure they can withstand a nuclear holocaust.*  Now I’ll admit that my evidence is rather circumstantial.  I haven’t done a proper experiment with the roaches.  It’s possible that their reproductive abilities are altered by the microwaves (e.g. egg proteins are denatured), impacting their overall fitness.  They might not survive long past their stint in the microwave (they almost have to be getting hot enough to start denaturing proteins) and I haven’t followed them or kept them in cages to find out.  But still, how many animals are you aware of that can be microwaved 7 minutes and look as fresh and sprightly coming out as they did going in?  Yep, roaches are going to outlast us all.

* <DISCLAIMER> As pointed out by a reader in a comment below, I wish to clarify: microwaves are not at all the same sort of radiation as that which would occur during nuclear fallout.  Microwaves work by rearranging water and other molecules and that motion generates heat, so they’re not going to cause genetic rearrangements or other similarly catastrophic results.  In case it isn’t clear, the point of this post is simply to demonstrate the remarkable abilities of roaches to withstand some pretty unforgiving conditions by relating observations I’ve made personally that I thought were fascinating.  I’m not qualified to make any real claims regarding the ability of roaches to withstand nuclear fallout and simply wish to suggest that if anything is going to be able to withstand a tragedy of this nature, an animal that can survive being microwaved for 7 minutes is a good candidate. </DISCLAIMER>


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13 thoughts on “Why cockroaches will survive a nuclear holocaust

  1. Here’s my roach story: When I was in grad school I shared an apt. with 3-4 other zoology grad students. It was a real dump, but cheap. It had a roach problem, big time. We had a makeshift shower in the bathroom. It was a hose with a sprinkler attachment hooked up to spray into the bathtub. The sprinkler was surrounded by a shower curtain just large enough to encircle one person. But the interior of the curtain was all grimy and covered with soap residue. The small German roaches loved it. If you weren’t careful about clearing them before stepping in they would jump all over you before you could get the water on. We learned to shake the curtain before showering.
    In the kitchen the roaches would steal food off our plates while we were eating. Roaches had invaded a portable radio we kept on the kitchen table and, as they grew, got too large to escape. We entertained ourselves by chasing them across the dial with the tuner knob.
    We kept complaining to the landlord and he kept promising to do something about roaches.
    One night my roommate and I arrived home and entered the dark apt. feeling for the light switch. We heard and felt crunching beneath our feet. When the light was turned on we saw the floor littered with the bodies of roaches. The landlord had finally called the exterminator. When we swept them up they formed a pile six feet in diameter and six inches deep. The roaches in the radio were lucky. They got to live on in their own little entertainment system.

  2. Microwaves don’t use radiation in the “nuclear fallout” sense, but just a particular frequency of light. The only way a microwave can kill any animal is by giving it heat-stroke when it gets hot enough.

    Remember this the next time someone uses a microwave to sterilize something and say in your best Morbo-voice, MICROWAVES DO NOT WORK THAT WAY!

    • Of course. I wasn’t really being serious – just pointing out that an animal that can spend 7 minutes in the microwave with little apparent damage is a good candidate for surviving a disaster that is capable of wiping out humans. :)

      LOVE the Morbo reference! Puny humans, I WILL DESTROY YOU!

      • I wasn’t sure! A lot of people, even very intelligent and educated people, believe microwave ovens use actual atomic radiation, that they can cause cancer, and the like.

        Or maybe I’m just that annoying trivia guy who swoops in to annoy people. “You do know people don’t really just use 10% of their brain, right?”

        • Ha ha! I am often the annoying trivia person myself (I have a bad habit of saying things like, “Did you know that there is a parasite that you can get from raw fish that burrows through your stomach wall and induces great pain?” while I’m out with people for sushi…), so I COMPLETELY understand.

    • I certainly wouldn’t expect a microwave to sterilize something in the traditional sense (and can’t say I’ve encountered someone who did, either) but I would have expected a microwave to heat the water inside the roaches. Am I misunderstanding how microwaves work, or are roaches particularly heat tolerant? I don’t know much about roaches, but I imagine they’ve got a decent water content to them. So considering how hot a cup of water or some moist food can get in 7 minutes in a microwave on high, I’m still impressed. Maybe roaches are constructed so that the microwaves don’t penetrate them very well.

      • Yeah, that was what I was wondering! Microwaves are supposed to work by rearranging water molecules and that motion make things warmer. One would expect an animal, even an insect, to have enough water in them to heat up significantly in a microwave! At least hot enough to denature some essential proteins or something, and roaches certainly leave a big gooey mess if you manage to squish one. However, like I said, I didn’t follow up on it – and I didn’t pick up any of the roaches to see if they had gotten warm. It’s possible they resist the microwaves, but somehow I doubt that they would be THAT good at blocking them. After all, you can cook shrimp in a microwave! (Not that I’m recommending that anyone try to cook a shrimp in the microwave. That would be a culinary travesty of epic proportions.)

  3. I’m not too into the scientific explanation of microwaves, but I laughed so hard at your roach story. Entertaining post! Why are entomology departments so often riddled with cockroaches? It’s a bit ironic, no? My IPM professor explained how he regularly dusted the perimeter of his office with diatomaceous earth just to the keep the building’s roaches at bay so he could eat his sandwich at his desk without unwanted lunch guests. It sounds like your dept. kitchen needs a thorough cleaning.

    • That was ultimately the point of the post – a humorous retelling of some observations I’ve made regarding roaches in my building. Glad at least one person got it! Don’t think I really got that across…

      Not sure cleaning the kitchen would actually do anything though. There are so many other roaches in the building that they would be replaced immediately. And if we wiped them out of the building, they’d come in from the next building over because they are all over campus. Not that they could ever fumigate my building. There’s a lot of work done in my building that depends on using live insects!

  4. Another article along these lines, from the Straight Dope, “I nuked a roach, he didn’t die! Why?

    Cecil Adams seems to think that the problem is that the part of a roach that is moist enough to heat in a microwave, is also small enough that the roach can dodge between “hot spots” in the oven for quite some time (and, even if hit, can radiate heat away nearly as fast as it is absorbed)

    • Somebody should write up a grant proposal to see if we can get some funding for microwaving cockroaches to find out how this works!

      My own experience shows that ants are just as immune to microwaves as cockroaches.

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