Giant, Red Roaches Invade Italy

Long plagued by poor garbage collection, the city of Naples is crawling with these creepy critters. And health workers fear they could eventually carry disease. 

07.12.12 8:45 AM ET

If the thought of giant, red cockroaches makes your skin crawl, you might want to stop reading now. You also might want to avoid Naples, Italy for the time being since the city is literally crawling with millions of these creepy insects.   

The invasion started in early July with a massive hatch in the city’s sewers, which hadn’t been cleaned or disinfected in over a year because of budget cuts triggered by Italy’s economic crisis. To make matters worse, changes to the city’s garbage collection system, which functioned poorly even during the best of times thanks to infiltration by organized-crime syndicates, require residents and restaurants to put out their garbage the night before early morning collectors pick it up, leaving festering food on the curbside by the sewer drains. Add the above-average temperatures and high humidity and you’ve got a cockroach paradise.

Now city workers are spraying sewers, stores and restaurants several times a day to try to stop the critters from multiplying. When the poison kills them, their dry shells litter the sidewalks. Street sweepers are working extra shifts to remove the crunchy carcasses. Health workers fear the insects could eventually carry hepatitis A or typhoid fever if they aren’t able to contain the invasion. Cockroaches are also known asthma triggers and city authorities have warned asthma sufferers to stay away from the most affected parts of the city.

Despite these efforts, experts say it is challenging to eliminate the pests during the hot summer because the humid conditions provide the perfect environment to lay eggs. “To try to kill them during this season is almost impossible,” says Maria Triassi of Naples’ University Federico II. “The problem is only solved with proper maintenance of the sewer drains all year and destroying the eggs laid in September, not the way they are doing it now.”

Others fear that the panicky way the disinfestation is being carried out is an equally disturbing threat to the environment; workers are spraying huge amounts of potent pesticides on plants and in and around stores where food is sold. And experts say that, over time, the roaches can actually grow immune to the poison.

The amber-colored critters, which fly as well as crawl, can grow to be more three inches long, and they’re particularly active at night, though it is common to see them scampering over the Neapolitan cobblestones during the day. The roaches in Naples have terrorized diners at outdoor tables and have become so accustomed to people that they scurry over tourists’ sandal-clad feet.

Authorities say these hearty bugs likely arrived in the port city on a ferry from the Aeolian islands four or five years ago and killed off the smaller, more-vulnerable Neapolitan roaches, which have long roamed the city. The population of the giant flying bugs has been quietly multiplying in the sewers ever since. Female cockroaches lay eight or more egg cases, which each carry around 40 baby roaches. The gestation period is around three weeks, which means the disinfestations must be carried out daily to kill off the new bugs as they hatch.  

Naples mayor Luigi de Magistris appears to be downplaying the problem out of fear that it will hurt tourism. “There is too much alarm over this,” he said at a televised, emergency meeting to combat the bugs on Monday. “If you read the news you would think the city of Naples is crawling with cockroaches.”

Maybe the mayor hasn’t been out on the streets lately. As Diana Pezza Borrelli of Italy’s Green Party put it: “There are so many cockroaches that when you walk these streets it's like stepping on a crunchy layer of disgusting cookies.”