Updated on September 6, 2022
Across most of the country, the term “palmetto bug” means nothing, but in the southeastern states, it’s a term to be feared. These little pests can pose some health risks and are rather unpleasant to be around.
Even worse, there’s a lot of false information about palmetto bugs out there, making it harder to diagnose and treat the problem.
Before we get into discussing how to get rid of palmetto bugs, let’s get to know them.
Getting to Know Palmetto Bugs
Because of how much misinformation there is on this bug, let’s first discuss what a palmetto bug IS NOT, then get into a little more detail on the real deal.
Palmetto Bug vs Cockroach
One of the biggest misconceptions is that palmetto bugs and cockroaches are the same thing. Well, in one sense, they are: the term “palmetto bug” most properly describes the Florida woods cockroach (Eurycotis floridana), which is known to infest palmetto trees.
However, humans have a way of generalizing everything, and the nickname was soon being given to both the American cockroach and the smokybrown cockroach.
At first, this mistake was correctly attributed to the average person’s inability to tell different roach species apart. Later, the usage was narrowed to mean “any roach which lives both indoors and outdoors”. However, the term mainly appears in a few southeastern states where these three roach species are known to appear.
Please note that in this article, we shall be focusing on the species to which the nickname was first attributed: the Florida woods cockroach.
Related: 9 Types of Roaches (Found in the US)
Palmetto Bug vs Water Bug
Another common misconception is that palmetto bugs are also water bugs. However, while water bugs may look similar to roaches at a glance, they’re aquatic pests, whereas some roaches (such as the Florida woods roach) are merely attracted to water.
The good news is that palmetto bugs can’t swim, so liquids can be an effective weapon against them.
Now that we know what palmetto bugs are not, let’s look a little closer at what they are.
Palmetto bugs have a defense mechanism similar to many other insects. When alarmed, it can shoot a stream of foul-smelling liquid up to three feet. This has earned the bug many nicknames, such as:
- Florida skunk roach
- Florida stinkroach
- skunk cockroach
- stinking cockroach
Found natively in the West Indies and Florida, palmetto bugs may be found along the coastline as far as Texas and North Carolina, but are not known to venture far inland.
They prefer warm, damp, and dark environments, often infesting woodpiles, leaf debris, mulch, dead trees, and in cavities beneath the bark of living trees. Palmetto trees are a favorite habitat, hence their nickname.
It’s not common for palmetto bugs to invade homes, unlike the Big Three (American, Oriental, and German cockroaches). Instead, as with other wood roaches, the palmetto bug only invades when temperatures get too cold and will try to hide in damp, unused parts of the house, most notably the attic.
What do Palmetto Bugs Eat?
As a type of wood roach, the palmetto bug’s preferred diet is decaying wood, fungi, and the occasional insect.
However, they are not above going after human food or products, such as paper (which is usually wood pulp or plant fibers), grease, pet food, leather, or rotting meat.
Size and Lifespan
Palmetto bugs range from 1.2 to 1.6 inches long and have a very similar appearance to the Oriental cockroach. They live for approximately one year, with females being slightly longer-lived.
Their dark brown ootheca (egg sacs) are just over half an inch long and contain 21 to 23 eggs. Both males and females are dark brown in color, with both having short forewings and no hind wings.
Only adults are able to use the defensive spray, which takes 60 days to initially build up. Lab experiments have shown it takes 30 days for a fully drained male to rebuild its spray. Oddly enough, the stench isn’t the only telltale sign, as their frass (poop) is surprisingly large for their bodies and may contain undigested fragments of devoured insects.
Why Do Palmetto Bugs Fly At You?
Palmetto bugs aren’t exactly ace fliers. They only have one pair of wings, and these are relatively short. As a result, they may sometimes attempt to use them when in danger, only to end up launching at the threat without any real control.
If you thought stinkbugs fly erratically, you already have an idea of how graceful a palmetto bug is.
Why Do I Have So Many Palmetto Bugs in My House?
One of the biggest bold-faced lies (and we won’t sugarcoat this) is that your home must be dirty if it has an infestation. This claim has been used to torment younger generations for a century or more.
The belief likely originated in the Victorian Era (although we can’t tell you for sure) because of all the unsanitary conditions present in London during that era. Or it could have been an even earlier association with bugs hiding in clutter.
Whatever the case, you DO NOT have a guarantee of avoiding an infestation of bugs – including cockroaches – even if you pass the full white glove test.
Palmetto bugs are cold intolerant and will seek shelter when it gets too cold outside. If you have entry points that haven’t been tended to, they can find their way inside your home.
Once inside, they’ll hide in drains or around leaky or sweaty pipes – anywhere there’s moisture and darkness. The attic and basement are both common infestation points because they’re rarely visited by people.
Keeping your home clean can reduce the chances of spotting them in the common living areas, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t hiding out somewhere else in the house. And since palmetto bugs can live up to three months with no food, they aren’t as likely to venture into the kitchen or other places where food is stored as other roach species.
In this sense, keeping your home clean can reduce potential food scraps as well, which can encourage the bugs to migrate back outdoors as soon as it’s warm enough.
Do Palmetto Bugs Bite Humans?
As with most insect critters, palmetto bugs aren’t looking for a fight. In fact, they’re absolutely terrified of those giant things on two bark-less trees.
But when their defensive spray isn’t enough and you’ve got one cornered, it’s not unheard of for one to bite. The bite itself may leave a red mark that heals on its own, although some people may suffer from allergic reactions.
Palmetto Bug Health Risks
As with other roaches, the palmetto bug can carry a number of diseases and parasites, most notably salmonella and E.coli. Their frass and spray can trigger asthma or other respiratory ailments and can also be disease vectors.
Thus, while the critters themselves are harmless, it’s not a good idea to keep them around.
Getting Rid of Palmetto Bugs
Dealing with palmetto bugs is a three-phase process:
- Eliminate them from the home
- Block entry points
- Evict them from the yard or garden
As the Florida woods roach is primarily an outdoor species, all three steps are necessary to ensure they don’t become a problem once you’ve dealt with this first wave.
Read Also: How to Get Rid of Roaches
Are Palmetto Bugs Hard to Get Rid Of?
Ask a convict if he wants to be in prison, and the answer is (usually) no. Palmetto bugs feel the same way. A human habitat may provide shelter, warmth, and a bit of food, but it’s hardly the Ritz compared to a good woodpile.
Thus, while it’s not exactly a snap to eliminate an infestation, it’s far easier to get rid of palmetto roaches than most other bug pests, including other roach species.
PHASE 1 – Eliminate Them From Your Home
There are three different aspects to eliminating palmetto bugs from the home. The first step is to do a deep clean. Next, you’ll want to create traps that can both draw them out and kill them. Finally, do a follow-up cleaning.
How Should I Deep Clean?
Again, we’re not aiming for the white glove test here. Instead, the goal is to remove potential hiding places as well as removing any palmetto bug droppings so we can later see if any bugs are still hanging out. To clean, focus on:
- Fixing any leaky or sweaty pipes
- Running a dehumidifier in the attic or basement if the levels are high
- Eliminate any standing water (soaking dishes, damp tub or shower, etc.)
- Ensuring there are no crumbs or pet food left lying around.
- Cleaning surfaces, walls, and floors with scented cleaning supplies that repel the roaches
What Scent Keeps Palmetto Bugs Away?
Mothballs can repel a wide range of pests, including palmetto bugs, but may come with their own risks and may not even be legal in your area (check with local laws).
Mixing essential oils with water to make a spray can make a great repellent and air freshener. Some scents that Florida woods roaches hate include eucalyptus, lavender, peppermint, and tea tree oil.
Usually about 15 drops to 10 ounces of water is enough. You can then use this spray in places where it’s tough to clean, such as an opening between the floor and baseboard of a room. You can also use it on fabrics such as upholstered furniture, curtains, and bedsheets.
Citronella and citrus or lemongrass can also be effective, so using lemon-scented Pine-Sol or similar cleaners can cause the palmetto bugs to avoid a room. Use this to your advantage by starting in the attic and basement, then push to the main floor, working your way from the inside of the house towards the outer walls.
Finally, vinegar is both an effective cleaner and a scent palmetto bugs hate, so feel free to mix a strong spray of 1 part white vinegar to 2 parts water. You can even add a few drops of essential oil, if you wish. And the classic combination of vinegar and baking soda is a perfect drain cleaner that can actually kill palmetto bugs.
How Do You Make a Palmetto Bug Trap?
While driving the palmetto bugs out, it’s important to give them a field to die on. You can purchase a quality roach trap such as Raid or Black Flag Roach Motel, but it’s also easy to make some traps of your own. For example:
- Spread food-grade diatomaceous earth where the roaches are known to travel. It’ll cut into the waxy coating on their exoskeleton, causing them to dehydrate to death.
- Mix a little boric acid (such as 20 Mule Team borax) with sugar and sprinkle it behind appliances and along wall cracks. Just be careful not to leave boric acid or borax in reach of children or pets.
- An equal mix of baking soda and sugar can also be an effective natural roach killer. It expands in the bug’s stomach, causing it to burst. However, you may also need to have a small amount of water nearby to speed up this process.
- Vacuum cleaners really suck, but this is a good thing, as a good vacuum can collect both the roaches and their ootheca into an easily emptied bag or canister.
- Finally, one more remedy we just had to mention because it sounds so creative: instant potatoes. This supposedly works the same way as baking soda (note: as this author is Irish, such abuse of potatoes is a cardinal sin, so he cannot personally verify how effective this method is).
Finish up by cleaning your home again a week or so later, checking for any signs of survivors.
Related: Does Borax Effectively Kill Roaches?
What About Insecticides?
- ROACH PROTECTION & PREVENTION: Bengal Gold Roach Spray is a powerful cockroach...
- NO ODOR, NO MESS: The innovative insect killer for your home is a dry aerosol...
- EASY APPLICATION: Spray along baseboards, behind kitchen appliances and under...
You really have to be careful when using insecticides against roaches. Both the American and German cockroaches have a high tolerance to many common insecticides, creating superbugs.
Thankfully, palmetto bugs haven’t reached that level of resistance yet, so using roach sprays like Bengal Gold (best), Raid (good), or bait traps can still be effective. And since they aren’t common home infiltrators, you won’t need to swap out the product as often as with other roaches to prevent a tolerance buildup.
However, as insecticides (and especially roach bombs) can be highly toxic to your entire family, it’s best to use natural remedies unless you’ve already tried everything without success.
PHASE 2 – Preventing Future Infestations
Exclusion is the key to preventing almost every type of pest invasion. However, you may need an additional step or two when it comes to palmetto bugs.
How Do I Keep Palmetto Bugs Out of My House?
Begin by fortifying your home as you would for any other pest. Caulk all cracks and crevasses, around doors and windows and add weather-stripping for a good seal.
You’ll also want to fill any damage to the foundation and seal any holes in the woodwork or crashes in the siding. Make sure your eaves have no gaps, adding fine mesh around vents or other openings in the outer walls. This includes inside your basement and along the outside walls where water pipes or cables come in.
Be warned that the Florida woods roach likes old wood, so you’ll need to check any firewood that you plan to bring inside.
The Neutral Zone
Another good tactic is to create a neutral zone around the house. This is an area six inches to a foot outwards from the foundation where there’s no ground cover or plants.
This dead zone provides no protection for palmetto bugs and other critters, so they’re less likely to try and cross the line.
PHASE 3 – Removing Palmetto Bugs from the Yard or Garden
You’ll never avoid a roach or two wandering into the yard or garden, but a few things can minimize the risk:
- Use neem-based products when tending the garden.
- Try using straw or pine needles instead of mulch.
- Keep the yard free of debris.
- Keep your woodpile or composting area at the far end of the property.
- Consider allowing birds, frogs, geckos (and other lizards), opossums, skunks, snakes, or spiders to have a spot at the edge of your yard where they can hunt the palmetto bugs.
- Likewise, parasitic wasps are a valuable garden ally that loves preying on Florida woods roaches and other common insect pests.