Carlos Rivera of Ikill Pest Control treats a home for American roaches in Pasadena. (Blair Wells/KQED )
Cockroaches are the houseguests that Tim Price and his wife, Diane, never wanted. Residents of Pasadena for 43 years, they thought they'd seen everything they were going to see on their property and in their house from the insect kingdom.
That is, until they encountered what Price calls the "king of all roaches."
"We didn't know if it was a cricket or some other type of varmint," admits Price. "It was brown in color. It kind of looked like it had wings. And then we discovered it was a roach."
Pointing to a small opening underneath his bathroom sink, he shows evidence of the intruder.
"See that black mark there," he says. "That's what's made by them. Those are their droppings."
Perhaps the most unwanted of insects in anyone's home, Price had not received a visit from any ordinary cockroach. This was the American cockroach -- a squeamishly unattractive bug that can grow more than 3 inches long and turn any normal night in front of the TV into Roach Watch. And these guys don't always show up alone.
"I've caught a total of seven of them altogether," Price says, with a serious look on his face. "Two, we were humanely responsible for them living. The others went to the happy bug ground in the sky."
So why now? What's happening in Price's little corner of Pasadena that sparked his first in-home roach encounter and new exterminator duties?
"It has to do with the dryness," says Carlos Rivera, owner/operator of Ikill Pest Control in Pasadena. "They're looking for water sources, so they're coming up in the dark and trying to find moist areas to repopulate."
That's right. Our history-making drought strikes again. As California's front lawns brown, dry tree limbs fall on city streets and neighbors scramble to water their yards by the light of the moon during a state-mandated Phase 2 water restriction, these cockroaches are now cruising residential streets for their next meal and a drink.
"They could be feeding from crumbs that you drop while you're cooking dinner, from the trashcan or as simple as water leaking from a drainpipe," says Rivera. "But they find a source, and they make a home in your home."
Rivera says exterminators up and down the state are seeing the largest influx of the bigger roaches that they've seen in decades. And it's keeping them busy.
All true, according to Dr. Richard Kaae, an entomologist who has been teaching at Cal Poly Pomona for more than 30 years.
"In California, we have four major roaches," says Kaae. "You have the German roach and the brown-banded roach. Then there's the Oriental cockroach and the American cockroach -- both which are bigger roaches and they're mainly outdoor species."
The American roach is found mostly in water pipes and sewers -- sometimes in numbers that would boggle the mind, says Kaae -- unlike the German cockroach, its smaller but more worrisome buggy brethren, which can infest restaurants, hotels or aging residences.
"In some of the sewers of L.A., they've opened them up and found the American roaches -- almost looked like the walls were moving," Kaae says with a wry smile. "Nobody ever counted them, but you can get big numbers of them if the conditions are right."
And since the conditions below ground are not right after four years of drought, up come the usually outdoorsy American roaches into the world above, and straight toward homes -- like the Prices'. It's a matter of nature and survival.
"Half of insects eat other insects. Half of them are predators. So with dry conditions, the plant feeders aren't going to have plants and the predators aren't going to have anything to eat," Kaae says. "So it affects everything. Affects the whole ecosystem."
But he says not to worry too much about what he calls "the poor, poor roaches."
"Both the Oriental and the American roaches aren't home dwellers. They don't want to be inside your home," he says. "You might get a stray in there, but it's not a big deal."
Not a big deal for some. But Kaae admits that roaches are not on most people's list of acceptable house bugs.
"Most people don't appreciate roaches," he says.
Exterminator Rivera agrees. And it's not just the fear factor of an ugly 3-inch insect darting across the kitchen floor. There's a potential health consideration, too.
"In the sewer systems, they're picking up disease and bacteria on their body," says Rivera. "And when they come in and around your structure -- it's spreading 'em."
So what to do?
The drought once again is forcing Californians to do something they may never have had to do before, Tim Price included.
"I captured them by the quickest of methods, called a tissue paper," Price confirms. "And then I send them to a watery grave."
El Niño, we -- and the roaches -- are ready when you are.