Affectionately known as "Hissers", these cockroaches are particularly distinct in that they cannot fly, and as the name suggests, they have the ability to produce a surprisingly loud hissing sound which is primarily used to ward off predators. Unlike other noise-producing insects like a cricket or grasshopper, Madagascar hissing cockroaches do not produce sound by rubbing body parts together but instead are able to produce this curious noise by forcing air out of a pair of modified spiracles (breathing tubes).
Madagascar hissing cockroaches also display sexual dimorphism; the males have longer, thicker antenna than the females while also sporting two raised nodules on their prothorax (the part of the insect that holds the front legs). It's interesting to note that the females also have these nodules, but they are significantly smaller and smoother - you probably wouldn't know they were there unless you looked for them; the males will butt heads using these nodules when fighting for a mate, similarly to stags using their antlers.
I absolutely love this species - they are magnificent to look at, quirky by nature, hilarious in their antics and simply a delightful testimony to God's creativity and sense of humour. If you want to learn how to take care of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, this is the page for you! To view extended information on each topic highlighted below, please click on the topic name; to hide the info, simply click it again.
In their natural habitat, Madagascar hissing cockroaches are decomposers, so they eat a variety of decaying organic matter. Fruits such as banana and apple, and vegetables such as carrot tend to go down well but should only be given in small pieces and occasionally, not with each feed (due to fermentation gasses that can build up inside the cockroach, which can be harmful).
It's best to give your cockroaches a steady, daily diet of dried foods such as oats, muesli, bran, dried cat or dog biscuits and/or dried fish pellets/flakes; to be honest, most dried pet foods should be a good staple diet, with the occasional bit of fresh fruit and veg and wet cat/dog food.
Please remove and refresh food regularly to stop mould and fungus taking hold; you can reduce the rate at which this happens by keeping your cockroach's food in a dish, and cleaning the dish once a week. Cockroaches don't eat very often, but when they do they can clean a small reptile dish's worth of food in a matter of a couple of hours, so it's important to always have food available.
As for water, Madagascar hissing cockroaches usually get all the moisture they need from their food, but it is good to supplement this either with a small dish of water (with a piece of sponge sat in there to stop smaller cockroaches from drowning), or by spraying their enclosure with plain water using a plant mister a couple of times a week.
Breeding Madagascar hissing cockroaches is a simple matter of placing a male and female together and waiting. Unlike most insect species, these cockroaches appear to give birth to live young; what actually happens, however, is the females produce an egg sack (known as an "ootheca") which they then incubate inside themselves for a minimum of sixty days. (Gloria incubated her last ootheca for nearly four months.)
These insects are highly prolific breeders and a female will produce as many as thirty nymphs (baby cockroaches) each time she gives birth; thankfully Madagascar hissing cockroaches are not cannibalistic, and in their natural environment this species is communal, so it is safe and beneficial to keep multiple individuals of varying ages and genders together. Nymphs can and will eat whatever is available.
It is important to note that this species will breed with close relatives and does not discriminate, so it's good to introduce new bloodlines into a colony if you plan to breed often.
Cockroaches grow in stages by shedding their outer skin (the "exoskeleton") in a process known as "moulting"; this species moults six times before reaching adulthood, at about five to six months of age, at this point a cockroach will become sexually mature. Once adult, a cockroach will not moult any further.
When a cockroach moults, a split forms down the back of its current skin and the insect literally walks out of it, after which it will be bright white for a number of hours while the new outer skin hardens, although its eyes will remain dark. It's important not to handle a newly moulted cockroach until its skin hardens as damage can be caused otherwise.
Each individual will be slightly different in size and colouring, even if they are all related. On average, a newly born Madagascar hissing cockroach will be less than 1cm in length, and adult cockroaches are usually between 5 and 8 cm long (not including antenna).
As they hail from Madagascar, these cockroaches need a warmer and more humid environment than most houses provide year-round. To be kept healthy and happy, temperatures in their enclosure should be kept between 22-26°C (72-79°F), with humidity between 50-70% if possible.
If temperatures drop too low, your cockroaches may become dangerously slow and lethargic, which will affect their overall health, likewise if the temperature is on the higher end of their preferred range, they'll be more active, grow and breed faster but live shorter as it increases their metabolism.
To keep humidity at a decent level, you can use substrate in your enclosure such as coconut fibre/husk ("coir") or other fertilizer and pesticide free soil; it's also important to spray your enclosure with plain water a couple of times a week using a plant mister, this will both help with maintaining humidity and also give your cockroaches water to drink.
It's incredibly important to provide at least one hiding place for your cockroaches as they do not like the light and prefer to chill out together in piles, hiding in tiny crevices; you can use wood or bark (please make sure it comes from a pesticide free source) as well as artificial ornaments and plants. If you want to plant any live plants in your enclosure, please make sure they are non-toxic and keep in mind that they will eventually get eaten.
Your Madagascar hissing cockroach enclosure will need cleaning out regularly to keep the inhabitants healthy; the more cockroaches you have, the more frequently you'll need to clean your enclosure out. To clean the enclosure out, simply remove the insects, empty the tank of its old substrate and re-fill it; you can also wash down the sides of the tank with plain water and rinse off anything inside if you wish (do not use soap). If you have lots of cockroaches, it's advised to do at least a partial clean (take out the top layer of soil) once a week, but if you only have two or three in a fairly large enclosure, once a month should suffice.
It's highly likely that your cockroaches will have mites crawling on them; there is some debate as to exactly what these are and what their purpose is, but most sources state that these are harmless (unless in abnormally high numbers, which results from lack of husbandry) and can actually prove beneficial as they supposedly help to keep the cockroaches clean. For the most part, the mites will simply use your cockroaches as busses, going from one food source to another. You can reduce the numbers of these mites by keeping the enclosure clean and removing old food frequently.
If you use natural wood and bark and/or organic soil (such as coconut fibre or other soils) in your cockroach enclosure, you are highly likely to encounter tiny creatures known as springtails; these are 1-2mm long, grey-ish in colour and will jump similarly to a flea if disturbed - they are also completely harmless. Like cockroaches, springtails are decomposers and are actually highly beneficial in an enclosure as they help to break down organic waste and reduce mould.
The size of enclosure you'll need will depend upon how many cockroaches you will be keeping as well as their age and genders; males like to have territories to defend so enough space for them to do this is important, and if you want to breed your insects you need to make sure the babies have plenty of room as well.
There is some debate as to the actual size enclosure you'll need, but a common favourite is a 10-15gallon aquarium for multiple cockroaches of mixed genders; I use a 30x30x30cm (12x12x12in) glass vivarium for my trio of males, although I have also used a 38x23x19cm (L/D/H) heated propagator successfully. You'll find these cockroaches prefer more length and depth than height, so it is better to avoid something too tall.
Your enclosure needs to have a tight fitting lid that the cockroaches cannot lift up and squeeze out of (they are very strong and can squeeze through surprisingly tiny gaps); please also be aware that Madagascar hissing cockroaches have specially designed feet that allow them to climb on most surfaces with great speed and efficiency!
For in-depth information on the kinds of enclosures you could use for your cockroaches please see the "Enclosure style" section.
There are a few different choices you can use for housing your Madagascar hissing cockroaches from plastic tanks to speciality ones, each has its own merits and draw-backs which have been explained a little below.
Plastic tanks are lightweight, cheap and readily available in a variety of sizes and shapes; they are usually fairly easy to clean and keep secure as most have clip-on lids with adequate ventilation built in. They have two major draw-backs: 1) they scratch fairly easily which can look rather awful and 2) they cannot be heated safely using a reptile heating pad due to the warping and the potential for dangerous gasses being released.
It's useful to have a small plastic tank to hand to keep your cockroaches in while you clean out their main enclosure, but unless you plan to move them into a heated enclosure during the colder months of the year, or keep your house heated above 20°C during winter (or have a heated reptile room), they don't make good long-term enclosures.
While heavier and typically more expensive than plastic tanks, glass tanks do not scratch as easily and can be safely heated using reptile heating pads. The biggest draw-back for glass tanks is usually their sheer weight, which can make them a bit tricky to clean out unless you don't mind having to bend over the tank itself.
Another problem you might find with a glass tank is that it may not be not sold with a suitable lid; these tanks are usually used as aquariums and therefore either have a glass or plastic sheet or metal hood sold with them as the lid, many aquariums don't have any lids sold with them at all. It is entirely possible to create a lid for a glass tank using wood and mesh, or some other means, so this isn't usually a big deal but it's something worth considering.
To be honest, my favourite enclosure for Madagascar hissing cockroaches has to be a heated propagator; they aren't overly expensive, they are cheap to heat, easy to clean out and not very heavy, they also offer lots of roaming space for your cockroaches as they are rectangular and have a wide, open lid, allowing for cork bark to be stacked high to offer lots of hiding spaces. Of course, they don't have a clip on lid so if you do go for one of these you'll need some bulldog clips to secure the lid to the base, otherwise the cockroaches will be able to push their way out (I've had this happen). There are two major draw-backs to using heated propagators that I'd like to expand upon a bit:
1) Ventilation: the ventilation in the lid of most heated propagators is very sparse and can cause excess humidity and encourage mould, this can be resolved by cutting into the lid and expanding the provided vents, then covering those with mesh to prevent escapees. The ease at which you can cut into the plastic lid depends solely upon the type of plastic being used, some can be cut using scissors, others with a sharp Stanley knife; it should be possible to enlarge the vents of most heated propagators, but caution must be exercised.
2) Noise: the biggest reason I stopped using my heated propagators was the noise caused by my cockroaches burrowing and scratching against the plastic base; the base tends to be made of a kind of plastic that, when scratched on, is surprisingly loud and grating, I have tried to think of ways to smooth down the plastic to stop the noise being so loud, and have also tried blocking off the corners using pebbles (corners are a favourite for burrowing), but have not had any success. I'm sure that there are ways you can reduce or mute the noise entirely but I haven't been able to do it successfully yet myself.
Costly but usually well-made, secure and sturdy, reptile vivariums are a fantastic choice for Madagascar hissing cockroaches; many can be purchased with locking lids and doors, and are usually made of good quality acrylic or glass. These are typically designed to see a great deal of use at the hands of the inhabitants (reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates etc.), and often offer fantastic ventilation. There are a wide variety of sizes and shapes available, with long, rectangular ones being a favourite for cockroaches.
Because of their specialist nature, the biggest draw-back of using a reptile vivarium is the sheer price; a 30x30x30cm (12x12x12inch) enclosure can cost upwards of £30 new, but when treated right these enclosures will last for many years. The other potential draw-back is the weight, as most are made of glass (which is safe to heat using a reptile heating pad), but they often have more than one way to access inside the enclosure, which makes cleaning it out a lot easier and simpler.
Lightweight, readily available in a wide variety of sizes and cheap, a clear plastic storage box can provide a good home for your Madagascar hissing cockroaches, as long as the lid is modified to allow for ventilation. These aren't the prettiest things on the planet, but they are great if you are on a tight budget, you can also buy under bed storage boxes which are even better as they have a larger footprint which gives your cockroaches much more space to roam. Unfortunately, they cannot be heated using a reptile heating pad as they are usually made of a cheap plastic which can warp or release dangerous chemicals if heated above a certain temperature.
Setting up an enclosure for a Madagascar hissing cockroach can get very expensive if you don't do research, but it honestly does not need to be all that costly; the largest expense for you will likely be the enclosure itself. I've put together a list of things you'll need for your set up, including estimated costs and recommendations.
* Enclosure (£10 - £30+) (recommended: heated propagator)
* Food & water dishes (£1 - £5) (recommended: old jam jar or small tupperware lids)
* Substrate (£2 - £5) (recommended: recycled coconut fibre/coir/husk, aka "eco earth")
* Hiding places (£1 - £10) (recommended: pieces of cork bark or, if on tight budget, clean mugs)
* External heat source (£7 - 15) (recommended: only for glass tanks, not needed if using heated propagator)
It's useful to have a temporary enclosure that you can keep your cockroaches in while cleaning their main one out to stop them escaping, this can be something as simple as a ventilated tupperware; I've also found a soil scoop to be an incredible asset as removing old soil from an enclosure with a spoon is a bit time consuming.
Your set up really does not need to cost the earth, as long as you have a decent enclosure and somewhere for your cockroaches to hide, you can "make do" and buy in bits and pieces over time.
Madagascar hissing cockroaches make fantastic pets for children because of their size and robust nature, they are also typically very docile (though this depends upon the individual cockroach). They do not bite or sting, although if highly upset and aggressive they can cause slight scratching as they have barbs on their back legs for defensive purposes.
Handling one of these beautiful cockroaches is very simple; typically it is better to allow the cockroach to climb onto your hand of its own accord or to gently encourage it by lightly tapping its back end (be warned that the insect may hiss in protest but this is nothing to worry about!). Adult cockroaches are usually best for handling because they are significantly slower than the nymphs.
Please be aware that cockroaches have tiny claws on each foot which don't hurt, but can feel funny as they tuck under the very top layer of skin on your hand or arm for support. Because of these claws, it's really important not to try to forcefully pull a cockroach if it is firmly attached to something as this can severely damage the insect's feet and limbs. Patience is crucial!