Why Roaches? While roaches have a terrible reputation, it’s largely undeserved. There are very few species of roach that readily infest human homes; most are tropical species that live in leaf litter. They’re social and exhibit interesting behaviors, and larger species are usually easy to hold. They don’t bite, and despite their reputation they have never been known to transfer diseases to humans, though it is possible to be allergic to them. They’re also pretty easy to keep.
Singles or groups? Roaches are highly social creatures. They’re healthier and longer lived in groups. Some suggest groups of 12 to 40 are healthiest, but roaches also breed like, well, roaches when kept in groups, so starting with a smaller group and even feeding off the small or deformed members of your colony can keep the population healthier.
Housing: Roaches are escape artists. Some species, such as the German cockroach Blattella germanica, can climb smooth surfaces (glass and smooth plastic), and any enclosure they are kept in should have a thick line of petroleum jelly near the top, which they cannot climb (though a few species, such as the Florida Wood Roach Eurycotis floridana have nymphs so small they can climb over it). Even roaches that cannot climb glass, like Madagascar Hissing cockroaches G. portentosa, can climb the bead of silicone in the corners of glass tanks. Tight closing, ideally latching, lids are essential. Roaches can be kept in glass tanks, critter keepers, sweater boxes, altered buckets, or anything else you can alter to be secured. Roaches also need ventilation. While most species are tropical, and they do need humidity, airflow is essential. If mold starts to grow (apart from on uneaten food that you’ve accidentally left in too long) the airflow is likely insufficient.
Lighting: Roaches are nocturnal, and don’t need lighting as part of their life processes, however some of the tropical species are faster breeding, faster growing, and healthier with the availability of a basking light. Females have been recorded placing their abdomens in the basking light while developing their oothicas.
Heating: Most roaches are tropical and need to be kept a little warmer than typical room temperature, generally around 80 degrees. Like with most ectothermic creatures, using heat sources to create a gradient allows animals to choose how warm or cool they want to be. If the entire enclosure is too hot, the roaches could die.
Substrate: Roaches can be kept with no substrate, with newspaper, or more substantial substrate, like cocofiber and peat moss or a mix of organic potting soil and sand. I prefer deeper substrates; many roaches dig to hide and having a substrate means that you can seed it with springtails or dwarf isopods, to help keep the cage clean. Do NOT use high resin wood shavings, such as pine shavings, which are sold as mammal bedding, because they repel insects.
Hides: Roaches are typically kept with cardboard egg crates for hides, but other things can be used, such as clean leaf litter (magnolia leaves work well for larger species). Also include some points of interest, like rocks or logs, which males tend to center their territories around.
Feeding: Roaches will eat just about anything, but feeding a varied diet makes healthier colonies. Dog and cat foods are good sources of protein, as is chick feed; fresh (or nearly fresh) fruits, vegetables, and greens are valuable sources of nutrients. In New York City, Hissing cockroaches are commonly kept in compost bins.
Watering: Roaches need a large shallow water dish, with either a sponge that gets replaces regularly, or pebbles. The dish needs to be easy to climb for species that cannot climb glass. Without the proper precautions, nymphs in particular
are likely to drown. Molting: Like other inverts, roaches are most vulnerable during and directly after molting. Be gentle when handling freshly molted (white) specimens. If a roach mismolts, there is nothing you can do, but adequate humidity helps prevent problems.
Breeding: Most roaches breed readily in captivity. If you have trouble, consider restricting light by using dark colored bins. The darkness was particularly helpful with Giant Cave roaches and Hissers in our colonies.