Rep. Silvio Conte (R-Mass.) is calling for an all-out effort to rid the Capitol of a six-legged creature that's been bugging mankind for something like 350 million years.
Standing on the marble steps of the House of Representatives, Conte announced last week, "I'm taking a page out of the Roosevelt era and creating a new CCC program, it's the 'Conte Crush a Cockroach campaign.' " To get things started, he announced that a firm in his district is contributing 35,000 cockroach traps "to the firm that does the roachbusting for the Capitol Architect."
The 14-term congressman ended his press conference with an appeal for everyone to join the campaign and "squash one for the Gipper."
There hasn't been a roach count in the Capitol lately, but an estimated 2 million cockroaches roam the halls, war rooms and offices of the Pentagon, which pays more than $60,000 a year for extermination services.
We're talking infestation here, and Conte's was only the latest action in the continuing war against cockroaches. A century or so ago, an army of strong men with brooms reportedly tried -- and failed -- to literally sweep back a mass migration of cockroaches who took off from a Washington restaurant for the hallowed halls of the Capitol.
Over the years, countless weapons have been developed to cash in on two-legged creatures' fear and loathing of the roach. Of the at least $2 billion spent each year on pest control, most of it goes for cockroaches.
Meanwhile, not to be pessimistic: Roaches have been around -- in abundance -- for at least 350 million years, give or take a few million. Some paleontologists call the Carboniferous Period, Paleozoic Era, "The Age of the Cockroach."
While no one, of course, knows what the Earth's other inhabitants thought of them then, they haven't always been viewed with total disgust. Pedanis Dioscorides, Nero's army doctor, for example, recommended crushed cockroaches mixed with oil as an earache cure in his 1st-century treatise De Materia Medica.
More recently (last week), American Cyanamid sponsored a breakfast-through-lunch symposium at the Mayflower Hotel titled, "The Roach: An Existential and Biological Enquiry Into the Tempestuous Relationship Between the German Cockroach and the Human Race."
The symposium was packed, even though another hotel, the Capital Hilton, was the site of a presentation by entrepreneur Gary Short of Rancho Mirage, Calif., promoting Roach Musk 7 to "Control Roaches With the Joy of Sex (theirs, not yours)."
Declaring that "It's the smell of sex that will do in roaches," Short claims his roach-control devices contain pheromones (sexual scents) that will attract female cockroaches who -- bearing their egg sacs inside -- will then be shocked, fall into a sticky glue trap and die. At the same time, he claims, the female will give off a scent attractive to Mr. Cockroach, luring him to the same end.
Very unlikely, says New York entomologist and cockroach authority Betty Lane Faber. "I don't believe it, because I know what's been done with the research. I would be very surprised if it worked." Although it is possible to attract roaches to traps with sexual scents, "most of them catch the males," she says, "not the females."
Faber, who studies cockroaches in her research at New York's American Museum of Natural History, points out that the German cockroach, the one that most plagues Americans, isn't even attracted by smell. "The female American the next most troublesome cockroach can reproduce throughout her life without a male, and pheromones don't work very well with the German cockroach because they require tactile . . . they have to touch each other before they get sexually aroused."
Although Faber and fellow entomologist Austin ("I'm a professional roach hunter") Frishman basically don't see what all the fuss is about where just a few cockroaches are concerned, Frishman admits he has seen a single cockroach "drop a $975,000 computer . . . burn it out. They set off smoke detectors. A single roach in an ice cube can cause a restaurant to have great difficulties thereafter."
Frishman's The Cockroach Combat Manual (William Morrow and Co.) is packed with strategies on controlling roaches Among them:
* Danish sailors in the 17th century were rewarded with a bottle of brandy for capturing 1,000 cockroaches. Sailors on one ship managed to catch 32,500 roaches, according to a 1611 Danish navy report.
* Japanese sailors capturing 300 or more cockroaches could qualify for rest-and-recreation breaks under a "Shore Leave for Cockroaches" program in effect as late as 1905.
* In 1965, a beer carton in Lafayette, Ind., was found to contain 6,000 cockroaches. (Their all-time, favorite foods are things like "rising dough or stale beer, yeasty odors, fermentation.")
In his years of work in roach and roach-control research (he was a full professor and biologist at the State University of New York and holds degrees in entomology and structural pest control) Frishman says only once in 15 years ("and this is the time") has something like American Cyanamid's roach-control system come along.
The new product, marketed under the name Combat, contains a chemical -- an amidinohydrazone (for the scientific-minded) -- which is a slow-acting metabolic poison that blocks the cockroach's conversion of oxygen into energy. The result within a few days: death to the cockroach.
Its manufacturers claim the substance -- contained in a child-proof plastic tray -- "has extremely low toxicity for mammals, including humans and most household pets."
Beginning this month, three independent and publicly announced debugging experiments will begin, one at a 300-unit public-housing project in Baltimore. Dr. F.E. Wood, entomology professor at the University of Maryland, and public-housing manager Elaine Howard will direct the program.
Results of that and the other two tests -- in the exclusive Murray Hill section of New York and in student dorms at Texas A & M -- will be made public.