Two Madagascar hissing cockroaches

Sophomore advertising and public relations major Ellie Pittman shows her two cockroaches during her Insect Biology class inside of the Home Economics Room on East Campus on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

In East Campus’s Home Economics building, students spent the week of Oct. 6 saying goodbye to their pet Madagascar hissing cockroaches they had taken care of as a part of their Insect Biology class.

Students were each given their own cockroach to take home on Tuesday, Sept. 10, and began returning them on Tuesday, Oct. 8. Louise Lynch-O’Brien, an assistant professor of entomology, teaches the lecture part of the course, which also includes a lab. She said the class aims to show students that insects aren’t as bad as they seem at first glance.

Lynch-O’Brien said half of the class’s students are from the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, and the rest are other majors, like elementary education or business. 

She said other entomology courses have students bring in insects or make a pin collection of bugs they catch, but Insect Biology is the only course to have students take home insects provided by the department.

However, some students, like freshman actuarial science major Cristopher Fishback, had no idea taking insects home was part of the course.

“I was a little bit nervous at first,” he said. “And, honestly, I was more worried about what my roommate would think because I was okay with it, but I would [be] sad if he didn’t want it to be there.”

Having the cockroach meant taking responsibility to care for it. Students signed a contract when they brought their new pet home, according to Lynch-O’Brien.

“The other thing about insects is a lot of people don’t consider them as alive or consider them animals, and they are very much alive,” she said. “They need to be fed; they need shelter.” 

If the cockroach dies while in the students’ possession, they are required to bring the insect back with a potential reason why their pet died. But if their cockroach survives, students have the choice to return it or keep it, Lynch-O’Brien said.

While taking care of them, students also made observations of the cockroach, according to Lynch-O’Brien and Fishback.

“I touched it with a piece of napkin or something to see if it would hiss,” Fishback said. “Then I touched it with my finger, and it pretty much hissed every time I touched it with my finger, but it didn’t really notice the piece of napkin.”

Fishback also observed that his cockroach preferred to eat apples over bananas. 

“The observations, questions and hypotheses that the students come up with are fantastic,” Lynch-O’Brien said. 

The Madagascar hissing cockroach is not the only insect students take home for the class. After returning their cockroaches, students receive the egg of a tobacco hornworm to observe as it hatches and grows, according to Lynch-O’Brien and Fishback. 

“The cockroach and the hornworm have been the two traditionally the students have gone home with because they’re easy to care for [and] they’re easy to order online,” Lynch O’Brien said. 

While these two insects have been the go-to since they are easy to care for, the class may start trying different options, which could lead to risks. 

“It’s just hard,” Lynch O’Brien said. “Not all insects are easy to keep. Some of them require a little bit more knowledge or they require more specific habitat conditions.”

Fishback said his view of his cockroach changed after he took care of it.

“I would say I’m not as afraid of that cockroach anymore,” he said. “Those cockroaches don’t have wings, but if it’s one that does have wings, I would probably not mess with it.”

Overall, Lynch-O’Brien said the course tries to teach students that there is more to insects than just being creepy crawlies.

“What I want them to do is when they see an insect just pause instead of immediately smushing it,” she said. “That would be my deep down wish.”