We were grateful to our loathsome guests

My family wasn't thoroughly convinced of the wisdom of my decision to host a family for the summer. We'd previously met some of their relatives at a science fair, but inviting them into our home for several weeks unnerved the men of the house. "What if they escape?" seemed to be the primary concern, along with whether they'd make too much noise or leave a bad odor. As it turned out, they stayed put and stayed clean, hissed only when touched, and made quite interesting and educational guests.

The trio of giant Madagascan hissing cockroaches (or "Mr. and Mrs. C and Baby C," as a relative nicknamed them after overcoming her initial horror) arrived in mid-June. A teacher friend couldn't leave them in her classroom all summer, and her family had no desire to house them. So I volunteered our place. The C family arrived in a clear plastic terrarium with a screened lid and settled onto the butcher block by the big kitchen window adjacent to our terrarium of stick bugs.

As with any new guests, the first question was what to offer in the way of food. Back in the classroom, the insects had subsisted on iceberg lettuce and chunks of chewy dog chow (for protein), but it didn't look to me as though they actually consumed much, if any, of either. Embarrassed to think of them withering away during their stay, we asked ourselves: "What might they find in the forests of Madagascar?"

We presented new food options and watched as they disappeared - or not. We discovered that "the Cs" liked grapes (especially Red Flames), potatoes, barley bread (but not sourdough), and goldfish food flakes (an easier-to-eat replacement for the oversized dog kibble). Lettuce was better to hide in than to eat, but it did provide another source of water.

Surprisingly to me (who assumed roaches were voracious eaters given their negative reputation), the Cs didn't eat much. Most days they appeared to have only daintily nibbled on the buffet we'd set out for them in a yogurt cup lid. But some days (evenings, actually - when they're more active) they'd gobble away as if they'd been fasting for weeks.

And then we noticed that Baby C was growing.

The adult Cs were about two inches long and three-quarters of an inch across. The baby, which had been about an inch long when it arrived, appeared to be lengthening. But we hadn't seen any left-behind exoskeletons lying about (like the ones we'd found in the stick-bug terrarium), so we weren't sure how they had transitioned to larger skins.

Then late one afternoon, I was horrified to find a huge milky white larval-looking creature in the terrarium with the roaches. Perhaps Mrs. C had hatched an egg? Maybe some mutant worm had gotten into their home?

But after a few minutes of watching the "creature," I noticed it was starting to tan. It was Baby C, burst out of his old skin. What appeared to be the small roach was just his old exoskeleton (surreptitiously split underneath).

Within a couple of hours, his new exoskeleton had darkened to the normal reddish brown. Baby C was back to his old self - though slightly larger than before. Figuring the Cs must have made a snack of previous discarded shells, I left this one in the terrarium. Sure enough, it was gone by morning, its nutrients efficiently recycled.

Researching hissing cockroaches later on the Web, I learned that they normally shed their outer skins seven times as they grow to adulthood. It surprised me that with the wonderful fresh diet and controlled climate Mrs. C wasn't laying eggs. It surprised me, that is, until I found about 18 tiny cockroaches in the terrarium one morning. Where had they come from? From another quick Internet search I discovered that female hissing cockroaches give live birth after incubating their eggs inside their bodies. We were definitely learning a lot about these ancient insects and how they'd survived for millenniums, but the most poignant lesson was yet to come.

The summer was rapidly drawing to a close when the new Cs were born, and I thought it would be fascinating to keep a few of the babies to watch them grow through the seven stages after I returned the other cockroaches to the classroom. I carefully transferred several small roaches into another terrarium, arranged a fresh buffet, and parked their new home alongside the first terrarium.

But a few days later, I noticed that the separated roaches were significantly smaller than their siblings still living with the parents. I felt terrible. It appeared that the ones I'd moved were not eating and spent most of their days clinging to the wall nearest to Mom and Dad. I was startled to realize that cockroaches were social creatures. We quickly moved the babies back with their family. It was better that they were content than that we got to watch them grow.

When the summer visit was over, we said goodbye to the C family with gratitude and regret; regret that they had to go and that we might have caused them discomfort, and gratitude for all we'd learned from these quiet but oft-maligned creatures. We hoped their experience with us had been as unexpectedly pleasant as ours had been with them.

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