Dr. Betty Faber Studies the Lowly Cockroach and Finds It Both Maligned and 'pretty'
Cockroaches have had a bad press,” complains Dr. Betty Lane Faber. Maybe, but who cares? Faber does. During the past two and a half years, the 34-year-old Ph.D. in entomology has spent more than 600 nighttime hours observing life among the roaches in the greenhouse of New York’s American Museum of Natural History.
“People are revolted but fascinated by cockroaches,” says Faber. “They invest them with characteristics far beyond what they have.” Roaches, Faber has found, are only as dirty as their surroundings: “If you have a clean house, you will have a clean roach.”
Fossil remains prove roaches have been around 100 times longer than man. They were entombed in the pyramids and they plagued Captain Bligh on the Bounty. Furthermore, Faber says, they make excellent research specimens. “They eat anything. They are cheap, easy to raise—and I don’t have to worry about disposing of the body. I just throw it in the garbage.”
Cockroaches operate mostly at night. To watch them, Faber uses invisible infrared light and between observations beds down in her nearby office on a cot. “People think what I do is hilarious,” she says. “But watching roaches is no odder than studying all the concertos somebody wrote between 1614 and 1690. What I do is probably much more sensible.” She began by dissecting roaches in 1967. “It was exciting to see that it wasn’t just mush inside,” she says. “There is an organism, and it’s even pretty.”
To keep tabs on the roaches’ comings and goings, Faber has tagged over 2,000 with numbers on their backs. Contrary to popular belief, Faber has discovered there is not much migration in her little colony—although roach number 411 was found by a museum guard seven flights below in the Theodore Roosevelt Hall. “That’s a cockroach with wanderlust,” says Faber. “But he could have gone downstairs with the garbage in the elevator.”
Faber has found distinct sexual variations in behavior. “After dusk,” she says, “males scurry about for the first hour or so and then take almost sentinel-like positions, sitting motionless for hours at a stretch. The females are out for a much shorter period, looking for water and food.”
In 30 months Faber has seen only two matings, which her roaches accomplish end-to-end, facing in opposite directions. “The pair remain together for 30 to 40 minutes,” she notes. “During courtship, males flap their wings back and run around erratically.”
By early summer Faber, who also teaches general biology two days a week at Columbia University, hopes to submit her findings to a computer. “It would take me much too long to analyze by myself,” she explains. “I can see general behavior patterns, but the computer will help me even more.” (Faber’s basic research could presumably someday lead to better methods of controlling the pests.)
When she isn’t with her roaches, she spends the nights at home north of Princeton, N.J. with her husband, Marcel, a microbial biochemist. Betty is also a talented soprano who studies Mozart arias at lunchtime to relax.
Although she grew up in Biloxi, Miss., which, Faber notes, “is real good for insects,” she found working with roaches unsettling at first: “I used to have nightmares that I was being chased by them.” Then in her dreams her scientific training came to her rescue: “I finally realized, ‘My goodness, they’re only Periplaneta americana.’ ”