History of Bed Bugs

There really is something to the old adage that “knowledge is power.”   Anyone who has lived through a bed bug infestation – or who is dealing with one right now – will be able to appreciate that knowing and understanding more about these largely nocturnal creatures brings a certain confidence and peace of mind to dealing with the situation.  Without a high level of information, those with a bed bug infestation can often feel like they are a helpless victim of these insects, unable to fight back or take proactive steps to prevent a future infestation.  Armed with a high degree of knowledge, however, these same individuals can approach the situation fully secure in the idea that they will be able to get past the problem and enjoy a bed bug free environment once again.

To learn more about these pesky critters, therefore, so you can approach your infestation with confidence, read on.

A Brief History of Bed Bugs

Knowing the history of bed bug infestations can certainly help you feel less alone as you deal with your own.  This is because people since the dawn of history have had to deal with bed bugs.  Contrary to an infestation in your home somehow meaning that you are a bad housekeeper or having implications regarding your social status or any other factor, it instead merely means that you are human and like humans throughout recorded time, you are not immune to the need to deal with bed bugs in some way, shape, or form.

Early Historical References to Bed Bugs

Bed bugs are officially considered to be members of the species known by the scientific name of Cimex lectularius.  This variety of insect is believed to have originated in the Middle East; scientists think that iat this stage in history it lived in caves, feeding on both humans and bats since these caves were actually inhabited by both species at various times.  Indeed, this early history of the bed bug is quite instructive in that it clears up a major myth still commonly believed to this day: contrary to popular belief, bed bugs can indeed live and thrive on the blood of warm blooded animals.  They do not exclusively subsist on humans alone.

Technically, these early bed bugs existed during the era known as “pre-history;” history is characterized as beginning only when human beings began to develop writing systems.  Although bed bugs may well have been mentioned by ancient civilizations such as the Phoenicians, Babylonians, or Assyrians, no written record of them has survived.  This is hardly surprising since far more than 99% of all ancient writings have long since crumbled to dust or vanished in some other way.

Mentions of bed bugs, however, do occur in ancient writings are early as 400 BCE.  We know this because ancient Greek writers comment on their occurrence.  Indeed, such a luminary as Aristotle himself, widely regarded as the pinnacle of ancient Greek philosophers mentions these small blood-drinking creatures.  By the later part of the first century after Christ, people had begun to speculate on the uses to which these insects might be put, beginning a tradition of seeing them not exclusively as a pest but as a possible source of medicinal treatments.  The Natural History, written by Pliny and published as early as 77 CE contains speculations as to the usefulness of bed bugs in treating a variety of complaints including ear infections and snake bites.

This tendency to suspect that bed bugs may have medicinal value was to persist down through the centuries, though the last such mention in the West was during the 18th century when writings by a man named Guettard insisted that bed bugs could be put to use in treating hysteria.

 

Bed Bugs During the Middle Ages

Bed bugs were prevalent across Europe during the Middle Ages.  Written records attest to them being present in Germany as early as the 11th century and in France by the 13th century, though it is highly probably that they were widespread far earlier since writings from this era have also tended to disappear rather than survive.  The earliest mention of bed bugs in England dates from the late 1580s.  By less than a century later, the insects were widespread.

No one quite knows for certain how bed bugs made it across the English channel to reach the British Isles; the isolation of England, Scotland, and Wales from Continental Europe did mean that the insects were to arrive far later in time.  During the 18th century, many people in England believed that bed bugs had arrived as a result of the Great Fire of London, which swept the capital in 1666, destroying a large part of the city during the reign of Charles II.  In order to rebuild, vast supplies of wood were needed; people in the 18th century thought that the bed bugs probably came over as an infestation on these wood supplies.  This is certainly possible; today it is well-known that bed bugs can invest any manner of hard material as long as that material provides them with nooks and crannies in which to hide during the day.  Bed bugs, it seems, like to be snug and cozy in their little hidey-holes.

Bed bugs are also known to have existed in Eastern Europe for centuries.  The scholar Giovanni Antonio Scopoli wrote about infestations in the region of Carniola, which occupied the same land area as today’s modern nation of Slovenia.  Until the end of the Cold War, modern maps noted this land as belonging to Yugoslavia.

Historical Methods of Dealing with Infestations

People during historical times were just as interested in eliminating bed bugs as are human beings today.  Several traditional methods emerged to help ward off infestations or deal with ones that were already in progress.  In general, these methods depended on the application of some kind of countering agent, though the agents themselves varied widely and encompassed native and exotic plants as well as varieties of fungi.  Even other kinds of insects were tried in an effort to get rid of bed bugs.

Indeed, the list of possible bed bug counteragents is considerable.  The sheer length of it reflects the fact that during phases of history people were trying literally all sorts of things in an effort to free themselves and their domiciles from bed bugs.  The following is merely a partial list of  remedies tried in different times and places:

  • black pepper
  • black cohosh
  • eucalyptus oil
  • henna
  • tobacco
  • narrow-leafed pepperword
  • bayberry
  • wild mint
  • heated oil of Terebinthina, also known as authentic turpentine
  • geraniums
  • bugbane
  • cannabis leave and seeds
  • cranberry bush berries
  • masked hunter bugs

Smoke as a Bed Bug Extermination Method

Some extermination methods took a different approach entirely and relied more on the application technique than on the substance of what was being applied.  For example, during the mid-1800s, it was believed that an effective method to rid a home of bed bugs was to “smoke” them out.  This belief likely originated because smoke, unlike the counteragents listed above, is much more capable of permeating through cloth.  The smoke from fires fueled with peat was considered best for this purpose, though records are unclear as to what extent the “smoke treatment” produced the results desired.

Dust as a Bed Bug Retardant

Other historical traditions held that certain kinds of dust could keep bed bugs from infesting grain storage facilities.  Dust in this context does not mean ordinary household dust, which is basically a combination of powdered dirt and flakes of skin.  Instead, farmers recommended dust made of lime, dolomite, plant ash, or certain kinds of soil such as diatomaceous earth.

Interestingly, the last “dust” listed has enjoyed a modern revival of sorts.  Diatomaceous earth is seen as a non-toxic way to perform bed bug abatement.  The dust, however, must be applied in amorphous form and the home owners must exercise some patience since this technique is relatively slow, requiring several days or sometimes even longer before bed bugs exposed to the diatomaceous earth begin to perish in large numbers.

Physical Barrier Methods During History

Another approach entirely was based on the belief that you could probably not exterminate bed bugs effectively enough for the effort to be sufficient.  Instead, you could accept that bed bugs were in your home but try to physically block them from taking up residence in the bed itself.  These physical barrier methods relied on providing bed bugs with alternate habitations they would find it difficult to traverse.  They therefore became a sort of trap in a sense.

Physical barrier methods in France, England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland during the 1800s included placing panels made of basket-work around the perimeter of beds each evening.  These would be shaken out each morning, dislodging the bed bugs that had accumulated during the night.  Another method involved using plants whose leaves are coated with microscopic hairy hooks.  These would be scattered around a bed each evening; in the morning the leaves would be swept up and incinerated, killing all the bugs that were trapped in the hairs.  This method was prevalent in both Africa and eastern Europe as evidence suggests it was in use in both the Balkan region and in the south of Zimbabwe.

The latter evidence, of course, points to the fact that bed bugs during this era were not an exclusively European problem.  Instead, the insects tended to exist wherever human beings lived.

Bed Bugs in the Modern Age

Bed bugs remained a very common problem up through the middle of the 20th century.  This indicates one simple fact: all of the extermination, prevention, and retardation methods in use through this time were largely ineffective.  In fact, the United Kingdom Ministry of Health indicated during the 1930s that in many areas of the nation, every single house in the district had a bed bug infestation to some degree.  It is therefore clear that bed bugs were, not to put too fine a face on it, a universal problem up through the middle of the 1900s.

Bed bugs continued to be a serious problem through at least 1945 as evidenced by General Douglas MacArthur’s statement that the insects were a great nuisance at many U.S.  bases.

 

Pesticides: A New Era

New developments in chemistry meant that new, much more powerful pesticides were invented.  These could be brought to bear against bed bug infestations and unlike earlier, largely ineffective methods, were something of a “miracle cure.”  The most famous of this new line of pesticides was DDT, which began to be used in widespread application in the late 1940s and continued in use for several decades.

Thanks largely to powerful chemical pesticides such as DDT, bed bugs were all but extinguished in most Western nations including the United States and the western half of Europe.  Over time, however, Western countries began to understand that DDT had effects far in excess of merely exterminating bed bugs and other common insect infestations.  DDT also tended to weaken the shells of bird eggs, resulting in a high death rate and a correspondingly low rate of reproduction for many species of birds.  The early environmentalist Rachel Carson identified this as a serious issue in her book Silent Spring, which predicted that in a relatively short time, many species of bird would become extinct, resulting in spring seasons that were devoid of birdsong.

Largely in response to Carson’s book, DDT and several other serious insecticide chemicals were banned from use in the United States and in many Western European nations.  This did have the effect of restoring many bird species to health and vigor.  On the other hand, it also had the effect of allowing bed bug infestations to gradually begin a comeback since now, the most successful and powerful abatement method known has been banned.

Other factors are also believed to have contributed to the resurgence of bed bug infestations in America and Europe.  Because DDT had been so successful, people grew rather complacent about the likelihood of bringing home a bed bug infestation after staying in a hotel, motel, or hostel.  An increased incidence of international travel has only tended to exacerbate this issue.  With lower transportation costs and particularly much lower prices for international air travel prevalent since the 1980s, many more Americans and Europeans are voyaging to nations where bed bugs were never truly eradicated at all.  They may acquire bed bugs while abroad, with the pests climbing into their luggage and taking up residence in the seams of clothes.  Once the voyagers return home, the bugs emerge from the clothing to infest beds, furniture, and even carpeting at times.

Bed Bugs Today

America is now a place where bed bug infestations occur on quite a common scale.  As a result, an entire industry has sprung up to allow for the prevention or elimination of these infestations.  State governments have also developed systems for reporting that help authorities to investigate the growth and spread of such infestations.  Despite this, bed bugs are not truly considered a public health hazard in the same sense that other insects can be; bed bugs are not known to transmit or spread any diseases, communicable or otherwise.

Even so, an infestation can be an exercise in unpleasantness, with the bugs emerging during the dark to bite sleeping humans.  A bad infestation can result in waking up with dozens of bites that itch and ache.  Those who are allergic to the secretions injected by the bed bug – secretions which make the blood flow


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