The common bed bug, also known as, cimex lectularius is the most disliked of household pests. Infestations are rampant, extermination can be difficult and treatments were sometimes risky to a person’s health. In battling today’s global resurgence of bed bugs, much can be learned from the past.
ANCIENT BEGINNING: Bed bugs have been biting since the beginning of time. Studies suggest they first parasitized bats and then humans, by inhabiting the same caves in the Mediterranean region where civilization began. Bed bugs thrived with the formation of villages and cities. Fossilised bed bugs have been unearthed from archaeological sites dating back more than 3,500 years. During that era the bed bugs were noted as a potion as well. To try to cure common ailment the Greeks and Romans burned them to make leeches loosen their hold. The Egyptians drank them to cure snakebite.
EARLIEST HISTORY AND SPREAD: As civilization grew the bed bugs spread throughout Europe and Asia. They were a noted presence in Italy by 100 A.D., China by 600 A.D., and Germany and France in the 1200s and 1400s. Heat generated from sleeping and cooking fires allowed the bugs to live comfortably both in castles of the wealthy and huts of the working class. Bed bugs were first reported in England in 1583. Soon after, they hitchhiked their way to the Americas with European explorers and settlers. Bed bugs are known to burry away in bags or to attach onto clothing to allow travel. The bed bug resurgence in recent years followed a similar pattern, with infestations in the late 1990s first appearing in such “gateway” cities as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami.
The global lineages of bed bugs can also be traced to their naming. In ancient Rome, bed bugs were called Cimex (meaning “bug”), while the species designation lectularius referred to a bed or couch. Other names once used include wall louse, bed louse, wallpaper flounder, nightriders, red coats and crimson ramblers.
EARLIEST BUSINESS: Methods of managing bed bugs today are modelled to the first European exterminators. Among the most famous were Tiffin and Son of London, who formed a business back in 1690 to exterminate bed bugs for the wealthy. The gas-lit sign over their shop read: “May The Destroyers Of Peace Be Destroyed By Us. Bug-Destroyers To Her Majesty.” Recognising the constant threat of infestation, Tiffin noted: “We do the work by contract, examining the house every year. It’s a precaution to keep the place comfortable as servants are apt to bring bugs in their boxes and clothes.” Tiffin reported finding the most bugs in beds, but cautioned, “If left alone they get numerous, climb about the corners of the ceiling, and colonize anywhere they can.”
Century’s later pest management industry again advocated routine preventive bed bug inspections. Catching infestations early reduces spread into other areas and can lessen liability for some clients. Another of England’s earliest bed bug destroyers was John Southall, who published a 44-page treatise on bed bugs in 1730. The manual contained information on bed bug habits, prevention and control based on his experiences. To limit harborage and simplify treatment, he also suggested that beds be “plain and as free from woodwork as possible.”
1800’S: As noted earlier, bed bugs became abundant in North America with the coming of European settlers. As a deterrent, beds were often made from sassafras wood and the crevices doused with boiling water, arsenic and sulfur. Ships, railroads and hotels afforded ideal accommodations for the bugs. Wise travelers learned to pull beds away from walls and immerse the legs in pans of oil. Many formulas over the years claimed to control bed bugs. These formulas could result in incarceration today. By the mid-1800s, bed bugs had become a particular problem in poor, overcrowded areas with low standards of cleanliness. Wealthy households with an abundance of domestic help discovered that bed bugs could be kept in check with vigorous housecleaning— but the bigger benefit from such efforts was early detection of infestations in their more vulnerable initial stages: “The greatest remedy is cleanliness, and a constant care and vigilance every few days to examine all the crevices and joints, to make sure that none of the pests are hidden away” (USDA Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture, 1875).
More to come!