Creature Control

The History of Bed Bugs



One insect homeowners fear most is the infamous bed bug. Despite the fact that bed bugs do not transmit diseases, they cause panic and trouble wherever they’re found. And they’ve been doing it for thousands of years! Let’s take a quick look at the history of bed bugs.

Early records of bed bugs

Archaeologists have found bed bug fossils at a 3,500 year old site in Egypt, suggesting that these obnoxious insects have been around for thousands of years! During that period, bed bugs were commonly cited as a valuable ingredient in potions against snakebites.

The Greeks and Romans wrote about them frequently, citing their medicinal value.In Pliny’s Natural History (c. 77-79 AD), bed bugs are mentioned as cures for ear infections and lethargy: seven bed bugs in a cup of water for adults and four bugs for the children’s remedy! In ancient Rome they were referred to as “cimex lectularius” and were used to remove leeches. De Materia Medica, a Roman medical treatise, contains instructions for how to prepare “cimices of the bed”. These instructions were to mix the bed bugs in with meat and beans and “swallow it down before the fit as a remedy for sweating sickness.”

Later, we find cases of bed bugs being recorded in 100 A.D. in Italy, 600 A.D. in China, and subsequently spreading throughout Europe and Asia from the 1200’s onward.

Thomas Muffet, an English physician from the 16th century praised bed bug cures as genius. In  his Theatre of Insects or Historie of foure-footed beasts, he cites them for many illnesses, such as constipation, nosebleeds, bedwetting and jaundice, writing “Many English men have learned by experience,” Muffet adds, “that one dram and a half of Sheeps Lice given in drink will soon and certainly cure the Jaundies.”

The belief in the medicinal value of bed bugs persisted into the late 18th century, in which we can see Guettard, a French naturalist and physician, recommended them as a treatment for “hysteria”.

Bed Bugs in America

As for the history of bed bugs in America, there is no real evidence that there is a bed bug of American origin. Lou Sorkin, an insect specialist at the American Museum of Natural History, claims that there is no record of a Native American word for bed bugs–evidence of the fact that they did not struggle with these pests. And although they were recorded as a problem in English colonies, there do not seem to be any records of bed bug issues in Native American tribes and villages.

Bed bugs are believed to have arrived in America on colonist ships from the 18th century. In colonial documents throughout the 1700’s, we find brief mentions of them being a severe problem for English colonies in the United States as well as Canada.

It was common for ships to be absolutely overrun with bed bugs and was one of the many struggles sailors faced on  the sea. Hoping to deter bed bugs from spreading, many ships forbade colonists and passengers from bringing any kind of bedding aboard.

How did they get rid of bed bugs in the old days?

So apart from using bed bugs in potions or remedies, how were bed bugs handled as a nuisance? One effective bed bug treatment known in the old days was sustained heat coupled with vigorous and consistent deep cleaning. They achieved this by building fires in the middle of a room with brimstone and alcohol or peat. They would smoke out (“fumigate”) the room and follow this by intense cleaning. Fumigation  was a method commonly used for hundreds of years for bed bug extermination before insecticides. And although it was decently effective, it left a horrible, acrid stench and would have to be repeated annually.

There were many folk remedies for the prevention of bed bugs. These included soaking the legs of the bed in coal oil or kerosene, hanging hare feet by the bed, and sprinkling pickled cucumber water throughout the room.  Remedies were sometimes as elaborate and strange as “Smoke of cow dung and rotting cucumber and ox scale combined with vinegar”; another asks for “Droppings from a roasted cat with egg yolks and oil to form an ointment which could then be rubbed onto infested furniture.”

Although bed bugs can often be associated with poverty and uncleanliness, these pests made no distinction between rich and poor, afflicting people of every station. However, it was much easier for bed bugs to run rampant in poor communities because of closer residential proximity, the lack of assistance in vigorous domestic cleaning, and the costliness of extermination and the replacement of garments and bedding.

Early bed bug extermination

Despite pests being a big problem for all of human history, records of extermination companies don’t really appear until the late 1600’s. The most prominent of these was Tiffin & Son of London, founded in 1690. Tiffin & Son provided the model for every modern extermination and pest control company of today, their motto reading: “Let us be the destroyers of the destroyer of your peace.” They remain strong to this day. Companies like Tiffin & Son worked by contract and tried to bring awareness to the necessity of frequent pest management practices.

But soon, as technology and research progressed, countries would turn to a strong chemical synthesis in the hopes of permanent bed bug eradication.

Bed bug extermination with DDT

Originally  synthesized in 1874 by the Swiss and Austrian chemists, Othmar Zeidler and Paul Herman Müller, DDT was a colorless and odorless synthetic insecticide. After World War II, it was used to clear cities of mosquito, tick and bed bug infestations.  DDT was highly effective and bed bugs became almost a non-existent issue. In fact, Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1948 “for his discovery of the high efficiency of DDT as a contact poison against several arthropods”.

The decrease in insect populations also led to a massive decrease in malaria and other bug-borne illnesses.  However, there were many concerns on the environmental effect of such a strong insecticide. DDT was detrimental not only to insects, but also to natural wildlife, especially birds. Rachel Carson, an American biologist and conservationist, made these worries evident in her 1962 book, Silent Spring. She expressed the negative effects of the indiscriminate use of powerful insecticides on the wildlife and also to humans. As studies were made and DDT became linked to many different strains of cancer, the United States ban on DDT was put into place in  1972, and most countries using this insecticide did the same. True to Rachel Carson’s worries,  chemical traces of DDT are still found in 99% of people tested by the C.D.C.

DDT remains banned in most of the world. But it is still used as an insecticide in some countries in hopes to combat malaria.

Are bed bugs still a problem?

Throughout the 80’s and 90’s bed bugs seemed like a fear of the past; in the public eye, bed bugs were more a hypothetical fear than a realistic one. But between the DDT ban, a neglect in frequent pest management practices in hotels, a general lack of awareness, and a developed resistance to common pesticides, the American bed bug population is slowly becoming re-established. The U.S. has seen a significant growth in bed bug problems since the late 90’s.

Lack of public awareness has proven to be the most significant factor in the reestablishment of bed bug populations in the recent years. Without a serious worry or awareness of the issue, many people don’t hesitate to pick up furniture off the side of the road, or wash clothing and bedding from second hand stores before using them.

Even when symptoms of bed bugs occur, they can be difficult to diagnose, because bed bug bites are very similar in appearance to poison ivy, scabies, flea bites and allergic reactions.

What should I do about bed bugs?

The best you can do to prevent bed bugs from coming to your home is to be aware and look out for them. Frequent deep cleaning,  washing of bedding and cleaning the floor around and beneath the bed is highly beneficial. Thoroughly wash any second hand items the minute they are brought home. When traveling, try to ensure that your lodging is clean. If you see evidence of bed bugs in your home (small streaks on bedding, black mold-like spots on mattresses, bugs in the corner of the sheets, bites), don’t hesitate to reach out to a pest management company that will be able to identify the problem and take steps to eradicate them as soon as possible.

Are you struggling with bed bugs?

Creature Control has years of experience in handling bed bug infestations! Don’t hesitate to contact us for any of your bed bug struggles! Give us a call at 800-441-1519 or use our online contact form.

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