Bed Bug History, DDT, and implications for the future

by nobugsonme on August 25, 2008 · 4 comments

in bed bug research, bed bug treatment, bed bugs, DDT, history, pyrethroid resistance

PCTOnline has a new article out in which Dr. Michael Potter explores bed bug history, and relates past bed bug stories to today’s situation.

The article is enlightening in that it describes how our ancestors, recent and long-past, dealt with bed bugs. Before they came under control (with the widespread use of DDT) in the early fifties, bed bugs were everywhere:

One interesting account from World War I states, “In the East African campaign the bugs invaded the cork lining of the sun helmets of the soldiers. As the helmets were piled together at night, all soon became infested and the soldiers complained of bugs attacking their heads.” (Medical Entomology, 1932). Bed bugs also occupied warships and the nooks and crannies of submarines.

But civilians had even more ingrained bed bug problems:

… bed bugs were common years ago in laundries, dressing rooms, factories and furniture upholstery shops. Theaters had big problems and sometimes had to tear out entire rows of seats and install new ones. Coat rooms and lockers in schools were commonly infested, as is happening again today. All modes of transport including trains, buses, taxicabs and airplanes were spreaders of bed bugs. A 1930s survey of 3,000 moving vans in Sweden found bed bugs on 47 percent, foretelling big concerns for moving and storage companies today. Perhaps most unnerving was that bed bugs used to be common in hospitals — another pattern from the past which has resurfaced in recent years (see “The Business of Bed Bugs,” Pest Management Professional, 2008). Heavy infestations of bed bugs likewise once occurred in poultry houses and were spread via the crates in which birds were shipped or held at market. A similar pattern in poultry production is reappearing today.

What resurfaces again and again above is that in regards to bed bugs in schools, moving and storage companies, hospitals, chicken production: “a similar pattern … is reappearing today.”

The article goes on to examine how treatments for bed bugs have evolved over the years.

Those new to the bed bug problem commonly call for the return of DDT. But the evidence is that this would not be the powerful solution today that it was when it was first released. Today’s bed bugs’ resistance to pyrethroids is mirrored in the resistance bed bugs began to show to DDT as early as 1947!

Failures were first noted in barracks of the Naval Receiving Station at Pearl Harbor in 1947 — only a few years after the product was introduced. During the next 10 years, other cases of DDT resistance were confirmed, and by 1956, the National Pest Control Association was recommending malathion as an alternative.

Other methods followed for sporadic bed bug infestations in the years after DDT came along:

Other products used during the 1950s to 1970s to control occasional infestations of bed bugs included diazinon (when the bugs became resistant to malathion), lindane, chlordane and dichlorvos (DDVP). Mattresses were sprayed and aired as part of the overall treatment. As with DDT, a single application often did the job, provided spraying was thorough. Sporadic recurrences of bed bugs during the 1980s were eliminated with organophosphate or carbamate insecticides, none of which are available today.

Dr. Potter’s words describing the future outlook are nothing if not foreboding:

All of society will be affected as infestations appear in the same places they had before. Besides homes and hotels, watch for them in such places as schools, theaters, and especially health care facilities. Small cities and towns will be spared for awhile but not for long. There will be new challenges this time around including an unprecedented mix and movement of people from across town and across the globe; more bug-friendly belongings and clutter in which to hide; fewer options and more restrictions in respect to fumigation; societal apprehensions about pesticides; and a pervasive feeling today that when someone is harmed they should sue.

Bed bug management will be handicapped until the chemical industry invents a safe, residually potent product with a permissive label. This will not be easy given the priorities and challenges facing our industry partners.

Today, on the downside, we have a much more mobile society, a lot more stuff, fewer chemical treatment options.

The upside is that we now have powerful dry vapor steamers and ziploc bags. Those two factors alone tell me it may be easier in some ways to live with bed bugs these days, but it may actually be harder to get rid of bed bugs.

And there lies the problem: don’t we really want to get rid of them? After all, bed bug bites are every bit as uncomfortable now as they were then.

Your best bet for getting rid of bed bugs is the same today as it was in 1940: thoroughness; Dr. Potter’s footnotes cite the following words of wisdom, from a 1940 pest control manual:


“Thoroughness is the key word and only experience will teach a man how to best find every possible place bed bugs may be harbored. Most operators take the beds completely apart and remove the casters from the bed legs. Dresser drawers are removed, rugs rolled back and pictures taken from the walls. Floor lamps are upturned, moldings pried loose in some cases and books and papers carefully examined…” — Bed Bug Spraying, Pests and Their Control, 1940.

Be sure to read the rest of Dr. Potter’s Lessons from the Past in the current PCTOnline magazine.

And if you want to learn more about current challenges with bed bugs and pesticide resistance, check out this PCTOnline article Insecticide-Resistant Bed Bugs–Implications for the Industry by Alvaro Romero, Michael F. Potter and Kenneth F. Haynes.

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1 Doodlebug August 26, 2008 at 12:02 am

This was a fascinating read – thank you for posting this article. This is something that’s been on my mind a great deal during my current scare: how did people deal with this prior to DDT? I’ve found myself wishing I could talk to my late grandma about this as she worked as a housekeeper prior to WWII.

It sounds like people coped as best as they could with a limited arsenal of tools, but there was also less mobility at that time. People didn’t travel internationally unless they were extremely wealthy. I suspect people didn’t move as much either – once they had a house or apartment, they probably stayed for much longer stretches of time than we do today.

In today’s society many people live in huge McMansions filled with crap, and travel all over the place completely innocent about what could befall them. I forsee big changes in people’s living environments as this epidemic spreads. It’s certainly shaken me to my core: today I was looking longingly at simple metal patio furniture and thought “yeah, I could make it work in my livingroom”!

2 spideyjg August 26, 2008 at 2:30 am

We are going to have to combine the old ideas with modern technology.

Long was it known they were heat sensitive but no good way to apply it except boiling water.

We have sophisticated steamers, dryers, and sealable bags available.

There is no mention in some of the 40’s and 50’s stuff of using DE.

We got that now and it is highly effective.

They tried to seal stuff with soap and paraffin.

We have high tech caulks and other sealants.

In addition to the pesticides we need to combat them with the tried and true techniques of our fore bearers using the latest tools we have.

3 BronxBugged April 26, 2010 at 8:55 pm

finally, a reasonable semblance of middle ground in this convo. we do of course want to get rid of them-=-but is that a reality anytime soon–umm–ever??? no. they love us. absolutely and madly. not sure what this means for society as a “whole”…but ultimately, life didn’t stop then and it won’t stop now.
you can best believe if we ever “eradicate” bb’s, another new breed of bed bug or something else, will crop up with an even uglier head! and we’re so gungho on pesticide. doesn’t seem very promising, either. only a temporary solution to a permanent reality, right??

oh slash and burn, what we w0uldn’t do to bring you back.

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