You’re familiar with the 2008 PCT article “Lessons from the Past,” in which Dr. Michael F. Potter explores the history of the bed bug problem, and human attempts to fight the beasts.
Now, American Entomologist has published a new article in which Dr. Potter builds and expands on that foundation: “The History of Bed Bug Management with Lessons from the Past” (Spring 2011). This article is impressive and far more comprehensive than the article from 2008. Michael Potter is an extension professor and urban entomologist at the University of Kentucky, and one of the foremost contemporary experts on bed bugs.
The fascinating historical images of bed bug-fighting tools and ads for products alone are worth the price of admission — or would be, if there was one. Much to our joy, the Entomological Society of America (ESA) is allowing the article to be downloaded for free, for a limited time only, from their website.
Some points you may or may not be familiar with:
- Experts believe the bugs initially fed on bats and then started feeding on humans who lived in Mediterranean caves. Bed bugs have been found in 3500 year old archaeological sites. The pest was “first reported in England in 1583,” and then bed bugs hitchhiked their way to the Americas aboard ships (14).
- Exterminators were battling bed bugs at least as far back as 1690, when Tiffin and Son of London set up a business to fight bed bugs for the nobility, and presumably anyone else who could afford it (15).
- Potter notes that “Bed bugs received a big reproductive boost in the early 1900s, when central heating of buildings became common.” They “had previously followed a more seasonal trend,” but heated buildings allowed bed bugs to thrive year-round (16).
- By the 1930s and 1940s in Europe, it was estimated that one-third of dwellings in major cities had bed bugs, and “half the population of Greater London encountered them at some point during the year” (16).
- In the 1930s, rigorous procedures were followed to help families avoid moving bed bugs from one home to the next. As Potter says, “In England, families were taken to bed bug ‘cleansing stations,’ where their clothing and bedding were passed through a steam disinfector;” and in Sweden, families lived in tents while homes were fumigated for bed bugs (17).
- Also in the 1930s, the Scottish Department of Health employed what became known as “The Glasgow System,” in which new tenants were visited by inspectors who screened the home for bed bugs and educated the tenants about how to avoid them and detect them. The tenants were visited once a month for three months “to ensure that no bed bugs were introduced and preventive measures were proceeding satisfactorily” (17).
- “In the 1930s, a survey of 3,000 moving vans in Stockholm, Sweden found bed bugs on 47% of the vans inspected, foretelling big concerns for moving and storage companies today” (18). Infested theaters, barracks, restaurants, coat rooms, public transportation, and laundries are, not surprisingly, also nothing new.
- In days gone by, as now, heat was identified as an effective bed bug killer. A steaming device for killing bed bugs was patented in 1873 by C.L. Fewell, though some used more extreme methods. According to Potter, the War Department noted in 1940 that “Flaming the cracks of steel cots with a blow torch is quite effective” (23). In the early 20th Century, people began to heat entire buildings to high temperatures to kill bed bugs.
- The article notes that the history of bed bug lawsuits is also long. Potter writes, “In 1895, a Chicago jury ruled that ‘no man shall be required to pay rent for a house infested with bedbugs.’ Editorializing on the verdict, the news media noted that if the ruling held, ‘the great majority of Chicagoans would be relieved of their rent bills.'”
Above all else, Potter makes it abundantly clear that in all these areas — where bed bugs are found, how we try to treat them and prevent their spread, their impact on society, and greater impact and burden on the lives of the poor — “the past is present.”
Great strides have been made already since bed bugs “bounced back” in the early 1990s, but we have a lot to learn from this history. Potter’s article is absolutely fascinating reading, and I really recommend you download this article from American Entomologist (PDF), while it’s available!
Finally, I hate to sound like a broken record, but please remember, the various historical methods described in the article are often dangerous, and there are better, safer options available today, even if you’re on a budget. So put those blow torches and the bottle of kerosene away!