First Do No Harm- A Brief History of Bed Bug Control

Despite their 50 or so year disappearance from the hearts, minds and beds of most of the world, bed bugs have been around for thousands of years. Fossilized remains have been found from as far back as 3,500 years ago in Ancient Egypt. And while DDT and the widespread use of multiple strong residual pesticides are what eventually eradicated the bed bug population, it wasn’t as if one day every 50’s housewife attacked their beds while singing “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister. (Although the mental image is pretty awesome). People have been trying to combat bed bugs as long as they’ve been sleeping in beds, with some results better than others.

The effort to keep bed bugs away have crossed the spectrum from (from modern standards) bizarre and benign to downright toxic. Around 400 B.C. Greek philosophers were suggesting hanging the feet of a hare or stag at the foot of your bed. If that didn’t work, other suggested the skin of a bear. Maybe they assumed that the disembodied feet would attract the bed bugs to the scent of any lingering blood there instead of the humans in the bed? Although that’s just hypothesis. Kind of like my hypothesis that hanging the skin of a dead bear over the bed would scare the people in beds enough to keep them awake and vigilant in looking for bed bugs.

Of course, if you’re not into taxidermy, there are other options. You could set a vessel of cold water under the afflicted bed, but I doubt that was ever effective for anyone ever. Immersing the bed legs in pans of oil was also a popular solution. For those sleeping on straw beds, the key was changing out the bedding itself often. A simple, effective solution, and one of the first times throwing the baby out with the bathwater was considered a good thing. In the 1800’s, making beds out of sassafras wood was a preemptive way to keep bed bugs away. If you couldn’t make a new bed or change the bedding, you could always treat the existing bed frame. Everything from using a feather to lay on the whites of an egg to putting arsenic, sulfur, cyanide or gunpowder on the bed frame was suggested. My favorite home remedy is washing the bed slats down with the grease from salt pork or bacon, and really that’s only so I’d have the excuse to make a whole lot of bacon.

As long as there have been bed bugs there have been people trying to hock “miracle cures” they’ve mixed up in their basement. One of the most notable is John Southall’s “Nonpareil Liquor”. Southall wrote “A Treasite For Buggs” in the 1700s, and considered himself an expert on the subject. Southall also blamed American colonization for bed bugs in London, claiming that none had ever been there until they started shipping timber back from the colonies. The claim that there no bed bugs in London prior to that time were later proven false. Southall’s charms didn’t end there, bragging in his book how he conned an old Jamaican man into getting the recipe for the nonpareil liquor. The record of whatever was in this liquor has long since been lost, so we have no way of knowing if he was helping, or just swindling the public. Southall wasn’t the only one with a miracle cure, news media ads from the early 1900’s all the way to the present tout “cures” to any bed bug infestation.

We’d like to think that we know better now. We can scoff at the silliness of hanging a bear skin over the bed and rubbing the slats with bacon fat, but really we’re watching the slow evolution of an un-self-aware IPM practices. Now that we know more about bed bug behavior and biology we can understand that a vessel of cold water under the bed will not be either a draw or repellent for bed bugs and knowing more about the effects of acute and chronic exposures to chemicals means we no longer rub arsenic on our beds, but we still practice very similar theories when removing and preventing bed bugs. Instead of pans of oil under the bed legs, we use interceptor cups- with a much less abrasive talcum powder inside (and I’m assuming less staining or smelly). While you’re not likely to find sassafras bed frames at a local IKEA, you can opt for simple, metal frames to limit the number of places bed bugs have to harbor.

And while pesticides are regulated today, we still have to be careful about what chemicals we use and how. You can’t easily spot charlatans anymore, since they’re not likely to peddle their “magic bed bug tonics” out of big trunk while they twirl their mustache, but that doesn’t mean that “miracle cures” don’t still exist. Luckily, today we have the assurance of government mandated product labels and online consumer reviews to ensure that we’re not getting a phony product or something that will exacerbate the problem by sending the bugs into the walls for a few months only to emerge later. Thankfully, modern times brings pest management professionals who are able to correctly able to apply more harsh chemicals when necessary, therefore limiting the risk to both applicator and resident.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go cook up some bacon- purely for bed bug research, of course.

Brittany is a licensed pest management professional.

Bay Area Bed Bugs is the official Bed Bug Blog of Pestec Integrated Pest Management.

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