Where Bed Bugs Came From and Why They’re Here to Stay

Until recently, most Americans had never heard of bedbugs. You might run across an occasional reference to bedbugs while reading a book about life aboard the ships of 17th century explorers or a novel set in the squalid cities of the 19th century Industrial Revolution; but most people dismissed bedbugs with body lice and human fleas as problems of earlier, less sanitary eras in human history. However, despite their exceedingly rare occurrence in the United States for the past half century, prior to World War II bedbugs were fairly common household pests. That old bed time ditty “Sleep tight; don’t let the bedbugs bite” wasn’t just a silly rhyme your grandmother repeated when she kissed you goodnight, it was rooted in the American life experience prior to 1950. The development of powerful synthetic pesticides during World War II effectively eliminated the bedbug problem in the U.S. and most industrialized countries, although bedbugs have remained problematic in less developed nations.
A persistent scourge throughout recorded human history, new research indicates that bed bugs may have developed in the Mediterranean area from bat parasites, gradually migrating to the humans that shared their caves. As man moved out of caves and across the continents, bed bugs moved with their human hosts. Traders and sea-faring explorers eventually spread bed bugs to the most remote corners of the world. Bed bugs are now found around the world wherever humans live and continue to spread with their human hosts. Entomologists believe that increased international air travel, made affordable by fare reductions after the 1990s deregulation of the airline industry, has played a major role in the resurgence of bed bugs in North America, Europe and Australia. By the late 1990s, bedbug infestations in the U.S. were being reported in the international gateway cities of New York, San Francisco and Miami. The exponential growth of these prolific insects has allowed U.S. bedbug populations to increase by 500% in just a few years with bed bugs now found in all 50 states.
Although their reappearance on the U.S. insect scene seems sudden to a generation of Americans who are unfamiliar with this pest, bedbugs have been man’s common bedfellow for centuries. Bedbug fossils dating back 3,500 years, not long after the last Great Ice Age, have been discovered at archeological digs. During the early days of the Roman Empire, naturalist Pliny the Elder documented a snake bite cure made with bed bugs. According to ancient Greek and Roman writings, bedbugs were a common ingredient in medicinal potions. Medieval European manuscripts mention the use of bedbugs in homeopathic cures, a practice that appears to have continued into the early 1900s, according to The History of BedBug Management by University of Kentucky bed bug expert Michael Potter. Published in the spring 2011 edition of American Entomologist, Potter’s article notes the recommendation of a bedbug solution for the treatment of malaria in an 1886 edition of a popular American medical text.
Despite their presumed curative use, historical writings also record practices and treatments for getting rid of bed bugs and treating their bites. Early Greek philosopher Democritus wrote that hanging the feet of a rabbit or deer at the foot of the bed would ward off bed bugs. North Americans believed in the preventative power of bear skins, draping Are Pesticides Safe After They Dry them over their beds or tacking them to bedroom walls to deter bed bugs. Colonial Americans treated bed bug bites with a liniment made from vinegar, turpentine, wine, camphor and raw egg. When a Victorian gentleman traveled, he took along a pig that was placed in the hotel bed to attract feeding bed bugs before the gentleman retired for the evening.
Over the centuries, people have tried all manner of treatments to rid their homes of bed bugs. They have doused their beds with boiling water, kerosene, turpentine, alcohol, gasoline and other caustic chemicals. In the 1800s and early 1900s, mixtures containing arsenic and mercury were brushed onto beds and walls to eliminate bedbugs. Although smelly, burning sulfur was used as an early fumigant. Made from dried chrysanthemum flowers, pyrethrum was a popular insecticide in the mid-1800s. In the 1920s and 1930s, hydrogen cyanide fumigation was the preferred method of killing bed bugs, despite its deadly potential. During World War II, the army found blow torches to be effective in killing bed bugs harboring in metal barracks beds. Few of these do-it-yourself efforts had any impact on bedbug infestations, at best providing a few days of relief. That changed in 1939 when Swiss scientist Paul Muller discovered the remarkable insect-killing properties of DDT, earning him the 1948 Nobel Prize. What made DDT unique was its residual killing effect. Unlike other products that killed only on direct contact, DDT kept killing insects that crossed its path for months after application. It was the game changer in the war on bed bugs. By 1945, inexpensive DDT-based products were readily available to U.S. consumers.
Almost immediately, scientists began warning that DDT had a dark side. While DDT was amazingly efficient at killing problem insects by disrupting the organism’s nerve cells, it had a long half-life, staying potent in soil for an extended period of time. According to a 1945 Time magazine article, the U.S. Department of Agriculture that year released the results of a 2-year study, reporting:
“1) DDT is unquestionably the most promising insecticide ever developed; but
2) It is not yet safe for general use.”
Public reaction launched the U.S. environmental movement Potential Pest Meaning and led to the U.S. banning of DDT in 1972.