Bed bugs are ancient insects that have plagued humankind for centuries. The old saying, “sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite,’ originated in the 1800s. Many believe the saying refers to tightening the supportive ropes of the bed (before there were box springs) to support the mattress off the floor where bed bugs resided. It may also refer to pulling your nightgown or nightshirt firmly around your body to keep the bloodsucking pests from feeding on you during the night.
Where Did Bed Bugs Come From?
Most researchers believe that the bed bug Cimex lecturlarius hails from the Middle East. The bugs lived within cave systems that they shared with early humans and bats, meaning bed bugs are as old as the cavemen. Historical evidence seems to indicate that bed bugs first fed and colonized on bats. As early humans started to live within the caves it was only natural for the bugs to feast on human blood as well.
Origin of the Name
The name Cimex lecturlarius is another window into the history of bed bugs. In ancient Rome, the Romans referred to bugs as cimex and the term lexturlarius translates into a bed or a lounging couch.
Bed Bugs Depicted Throughout History
Archaeologists have found fossilized bed bugs that date back 3,500 years. The bugs are depicted throughout history. Anywhere that cities and villages were built, bed bugs would also take up residence. By 100 A.D. the presence of the pests was well documented. As civilization grew the bugs multiplied and spread all throughout Asia and Europe. The existence of bed bugs was noted in 600 A.D. China, throughout Germany in the 1200s and across France in the 1400s. Interestingly, the bed bugs thrived among the wealthy and royalty because of the large fireplaces throughout the castles and residences which helped keep the bugs warm and comfortable. Poor families often endured freezing chilly winter weather, so the bed bugs rarely plagued them.
Bed Bugs Cross the Sea
In 1583 bed bugs were a plague throughout England. From the English ports, innumerable ships sailed for the American colonies. Unfortunately, the bed bugs traveled right alongside the passengers and soon set up colonies across the new land. The English colonies and Canada all reported severe bed bug problems during the time. The Americans started fashioning beds from sassafras and would douse the frame in boiling water, arsenic, and sulfur. Sailors during the period also suffered from bed bugs because entire ships became infested.
In the 1900s, cyanide fumigation of mattresses was remarkably successful, but sadly many people also died from sleeping on the treated beds. It was reported that children were especially susceptible to cyanide poisoning from the mattresses and seemed to be the most common victims.
Via Nat Geo
DDT and the Control of Bed Bugs
The only solution during the early days was extreme cleaning and constant monitoring of all the crevices in search of colonies. Major metropolitan areas throughout the world were overrun with the bugs up until the early 20th century. In America, almost a third of all residences were infested with the bugs. Then, in the 1940s DDT started to be used to control typhus and malaria around the world and in 1950’s began being applied as a pesticide widely used to kill cockroaches and worked wonders on annihilating bed bugs. Bed bugs were almost eradicated. However, in 1972 it was found that DDT and other pesticides could have devastating health effects and were pulled from the market around the world, allowing the bugs to reemerge.
Now, bed bugs are once again a problem in many homes, hotels, and businesses. They have evolved to be even tougher and it is estimated that 90 percent are resistant to most common pesticides. Exterminators are scrambling to find sprays, heat treatments, and other options to control the spread of the insects. These ancient insects have managed to make a home and survive on every continent in the world.
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