A short history of bed bugs

Bed bugs are some of humanity’s oldest and most reviled pests, with a history stretching back into prehistory. This decade, bed bugs have been experiencing an unfortunate renaissance in many parts of the developed world, so it is a good time to look at the long history of man’s uncomfortable relationship with these blood-sucking insects.

Origins of bed bugs

Research indicates that prehistoric bed bugs inhabited caves in the Middle East, most likely feeding on bat blood until humans began to settle in caves as well. Even today, bed bugs are perfectly capable of surviving off the blood of any warm-blooded mammals, with their preference for humans simply being a consequence of our mattresses providing a safe and warm habitat for them.

The oldest surviving evidence of humans using dedicated mattresses dates back 77,000 years in Africa [http://www.worldrecordsacademy.org/society/oldest_mattress_77000_year-old_bed_sets_world_record_112625.html], and – seeing as these early mattresses were stuffed with plant material known to repel bed bugs – it is likely bed bugs have been a problem for humanity since far before recorded history. Bed bug fossils have also been discovered in several ancient settlements, including Egyptian remains from 3,500 years ago.

Early history of bed bugs
The earliest references to bed bugs are found in ancient Greek literature, with everybody from Aristotle to Pliny the Elder aware of these pests. Early references to bed bugs weren’t always complaints; there was much speculation on the medicinal value of bed bugs in treating infections and poisonous bites, due to their blood-sucking properties (similar to the use of leeches in ancient medicine). Bed bugs can survive in wood for up to 12 months without feeding, so they were residents on our earliest ships – spreading around the world at the same pace as humanity, eventually infesting all of Europe, Asia, and then America.

Early methods of pest control against bed bugs came in the form of a wide variety of herbs, fungi, smoke, oils, and other materials that varied in both toxicity to humans, and effectiveness against the bugs themselves. Despite a concerted, centuries-long effort to eradicate bed bugs from homes, worldwide complaints of bed bug outbreaks continued unabated into the 20th century – and are consistently mentioned in records and literature from all over the world.

Modern history of bed bugs
As world travel increased in ease and popularity, incidences of bed bug infestations rose at the same rate. Unsurprisingly, bed bugs were present when the first settlers arrived in America, stowing away on their ships and spreading rapidly on arrival. By the 1900s, they were considered one of the top three household pests in almost every country.

Luckily, an effective bed bug control method was finally found in the early 20th century via the development of DDT and other pesticides. This was so effective that by the 1950s complaints of bed bugs in developed countries were practically non-existent, with reports of US scientists even having trouble finding specimens for research.

Revival of bed bugs
Until the last few years, it is unlikely that anybody under 50 had ever experienced bed bugs. So what has caused their recent raise in numbers in the developed world? Most likely it is a combination of cheap travel, ineffective pesticides (DDT has been banned for decades, and most modern pesticides use bait which does not attract bed bugs), and lack of awareness. Knowing what to look for, in terms of early warning signs of bed bugs, has become a lost art over the last 50 years, meaning that bed bugs are allowed to gain a footing and then start breeding rapidly – females can lay up to 200 eggs – until eradication is extremely difficult.