Bed Bug Series: History

By Josh Kattenberg

bed_bugs_infested_shipsMost of us have never seen a real, live bed bug and perhaps would not even know what it was if we did see one. This is because for nearly 50 years, bed bugs were practically annihilated. It is only in the past decade or so that the little critters are making a comeback. As a property manager, you need to realize that if one of your properties is infested with bed bugs, your tenants may not report the problem immediately because they may not recognize a bed bug for what it is.

In light of human history, this ignorance about bed bugs is unique. People from the dawn of time have been only too intimately aware of bed bugs. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of bed bugs in ancient Egyptian archeological sites. The Jewish holy book, the Talmud, mentions bed bugs. And ancient Romans believed bed bugs could be used as a medicine to treat ear infections and snake bites.

There is not, however, any evidence of bed bugs in America until after the Europeans discovered the continent. Indian languages included no word for “bed bug,” which indicates Indians most likely had never previously encountered these pests. It didn’t take long for the bed bugs to take up residence in America after the Europeans arrived, however; European ships were laden with bed bugs, and the little critters invaded America alongside their hosts.

Even though bed bugs have been present in America since the early colonial days, the intensity of the problem has ebbed and flowed throughout our country’s history. In the past, most poor Americans had frequent bed bug infestations. Even many middle class American homes were infested occasionally. Infestation levels crept even higher after the advent of the railroad. Travelers stayed in shabby hotels along these railroads, their belongings often picking up bed bugs during their stay. They then brought the infestation home with them.

Treatment for bed bug infestations varied over time. In the early days, one extermination effort involved filling a home with peat smoke. Other efforts involved boiling belongings to kill the bugs and sprinkling plant ash in the areas of the home where the bugs were living. While these methods were somewhat effective, they didn’t significantly reduce overall bed bug populations. It wasn’t until after World War II, with the advent of DDT, washing machines, dryers and vacuum cleaners, that bed bugs were practically eliminated. So effective was the elimination, lab technicians wanting to study bed bugs had a hard time locating specimen for their work.

As we know from the media hype, bed bugs are now making a comeback, and a scientist wanting to study them today wouldn’t have a hard time locating some samples. The Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT and other harsh pesticides in the 1980s. The approved pesticides of today are less effective, making it more difficult to eradicate bed bugs.

At the same time the bed bug population is expanding, other factors are helping this population find new homes. International travel is expanding due to globalization, and business people help spread bed bugs around the globe. Illegal immigrants and temporary workers have also contributed to the spread: housing turnover is constant amongst these workers, increasing infestation risks.

Even non-traveling, middle-class families may have habits that help out bed bugs. Decorators who enjoy the old, distressed look and are taking used items into their homes may unwittingly be inviting some little hitchhikers in along with the decor.

While bed bugs are a bigger concern on the east and west coasts, the Midwest does have problems with them, too. Even in Sioux Falls, SD, there have been a few infestations of hotels. It is wise for Sioux Falls property managers to be aware that bed bug populations do exist here, and to educate their tenants about bed bugs.

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