Believe it or not, fossilized evidence of bed bugs dates back as far as 3500 years ago, though the first written mentions appear around 400BC. Though bed bugs have always been considered pests, they were once believed to have medicinal properties such as healing snakebites and removing leeches. (For the record, they do neither.)
So how did we come to be so bothered by the little critters? It’s believed that humans came into contact with bed bugs when we first inhabited caves. Bed bugs, whose host of choice had been bats, shifted to target humans because the lack of fur made them easy to access. Since then, bed bugs have followed us wherever we go and we’ve come up with dozens of bed bug treatments to counteract their invasions.
They became more predominant when people started building cities and creating permanent homes. Prior to that, nomadic hunter-gatherer tendencies made humans a sporadic source of feeding for bed bugs.
By the 16th century, bed bug infestations had become a significant problem in Europe, especially poorer neighbourhoods where people could not afford the cost of servants to vigorously clean away any traces of bed bugs. From there, bed bug infestations quickly spread to North America as European settlers began travelling west, bringing the pests with them.
The problem was amplified with the invention of central heating. Bed bugs are naturally attracted to heat – it’s how they locate hosts – so heated dwellings were an obvious target. The desperation for bed bug treatments increased.
By the early 1940s, it was estimated that as many as one in three homes were affected by bed bug infestations. It was a significant, community-wide problem. Theatres, buses, trains and virtually all public spaces were transfer grounds. Even war trenches and submarines were the target of rampant bed bug infestations.
Getting rid of bed bugs, however, was no simple matter. Over the centuries, dozens of methods of getting rid of bed bugs were proposed. Everything from smoking them out, to using the toxic fumes, to applying boiling water, to the application of black pepper, turpentine, mint, tobacco, eucalyptus, henna and even cannabis have been suggested with various degrees of efficacy.
It wasn’t until the chemical DDT hit the market in the mid-40s that the war against bed bugs started to gain ground.
To read about the downfall of bed bugs in the second half of the 20th century, look out for part two of this series.
In the meantime, if you’re concerned that you may have bed bugs in your home, book an inspection with us. Thanks to the trial and error of centuries gone by, we have proven methods that work to effectively get rid of bed bugs.