Bedbugs have a long history, and it has been suggested that they originated in caves occupied by humans and animals, such as bats, in the Middle East region. This report summarizes the known history of bedbugs from the reports available.
The first known record of bedbugs was in ancient Greece in approximately 400 BC. Aristotle also made reference to the bugs shortly afterwards.
Pliny the Younger was a well-known figure in ancient Roman times for publishing the first edition of Natural History in circa 77 AD. This edition cited the medicinal value of bedbugs in the treatment of certain ailments, such as ear infections and snakebites. This belief was largely uncontested for the following centuries, until the 18th century.
There was little mention of bedbugs throughout the Middle Ages. They were, however, noted in historical documents in Germany and France in the 11th, and 13th century, respectively.
There was no mention of bedbugs in England until the 16th century, although they remained to be rarely noticed until the 17th century. In fact, some people of that era believed that bedbugs were introduced to London on the imported supplies used to rebuild the city following the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Guettard was a natural doctor in the 18th century who recommended the use of bedbugs in the treatment of hysteria.
One method implemented to eradicate bedbugs used in the 19th century was the smoke from peat fires. Dust has commonly been used to repel insects from grain storage sites throughout history and was also trialed for bedbugs. Some types of soil, such as diatomaceous earth, continues to be used by some for managing a bedbug infestation.
The prevalence of bedbugs in common households was high in the beginning of the 20th century. In 1933, the UK Ministry of Health published a report indicating that most houses were infested to some degree in many areas of the UK. This was thought to be linked to the significant rise in population at this time and the introduction of electric heating, which allowed the temperature-sensitive bedbugs to survive cold weather.
Bedbugs posed a significant problem to military bases during World War II. This was initially managed with fumigation, later with hydrogen cyanide gas, and finally with DDT.
Throughout the latter half of 20th century, the prevalence bedbugs declined, which is likely due to the introduction of potent pesticides, public health campaigns, and improved cleanliness in households.
In recent decades, there has been a resurgence of bedbug infestations, without a clear cause. This may be due to factors such as resistance, decreased pesticide used, increased travel, and complacency. According to the U.S. National Pest Management Association, there was a 71% increase in calls related to bedbugs from 2000 to 2005.
Historical Methods of Extermination
Throughout history, various methods have been used to repel or exterminate bedbugs. Some of these include the use of:
- Actaea racemosa (black cohosh)
- Pseudarthria hookeri
- Laggera alata
- Eucalyptus saligna
- Lawsonia inermis
- Melolontha vulgaris
- Amanita muscaria
- Mentha arvensis
- Lepidium ruderale
- Geranium robertianum
- Reduvius personatus
Reviewed by Susha Cheriyedath, MSc