Bedbugs are not only disgusting and annoying, but absolutely dangerous, as their bites and poison have been known to cause severe fevers in persons of sensitive organization. Some persons seem to be perfectly proof against them; others seem to attract these vermin so strongly that if there should be a single bug in the house in which they sleep they are sure to be bitten. And while it is true that under ordinary conditions the tidy and industrious housewife finds no difficulty in keeping her rooms and furniture free from them, yet it is equally true that there are occasions on which the most expert will have their powers and ingenuity taxed to the utmost.
Such occasions arise when from long immunity the housekeeper feels secure and allows her vigilance to relax; then a few prolific specimens are introduced by some accident, and before the family is aware of the trouble certain rooms and even the whole house will be overrun with them. Under such circumstances thorough and vigorous work will be needed; and to secure efficiency it is necessary in this as in every other case in which we have to deal with vermin that we should be thoroughly informed as to their habits and life-history.
English authorities claim that the bedbug is a native of America, and that it was not known in London prior to the great fire which destroyed that city. It is further said that the bug was introduced in the wood used to co\struct the new dwellings. Linnaeus also was of the opinion that the bedbug is a native of America. In Mather's Bible that passage in the Psalms which, in our version, reads "Thou shalt not be afraid of the terror by night" is translated "Thou shalt not nede to be afraid of any bugs by night." The word "bug" here means bugbear.
It has been generally supposed that bedbugs are partial to old houses, but Westwood tells us that "it is certain that they swarm in the American timber employed in the construction of new houses; and it is said that they feed upon the sap of that wood." We ourselves have frequently found them in the woods in the bark of pine timber, far from any human habitation.
The eggs of the bedbug are white, of an oval form, slightly narrowed at one end, and terminated by a cap which breaks off when the young escape. These eggs are most beautiful objects under the microscope. The young are very small, white, and transparent, so that the circulation of the blood is easily seen in the insect at this stage.
There seems to be quite a difference of opinion as to the length of time that they can exist without food. Dufour says they live but a short time; De Geer tells us that he has kept full-grown specimens for more than a year in a sealed-up bottle without food. We never could succeed in keeping them as long as that; but since they can subsist on various vegetable matters no one need have any hope of starving them out. The only way to get rid of them when they have got a foothold, and to keep rid of them, is to destroy every specimen that can be found. Fortunately this is not a very difficult task.
There are several very efficient methods of destroying bedbugs, and we shall describe them in the order of their efficiency.
This is decidedly the most effective method, though it involves more trouble than any other, and is more liable to produce injury. To fumigate a house or room, all the valuable furniture and everything that can be injured by the acid fumes must be removed, and all crevices must be stopped up so that the gas can not escape until it has done its work. Then a good fire is made in a small portable stove, which should be placed on bricks or on a large board well covered with earth. When the fire is at its best, - that is to say, when the fuel has been thoroughly ignited, - lay on a few pieces of roll brimstone and immediately leave the room, closing the door tightly. In a few hours the acid vapors will have penetrated every hole and crevice; and all animal life, from the rat or mouse to the disease-germ, will have been destroyed. Rats and mice, however, generally run away; but insects remain and are killed. As soon as the fumes have done their work the room should be thoroughly ventilated and cleaned.
The objections to the use of sulphur fumes in a house are that they destroy colors, cause metals to rust, and are generally injurious. All metals that can not be removed should be covered with paraffine-paper, and the keyholes should likewise be covered, and if the bugs have got into the locks remove them. For these obvious reasons this method should be used only as a means of last resort. Fortunately we have other agents nearly as good.
Corrosive sublimate, or bichloride of mercury, is probably the most effective poison that we have. For ordinary purposes it is used in solution in water; but as water does not readily moisten dusty or oily spots, a solution in alcohol is far superior. Dissolve an ounce of sublimate in a quart of alcohol, and brush this over cracks, joints, and any other inaccessible retreat of the bugs. The liquid will penetrate into joints and crevices at once, and, which is of more importance, the alcohol will carry the poison into the eggs of these vermin and thus destroy the young. One or two thorough applications will destroy every vestige of these pests.
Remember that this solution is a rank poison, and it should be kept out of the way of children and animals.
Various other solutions have been recommended, but they are all so far inferior to the bichloride that it would be a waste of space to name them. The alcoholic solution of the sublimate does not injure anything except varnishes and metals. Therefore it should not be applied to them. For varnished surfaces use a strong decoction of tobacco in water.
The following is the common formula for compounding "bug-poison": -
Corrosive sublimate (in powder) and hydrochloric acid, of each 1 oz.; hot water, 1 pint; agitate them together until the first is completely dissolved. It is applied with a paint-brush, observing to rub it well into the cracks and joints. This is the common "bug-wash" of the shops. It is a deadly poison.
Gray, in his "Supplement to the Pharmacopoeia," gives the following recipes: -
1. Alcohol, 1 pint; camphor, 2 oz.; oil of turpentine, 4 oz.; corrosive sublimate, 1 oz. Mix.
2. Olive oil, 8 oz.; oil of turpentine and beeswax, of each 2 oz.; sal ammoniac, arsenic, and corrosive sublimate, of each 1 oz. Melt the wax and oils together, and then stir in the other ingredients, in powder, stirring until the mixture is cold.
The least offensive and injurious application is the ordinary insect powder. When thoroughly applied it is very effective, but it does not seem to destroy the young insects in the eggs; and therefore to make thorough work we must use a series of applications, so as to destroy the young broods as fast as they appear.
Having once got rid of them every care should be taken to prevent their reappearance. The most effective way of doing this is to remove all old and loose paper from the walls, and see that all crevices are filled up with good hard putty, which should be lime for walls and hard putty for woodwork. The woodwork and also the walls should be well painted with good oil paint, and special pains should be taken to see that the cracks in the floor are well stopped. Then, with vigilance and plenty of good soap and water the housekeeper may bid defiance to "the terror that walketh by night."