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Arsenic. Gunpowder. Burning a bale of straw in your bedroom. How they tackled bedbugs in the good old days!


Visitors to medieval Paris were left in no doubt that the city was in the grip of a venomous scourge.

Its bedrooms, they were told, were infested with tiny black creatures, which at night would ‘sit on the faces of those who slept’ and ‘sting them hard’.

So grave was the situation that a 14th-century guidebook entitled Le Menagier de Paris, roughly translated as The Good Wife’s Guide to the French capital, devoted two pages to the problem.

Readers were advised to spread alder leaves on the floor of their bed chamber or put out two slices of bread ‘slimed with glue or turpentine’ and illuminated by candles.

Alternatively, sheepskins could be used to attract them, which could then be shut in an air-tight chest until they were thought to suffocate.

Today, wellness guru Ann Ziety tells you how to stay calm during the forthcoming bedbug invasion (stock image)

Today, wellness guru Ann Ziety tells you how to stay calm during the forthcoming bedbug invasion (stock image)

If none of those methods worked, there was always the option of setting alight a pile of hay in the middle of your bed chamber — with the not inconsiderable risk of burning your house down.

Fast forward 600 years and the problem is as bad as ever. And it’s not just Paris that has fallen victim to bedbugs.

The modern world, filled with people constantly on the move thanks to the proliferation of budget airlines and the convenience of Airbnb, is tailor-made for their spread.

All the cities that have hosted Rugby World Cup matches, from Lyons to Marseilles, are reporting outbreaks and the nation appears to be suffering from a collective nervous breakdown as a result.

Social media is saturated with pictures of les punaises de lit everywhere from high-speed trains to the seats at Charles de Gaulle airport. Many travellers on the Paris Metro insist on standing up for their entire journey for fear of picking up one of the tiny critters en route and taking it home.

Meanwhile, a video of a Marseilles back street posted online shows piles of mattresses and other home furnishings dumped by householders desperate to rid themselves of the notoriously hard-to-kill mites. Such is the hysteria over the outbreak that some fans staying overnight for England’s semi-final against South Africa at the Stade de France in Paris tomorrow are said to be taking their own bedsheets.

Video footage shared online shows the insects crawling over seats on the Paris metro, on high-speed trains and at Paris’s Charles-de-Gaulle Airport

It might be tempting to wallow in our French cousins’ discomfort — but the bad news is that the problem has already crossed the Channel.

The HMRC building in Ipswich has been invaded by the bloodsuckers — which some unkind folk might argue is a case of our tax collectors getting a taste of their own medicine.

But the truth is we have been scratching and itching for millennia. Indeed, bedbugs have been around since well before beds — and even humans.

In 2019, Dresden University published evidence that fossilised remains of bedbugs dated back to the age of the dinosaurs — although they are thought more likely to have feasted on small mammals than herds of Tyrannosaurus rex.

Once they turned their attention to humans, a long journey of discovery, focused on the quickest and easiest way to get rid of them, began — an odyssey that continues in the present day. One of the first people to devote his planet-sized brain to the subject was the Ancient Greek philosopher Democritus in 400BC who is credited with first coming up with the theory that the world was made up of atom-type particles. Unfortunately, his idea of hanging the feet of a hare or stag from the end of your bed to ward them off was a non-starter.

The Romans proved no more effective. According to one legend, the Emperor Nero sparked the Great Fire of Rome in AD64 by lighting a fire to tackle the bedbugs which had been keeping him awake. Thanks to Britain’s status as an island, it was to be hundreds of years before we fell victim.

Sniffer dogs, steam cleans and chemical treatments have all failed to clear the infestation at Brooke Lawrance House (pictured)

Sniffer dogs, steam cleans and chemical treatments have all failed to clear the infestation at Brooke Lawrance House (pictured)

By the 14th century, as we have seen, bedbugs were tormenting the residents of Paris.

But, in the absence of Eurostar and rugby fans, they appear to have taken another two centuries to make their way across the Channel, with the first recorded bitings dating from 1583.

The bedbugs quickly made up for lost time, however. By 1690 they had even reached the royal household.

In that year, advertisements appeared for a London business called Tiffin & Son, which billed itself as ‘Bug-Destroyers to Her Majesty’ — presumably Mary II, who held the throne in conjunction with William III. ‘May the Destroyers of Peace be destroyed by Us,’ read the company slogan.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before the finger of blame was being pointed at the great unwashed. In 1730 a pamphlet entitled, A Treatise Of Buggs, appeared on the streets, in which author John Southall dispensed advice to the well-to-do: ‘If you have occasion to change Servants, let their Boxes, Trunks &c. be well examin’d before carried into your Rooms.’

Rentokil sees huge surge in calls over bedbug crisis 

Pest control company Rentokil has seen inquiries about bedbugs shoot up by nearly a third.

The tiny blood-sucking insects – which are the size of a grain of rice – have wreaked havoc in France, where they have been spotted in the Paris Metro, hospitals, schools and cinemas.

There have also been infestations in Manchester, Swindon and London, with experts warning the UK is ‘not prepared’ for a plague and advising travellers to avoid unpacking clothes in hotels.

Rentokil saw a 32 per cent rise in bedbug queries in the first nine months of this year compared to the same period in 2022. The firm said it has also seen a rise in its experts finding the bugs at the sites they visit.

Rentokil uses heat treatment to warm rooms, as hot air kills the bugs. It uses sniffer dogs to find the insects and is developing an early warning device for hotels to alert them to the presence of bedbugs. Bites can cause rashes and allergic reactions.

He went on to say: ‘Let no Washer-woman’s Basket be brought into your Houses; for they often prove as dangerous to those that have no buggs.’

The proliferation of bedbugs continued in spite of an impressive armoury of techniques employed against them — methods which sometimes proved more fatal to the householder than to the bugs themselves.

Southall himself advocated — and sold for a shilling a bottle — a Nonpareil liquor whose secret recipe he claimed to have obtained from Jamaica.

When that proved of limited effect, society moved on to the really risky stuff. A pamphlet published in 1777, entitled The Complete Vermin Killer, advised filling cracks in the woodwork of your bedstead with gunpowder and setting it alight.

Wiser folk started to replace their wooden bedsteads with iron ones, which don’t have bedbug- friendly cracks.

By the 19th century, things had moved on to the point where chemists were selling Bed Bug Poison — a lethal preparation of mercury chloride, which householders were told they could spray, brush or apply with a feather, over their furniture. It proved horribly toxic to humans.

In 1901, after the authorities in San Francisco fumigated properties with mercury chloride in an attempt to rid the city’s Chinatown of bug infestations, it rendered them uninhabitable for years afterwards.

Bedbug sufferers were also given preparations of arsenic, some of which ended up — Agatha Christie-style — being used to dispose of pests of a different kind: family members who stood in the way of a large inheritance, for example.

Then there were the pyrotechnic solutions. The ‘fire and brimstone’ method involved burning sulphur on the bedroom floor to produce a hissing mass which gave off sulphur dioxide — a treatment which, users complained, bleached their wallpaper. One hates to think what it did to their lungs.

And still bedbugs endured. By 1934, the Ministry of Health was reporting that there was scarcely a home in London which was not at some point of the year affected by bedbugs.

World War II made things even worse, with people helping to spread infestation by taking their bedding to crowded air raid shelters.

But then came a miracle cure: the widespread availability of the pesticide DDT from the late 1940s onwards allowed buildings to be properly rid of bedbugs.

Bed bug bites leave red areas, blisters or large rashes on the skin, and can cause intense itching or allergic reactions

Bed bug bites leave red areas, blisters or large rashes on the skin, and can cause intense itching or allergic reactions

Where previous poisons had only killed insects which came into direct contact with them, DDT —when applied to walls, floors and ceilings — remained lethal for months to any bedbug which crawled over them.

It was too good to last. In 1962, the conservationist Rachel Carson published a seminal work called Silent Spring, which revealed the toxic effect on the environment of the widespread use of pesticides. The writing was on the wall for DDT and, by the 1980s, its use had been banned in most developed countries.

By the end of the 20th century, bedbugs were back.

According to Rentokil, there has been a 65 per cent increase in the incidence of bedbugs in the UK over the past 12 months, driven by a growing resistance to insecticides and a return to pre-pandemic levels of travel.

With chemicals out of favour, methods such as steam treatment, freezing CO2 sprays and heat guns are the favoured ‘mechanical solutions’ for killing bedbugs and their eggs these days.

But it seems safe to assume that we will never be free of them for long. Like rats, they are bedfellows of human civilisation.



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