My Observations on Bedbugs.


San Antonio, Texas.

The discovery in the year 1880, by Lavaran, that malaria is communicated to the human race by means of the Anophele mosquito; the discovery in 1894, by Kitasato, of the plague bacillus, and, later, that it could be transmitted by fleas; the brilliant work done by Drs. Reed, Carroll, and Agramonte, and by Professor Guiteras, demonstrating that yellow fever is communicated by the Stegomyia fasciata mosquito, have resulted in a most careful and exhaustive examination into the nature and habits of other insects with reference to the probability or possibility that other diseases (the manner of whose transmission has not yet been conclusively determined) may be communicated to the human race by such insects.

Believing that a close relationship existed between variola and bedbugs, I began in the year 1900 to study the nature and habits of the bedbug, and I am now of the firm opinion that I have established this particular insect as being the diffusing agent of smallpox.

The bedbug seems to be of a very ancient origin, as I find that it was supposed by the ancient Romans to have medicinal properties, this having been mentioned by Pliny; but I have been unable to find that it was ever known to exist among the Aztecs or the North American Indians or upon any portion of the Western Hemisphere until the advent of the white man. The Romans gave it the name "Cimex Lectularius"-"cimex" meaning a bug, and "lectularius" being simply an adjective, pertaining to a bed or couch.

The bedbug is now such a common insect as to be known to all the inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere, if not of the whole civilized world; and in different parts of the country it is called by different names--for instance, in the State of New York bedbugs are styled "red coats," and they are also called by their ordinary name of bedbugs; in Boston they are generally termed "chinches," or "chintzes;" and in Baltimore they are known by the appellation "mahogany flats." In early English times the common name was "wall louse. "

It seems to be reasonably certain that in very ancient times bedbugs were winged insects, and that they flew about from place to place, and even at the present day they retain
rudimentary pads, which it is believed, were originally a part of the wings of the insect. It is also believed that as this insect became more and more closely associated with the human race the necessity for its flying about to obtain its food became less and less, until it gradually lost this means of locomotion.

The bedbug, however, has not lost one of its chief characteristics, viz: its distinct and disagreeable odor, so well known to those that are familiar with it as the "buggy" odor. This peculiar odor is not confined to the bedbug only --a great number of bugs of even different and distinct species possess it; and it is regarded as a means of protection to them against their natural enemies, because it renders them distasteful and obnoxious. Now, the bedbug has none of the enemies any of the other bugs have, viz : insectivorous birds--and its odor is really a detriment to it instead of an advantage, as this odor often leads to its detection. From this it can be deduced that the odor having persisted through the changes already mentioned, extending over centuries of time, the bug still retains it for protection against microbic activities, as doubtless the said odor is due to some antiseptic ether or organic acid.

The hairs which cover the body of this insect are most peculiar from the fact that their ends terminate in two-pronged forks, and when annoyed or teased in the cracks which they inhabit bedbugs will invariably turn around with their backs towards you, so as better to protect themselves from being drawn from the crevices in which they may be located, as each hair presents a distinct anchor, and particularly as against the long feelers of the common cockroach, and also as against the tugging of another one of its most formidable enemies, the little red ant. The eggs of the bedbug hatch on the seventh or eighth day after being laid, and, if carefully observed, it will be noticed that, within from two to three days before hatching, two bright scarlet spots will appear on the inside and on the exit end of the egg when viable. If these spots do not appear, the egg is not viable. Gasoline, which is so effective in destroying bedbugs, will not destroy their eggs; and, to the chagrin of the careful housekeeper, a new and full size crop of bugs is again in possession of the bed within a few days after using gasoline. This is readily accounted for by the fact that the eggs can be soaked in gasoline and yet not lose their viability.

In order to make sure of their destruction, I believe that the application of a saturated alcoholic solution of corrosive sublimate, used with constant vigilance, will do the work, as this solution not only kills the adult insects but, by combining with the albumen of the egg, renders the latter sterile.

The ability of these insects to live for a very long time without food of any kind is remarkable. Careful observers have stated that, of their own personal knowledge, houses which have been empty for eighteen months at a time, when again inhabited by people have been found to be so full of these insects as to be un tenantable. I have made experiments which convince me of the truth of this assertion--although the experiments did not run for such a great length of time. I once put a bedstead containing many of these insects into a room by itself, and placed each one of its legs in a can partially filled with kerosene, so as to prevent their escape. After keeping the bedstead locked up in the room for four months, the insects were found in apparently the same condition as they were before the experiment was started.

The ability of bedbugs to remain under water for an indefinite time is also established by the following experiment: I first took a pole about seven feet long, and putting a number of these bugs on one end of it, I placed this end almost at the bottom of a tank containing about five feet of water; immediately the bugs began crawling through the water and up the pole; I then changed ends and reversed the operation, submerging the bugs on top of the pole again in the water, and I continued this operation for five hours without intermission--but to all appearances the bugs were not in the least injured, notwithstanding the fact that, in addition to the submersion, they had traveled a distance of nearly 550 yards.

On another occasion I took some bugs and placed them in a glass receiver, the outlet of which was covered with a piece of gauze. The inlet of the receiver was then placed over a faucet of hydrant water; the water was turned on and permitted to run for five hours; the current of the water forced the bugs against the gauze covering the outlet, and they were thus continuously submerged for that length of time; but, as soon as the stream was turned off and the water removed, the insects showed that they had suffered no injury or inconvenience from the submersion. One of the characteristics of the bedbug is its cannibalistic nature. It has seven horny bands, which constitute its abdominal cavity, and when it is not engorged these bands lie close together. When, however, it has fed and is thoroughly engorged, it presents a thin membrane connecting these bands, something on the order of an inflated bellows. It is this thin membrane that is pierced by their young, and also by the stronger bugs. Doubtless this characteristic, more than anything else, has served it so admirably in retaining its existence and activity in association with its unwilling host.

One of the most remarkable things in connection with this insect is its powers of resistance to cold. In connection with other investigations I made, in which I believed this parasite was destined to play an important part, it became necessary, in my opinion to determine if these insects could resist a very low degree of temperature, and for a long time, without injury. I therefore procured a hermetically sealed glass fruit jar, holding a quart. I then cut round pieces out of a woolen blanket to fit loosely the inner diameter of the jar, and placed a number of these pieces in the jar, together with some three dozen bedbugs, alternating the discs of blanket and the bugs. After sealing the jar so as to exclude water, I suspended it in one of the brine tanks used for making ice at one of our ice factories; and in a short time the jar was tightly frozen in a two-hundred pound cake of ice. This cake was allowed to remain in the brine tank, where the temperature is only 14 degrees above zero, and the cake stayed as when first frozen for a period of 244 hours. At the expiration of that time, after melting the ice and removing and opening the jar, the insects were found to be in as good condition as when originally placed therein.

The cunning of these insects is most remarkable, and it appears that they have, to a certain extent, the power of reasoning. An example of this kind was given me by Mr. N. P. Wright of San Antonio, a very reliable citizen and close observer. He is ready to make affidavit to the story, which runs as follows: At one time he had all the furniture in his house packed up, except a cot left in one room upon which to sleep, as all of his family were absent on a visit. This cot was placed about one foot from the wall of the room; and, while lying on the cot, he happened to observe a bedbug slowly crawling up on the wall; out of curiosity he watched its movements, and was much surprised to see that when the insect was about four or five feet from the floor-- this being about two feet higher than the cot--it apparently sprang from the side of the wall and fell upon the cot. He killed this bug, and thinking that it was merely a coincidence that it should have so accurately alighted upon the cot, he moved the latter another foot away from the side of the wall and resumed his position upon it. After a while he observed another bug crawling up the wall, having come from the baseboard. He watched it carefully and noticed that this bug did the same as the other, only that it went up the wall about two feet higher than the first one, and then, with the same kind of a jump as the former bug made, leaped from the wall and fell upon the cot. Mr. Wright continued this experiment, moving his cot gradually away from the wall each time until it was in the middle of the room, or about ten feet from the wall. On this last occasion one of the bugs crawled up the wall until it got nearly to the ceiling, then gave a jump, floating out like a flying squirrel or airplane, and landed upon the cot precisely as did the first bug. This would seem to indicate that bedbugs possess almost human intelligence.

The power of migration of bedbugs is wonderful. I have made experiments at the Old City Hospital (replaced now by the R. B. Green Memorial Hospital) and have positively demonstrated that they will travel the full length of a large ward, and go from bed to bed when these are occupied. I demonstrated this by catching a few bugs and making a tiny mark on each of their backs with an adhesive mixture of balsam fir and flake white, thus marking them distinctly. I then placed them in an unoccupied cot at one end of the ward in the evening, and the next morning discovered them in an occupied cot at the other end of the ward.

Nothing gives the sleeping-car companies more concern than this noxious insect. Here in San Antonio, when a car is being supplied with clean linen, and the used linen is found to be blood-stained, the telltale "buggy" odor leads to an immediate war against bedbugs, and the car is marked for another crusade in seven days, the officials knowing that another crop of bugs can be depended upon within that time. Churches--particularly those of the colored folks-- schools, second hand goods, and the family laundry, when it is given out and into the hands of an untidy washer woman, are the principal avenues of dissemination. A civil engineer in the employ of a railway company was sent to straighten out a large elbow in the railroad, and there being in the vicinity of his work an abandoned section house, he used it as a camping place. One night he awakened by a burning sensation all over his body; and, upon striking a match, he found that his pallet was alive with bedbugs. The weather being very warm, he had placed it in the middle of the room, between the front and the back doors. He picked up his pallet, consisting of quilts and blankets, and gave them a thorough beating upon the front gallery. He then replaced it in the same location, but resorted to the larder for protection in the form of a gallon of thick molasses. He made a circle with this around his pallet and went to bed again, with the knowledge, as he thought, that he had defeated the bedbugs. In two or three hours, however, he was awakened by the same burning sensation as before, and upon examination with a light found the bugs dropping right down from the ceiling upon his bedding.

The present or past occupancy of this loathsome insect is easily detected by the stain which its fecal matter leaves on the bed slats, which stain does not appear as a round speck, like that of a fly, but runs along the softer fibres of the wood, in obedience to the chemical affinity between the iron in the fecal matter and the tannic and gallic acids of the lumber. The study of the bacterial flora of the bedbug is both varied and interesting, and, I believe, is destined to open up unknown avenues for bacterial study of blood, as the work I have done in this direction warrants the opinion that the bedbug will furnish a large field for very interesting and profitable research.

Some years after writing the above "Observations on Bedbugs," which was prepared in 1903, my attention was directed by Mexican farmers living in the vicinity of San Antonio to another blood-sucking insect, which seems to be, in its habit, both nocturnal and diurnal. I was informed by these Mexicans that, in numerous instances, after being bitten by one of these insects at night, the next day a decided malaise was experienced, and this persisted for three or four days, some of those bitten expressing their feelings as a "soreness of the joints." Now, this insect's abdominal cavity will hold from three to four drops of blood, and it is hardly believable that it is the mechanical puncture by the proboscis alone that produced the symptoms mentioned. This insect is called by the Mexicans "Chinche Volante," meaning flying chinch or flying bedbug. The English name is blood-sucking conenose (Conorrhinus sanguisuga). Almost every Mexican farmhouse has a brush arbor over the front door to afford shade, and it is under these arbors that the Mexicans sleep in the summer, on account of its being too hot in the house. They are then better exposed to the bites of these insects, and wire screening seems to be of no avail in protecting these people from them, as they crawl under the screened door. I have caught a number of them in my own home and screened sleeping room. In some instances they become so engorged that if the sleeper happens to roll over on them and crushes them, a very large blood spot is visible and plainly tells of their presence. In this climate I have found what I believe to be two varieties of this insect. The small squares on the margin of the abdomen in one variety are distinctly black, and in the other variety they are yellow.

I have had one of these insects photographed and a number of copies made for distribution among you, so that you will become acquainted with what may prove to be another source of variola in Texas. It was not my purpose to present this insect to you at this time, and I would not have done so, had it not been for a very fortunate observation I made during one of my pilgrimages in quest of information on the habits of bats.

In looking one day for bats in an old adobe house, on which time had laid a heavy hand -- the doors, windows, and roof being nearly gone -- I found one of these insects depleting a bedbug. Upon inquiring in the neighborhood for the owner of this house, I learned that it had been vacant for more than twenty-five years, and that it had been built about fifty years ago. Now, bedbugs will continue to inhabit houses for some years after they are vacant, but not for such a great length of time as this one had been empty, not in such a state of decay as this one was in. Such being true, you can readily see the connection which could be established between this insect and a "spontaneous case of variola" where there was no possible contact with the disease, as the chinche volante can and will fly long distances.

"Chinche volante" or flying bedbug.

"Chinche volante" or flying bedbug.