We’ve talked a bit about J.R. Busvine, a British medical entomologist, before. Bed bugs held Busvine’s attention on occasion and I consequently try to read everything of his I can find, but his unambiguous association of bed bugs with sanitary standards is something to deeply regret, because it is so clear and so apparently influential. I find other scientists citing him on this as late as the 1990s.
Here is Busvine writing in The Lancet in January, 1941:
Under present conditions people’s standards are bound to suffer, and one result is likely to be a spread of bed bugs. This unpleasant pest has only to be carried in the bedding of a few people to the large shelters to establish itself.
Busvine, J.R. (1941) Control of the bed bug. The Lancet. 237 (6124). 55-56. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(00)95030-X
The context here, beyond the Blitz, is that bed bugs had featured in the pre-war public campaigns to transform housing in Britain and, as we know, were the subject of some rather extraordinary government-funded research. There is much that is interesting in that housing history which we should look at at some point, especially an item of inspiration to New York vs Bed Bugs, but first we should check out this Busvine article for anything it can teach us about bed bugs, although perhaps it is nothing more than the more things change…
The extermination of bugs is greatly affected by circumstances. If infested furniture is moved to a new house it can easily be disinfested by fumigation in a specially constructed van, and this is the method adopted by certain borough medical authorities in their slum-clearance schemes.
He proceeds with a description and notes on some fumigants and liquid insecticides.
It is often impossible to be sure of exposing all the bug population to an overwhelming dose of fumigant, so that it is essential to know at which stages in its life-cycle the bug is most resistant. The resistant stages are not the same for every fumigant; the eggs, for example, are relatively susceptible to hydrogen cyanide and ethylene oxide, but they are much more resistant than other stages to sulphur dioxide, chlorpicrin, trichlorethylene or chloroform. Resistance seems to be less capricious in other stages of the life-history; usually resistance increases throughout development and shows a slight decline in adults. The state of metabolism also affects the resistance of bugs to fumigants; under warm conditions they are far more susceptible than cold. Starvation augments their resistance to ethylene oxide and sulphur dioxide. (Busvine 1938, Gough 1939).
Nothing ever simple, we knew that.
On liquid insecticides:
Bugs live in crevices by day which makes it difficult to use liquid insecticides against them. Even if cracks and corners are carefully sprayed large numbers will escape direct contact.
The long distance travelled by bugs and their erratic habits make it difficult to ensure that they will come into contact with insecticidal powders. Since the insect only feeds on blood the possibility of poison baits is ruled out. For these reasons little attention has been paid to powder insecticides for bugs. In experiments carried out more than twenty years ago pyrethrum was found to be one of the few effective powders (Blacklock 1912, Castellani and Jackson 1915, Scott et al. 1918). General experience, however, shows that it must be used fresh or oxidation will lower the toxicity. Some of the materials found to be ineffective in this early work were sulphur, tobacco powder (containing over 5% nicotine), quassia, hellebore and various inorganic salts (calomel, borax, & c.). There is a brief reference to the use of derris against bugs by de Bussy and his colleagues (1935), and that is unfavourable.
Long distances, eh?
On A.L. 16 and 63:
My colleague Mr. H. S. Leeson allows me to report results of causing bed bugs to walk on cloth powdered with insecticidal powders known as AL. 16 and 63. [A footnote indicates the formula cannot be revealed.] The dose of powder was 0.1 g. on 40 sq. cm., in an open vessel with vertical sides, to prevent escape of bugs. At 32° C. both powders kill all bugs, whether nymphs or adults, in from three to ten days. In a room in which the temperature fluctuated from 17°-24° C. all were killed in from five to twenty-five days. At a still lower temperature, 8°-15° C., some adults survived apparently unhurt for at least three weeks, but nymphs always died whenever they happened to moult.
It has been suggested that intermittent trapping is an indifferent palliative only worthy of primitive societies. The idea has been applied to modern life, however, in the form of a permanent trap described by Kemper (1931) and Mossop (1940). This consists of a metal check-band let into the wall of the building liable to infestation and contains some form of trap or harbourage which can be disinfested from time to time. According to Mossop’s account this method requires elimination of natural harbourages below the band and periodic disinfestation of the trap harbourage, if it is to be successful.
This is intriguing but hard to picture. I don’t suppose anyone has seen one of these artifacts?
On heat and steam:
Bugs are readily destroyed by heat: the adults die within an hour at 44° C., while the eggs require 1° C. higher (Mellanby 1935). It would therefore appear a simple matter to disinfest houses by superheating as, indeed, was recommended in Canada and the United States twenty-five years ago. Unfortunately, it is surprisingly difficult to ensure penetration of the lethal heat into the crevices where the bugs hide, especially those near the floor. The treatment has to be very long for this reason (one day at 60°-70° C. or two days at 50° C.) and cannot be recommended where other measures are available. A blow-lamp can sometimes be used for local heat treatment; of iron bed-frames, for example. Kemper (1929) has described a hand instrument which projects steam superheated electrically to 300° C. This is claimed to deal efficiently with cracks and crevices, and polished or glued articles are said not to be injured.
Hot portable steam as early as 1929. Nothing new and all that.
The secret compound A.L. 63 was a combination of derris and naphthalene and was used by the British army as body lice powder from 1940 until 1944, when DDT powder came along. The inventors had their original paper suppressed for security reasons and published after the war to reclaim their place in history, DDT no doubt overshadowing all.