Impaling Bed Bugs on Tiny Spikes (Leaf Hairs)

October 21, 2014

KIDNEY BEAN LEAF hairs, an ancient Balkan folk remedy to ameliorate bed bugs biting like vampires in the nighttime and wee morning hours, are in essence medieval warfare pikes barbarically impaling bed bugs resistant to 20th and 21st century synthetic pesticides. The resurrection of kidney bean leaves from Balkan folklore is a measure of human desperation, and an example of an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) strategy combining multiple weapons and tactics to fight this modern-day plague. According to The Journal of the Royal Society Interface, a modern offshoot of the one of the earliest medieval gatherings (mid-1600s) of natural philosophers, scientists and scientific craftsmen (instrument makers) into an official organization, those Balkan peasants knew a thing or two about fighting pestilence with “primitive” botanical remedies. Ultimately, bed bug-impaling bean hair “swords” or fabricated replicas will be combined in IPM strategies with other tactics, including ancient Ayurvedic Asian herbal remedies like neem tree oils (see previous blog).

You are not alone in being plagued by bed bugs: According to the journal Medical and Veterinary Entomology (Davies et al., 2012) there are “over 4 millennia of recorded narratives dating back to medieval European texts, classical Greek writings and the Jewish Talmud” and “archaeologists excavating a 3550-year-old workmen’s village at el-Amarna in Egypt found fossilized bed bug remains.” Plus bed bug “Females lay one or two eggs every day, and each female may lay 200–500 eggs in her lifetime, which may be 6 months or longer.” Modern heated buildings with lots of cracks, crevices and hiding places are even more comfortable for bed bugs than the ancient unheated buildings and caves of our ancestors.

The search for botanical remedies is perhaps equally ancient. Sir Francis Avery Jones, writing in the Journal Of The Royal Society Of Medicine (v. 89, Dec. 1996): “In the Stone Age the hunter-gatherers have learnt by hard experience…Over the eons they could have recognized plants which dulled pain, induced sleep, healed wounds, or poisoned animals or their enemies like wolfsbane…In Iraq there is a well-preserved grave of Neanderthal man, dated to some 60,000 years ago, with grains of flower pollen thickly scattered around the bones. The pollen came from eight different species still grown in Iraq today, some having recognized medicinal uses…Very early documents from China, Egypt, Sumaria and India describe the uses of anise, mustard, caraway, mint, saffron, thyme, cardamom, turmeric, cloves and pepper. The herbals reached their peak in the first century AD when the Greek physician Dioscorides assembled his vast De Materia Medica, recording the name, description, habit and medical use of some 600 plants.”

Bean leaves in comparison are a relatively modern bed bug botanical, a variant on the Tudor England practice of covering floors with pest-repellent (e.g. versus fleas, flies, plague, gaol fever/typhus) strewing herbs for their uplifting aromatic properties (e.g. rosemary, woodruff, various mints, box, lavender, santolina, hyssop, balm, cleavers, costmary, marjoram, meadowsweet, tansy). Queen Elizabeth’s use of meadowsweet leaves and flowers was described in The Herbal or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597) by John Gerard: “leaves and floures of meadowsweet farre excell all other strewing herbs for to deck up houses, for the smell makes the heart merrie and joyful and delights the senses.”

The Balkan remedy of bed bugs becoming entangled in hooked bean leaf hairs was written about by someone named Bogdandy in 1927 in the journal Naturwissenschaften and then again in 1943 by the USDA’s Henry Richardson in the Journal of Economic Entomology. According to a 2013 issue of The Journal of the Royal Society Interface, whose authors included Catherine Loudon of the University of California Irvine, who talked about the subject at the Entomological Society of America (ESA): “Historical reports describe the trapping of bed bugs in Balkan countries by leaves from bean plants strewn on the floor next to beds. During the night, bed bugs walking on the floor would accumulate on these bean leaves, which were collected and burned the following morning to exterminate the bed bugs.”

Fire, burning bean leaves that have “hooked” or “trapped” bed bugs, might be considered an extreme and specialized form of pest control heat treatment to be practiced with extreme caution. But compared to combating blood-sucking (vampirism) and werewolfism (Lycanthropy) in Hollywood B-movies, who’s to say. YouTube has videos showing bed bugs getting snagged by bean leaf hairs, and a simulation indicating that real bean leaves are still better than synthetic fabrics fabricated to mimick bean leaves. Kidney bean varieties are best for impaling passing bed bugs, and easy to use around a bed. But some lima bean varieties and small passion flower leaves also work, said Loudon. Interestingly, like computer chips, bean hairs that snag bed bugs best are toughened with silicon, unlike synthetic fabric hairs so far fabricated from substances like dental molding.

But given enough time, I would expect researchers in some dark Transylvanian lab in the Vampire District or in some light-splashed lab with surfboards along Frankenstein Row on the southern California coast to focus their scanning electron microscopes under high and low vacuums and eventually patent and reveal to the world nano-fabric silica hairs of a monstrous nature (to bed bugs) that can protectively surround sleepers and trap bed bugs before they bite. Or perhaps the genetic engineers will get there first with a carnivorous plant (the Venus Bed Bug Trap) for biocontrol. But if you’re keeping score, for most of human history, with some periods of remission, Team Bed Bug is still on top. In the meantime, pleasant dreams; and don’t let the bed bugs bite.

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