Cimex Lectularius L., the Common Bed Bug from Pharaonic Egypt

Article excerpt


The desiccating conditions of the edge of the Egyptian desert provide excellent media for the preservation of biological materials. The vertebrate and plant remains from tombs are well known (Boessneck 1988; Hepper 1990). More recently, detailed palaeoecological research has been extended to occupation sites, and the work directed by Barry Kemp on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Society at Tell el-Amarna, 270 km south of Cairo, has provided material for the examination not only of animal bone and plant macrofossils (Kemp et al. 1994), but also of insect remains. The city was founded by Akhenaten (1352-1336 BC), and the so-called Workmen's village, from which samples for insect analysis were obtained, probably housed the tomb workers and possibly later, during Tut'ankhamun's reign, a contingent of guards. The site was perhaps occupied for 20-25 years, from the 4th regnal year of Akhenaten through the reigns of Smenkhare and Tut'ankhamun, c. 1350-1323 BC (Kemp 1984). As well as the human flea, Pulex irritans L., and numerous pests of stored products, well-preserved specimens of Cimex, the genus which includes the bed bug were also recovered (FIGURE 1). Although separation of C. lectularius L., the bed bug, from C. columbarius Jenyns, the pigeon bug, is difficult on the fossil material, the latter is not recorded from Africa (Usinger 1966), and the archaeological context and associated fauna also supports identification as bed bugs. The Amarna specimens provide the earliest record of an association between man and this ectoparasite.


The bed bug

Cimex lectularius L. (Hemiptera, Cimicidae), the common bed bug, is a now cosmopolitan ectoparasite, which feeds upon the blood of humans. It spends the day hiding in cracks and crevices in rooms and furniture, and emerges by night to feed (Ghauri 1973). The species has also been recorded feeding upon the blood of bats, chickens and rabbits (Noble & Noble 1976). Whilst the Amarna specimens confirm the Old World origins of the species, its presence in the Mediterranean region by the Classical period is already noted by writers such as Aristophanes (Clouds 634 cf. 710-42; Plutus 541; Frogs 439), Aristotle (Historia Animalium 556b21ff], Pliny (Natural History XXIX.61, XXVII.80, XXXII.124,136, XXIX.58, XXIX.62), and Dioscorides (De Materia Medica II.34). According to Strouhal (1995), it is mentioned also in a 3rd-century BC Egyptian papyrus. Surprisingly it was believed that the ectoparasite had medicinal properties, and it was used ground together with other substances against a variety of diseases (Pliny Natural History XXIX. 61, 62, 63; Dioscorides De Materia Medica II.34; II. 113, 125). Experiments have shown that C. lectularius is capable of transmitting diseases including, for example, Hepatitis B (Silvermann et al. 1998), but there is no satisfactory evidence to prove it is a vector of disease under normal conditions. However, iron deficiency in heavily infested infants has been noted in India (Venkatachalam & Belavadi 1962), and the bites themselves may cause some distress to otherwise healthy individuals.

The spread of the bed bug

Although now essentially world-wide in distribution, in the Tropics C. lectularius is replaced by C. hemipterus (F.) as a human ectoparasite, and the latter is distributed throughout the Orient. Omori (1939) has shown that a reproductive barrier exists between the two species, resulting in the death of the females of C. lectularius when mated with the tropical species. However this does not explain the apparent rarity of C. lectularius in the northern part of its range until the post-medieval period. Both Usinger (1966) and Cloudsley-Thompson (1976) refer to Moufet (1634) as providing the earliest record from the British Isles in 1583. The date 1503, which both Southwood & Leston (1959) and Busvine (1976) have, according to Usinger (1966) derives from a misprint in Matheson (1941). …