Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/July 1890/Insect Pests of the House

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THE various insects which infest the dwelling have been from time immemorial a trial to careful housekeepers. Just as out of doors the gardener is constantly employed in protecting plants of all kinds from the ravages of insects, so in the house there is a perpetual warfare carried on against these indoor pests. Some eat holes in our clothes, others destroy carpets and hangings, while still others are attracted by the food in our pantries and storerooms.

Unless one has watched the habits of insects and studied their development, it is hard to realize that in their mode of growth they differ from the other animals with which we are familiar. By some it is supposed that an insect grows as a bird or a cat grows—that is, by imperceptible increase in size, with no marked change in form. With this idea it is not strange that a tiny fly should be thought a young fly that will gradually grow bigger, or that a large fly should be supposed to have lived some time to have attained such size. It is a fact fairly well understood that moths and butterflies pass through several changes between the egg and the perfect insect, and that the caterpillar, or worm, as it is more often called, seen feeding in our gardens, or crawling over sidewalks or fences in search of a convenient spot in which to undergo its transformations, will before long assume a totally different appearance; it is not so generally known, however, that in the larger number of insects the change is nearly if not quite as great.

Among the insects which infest our houses we find representatives of most of the various orders of insects, and a study of these forms alone would prove of interest and value. Their habits are well known to the housekeeper, and so in many cases is their appearance in one or more stages; but a history of their life from the egg to the perfect insect is still a mystery to many people, and it is to these that the following pages may be of interest. In this article attention is called only to the more common insect pests of the house.

Clothes-Moth (Tinea pellionella).—One of the commonest of household pests is this little moth. Most housekeepers are familiar with the different stages of its growth, and all are aware of the fact that it is not the little delicate silvery moth that does the damage, except indirectly by laying its eggs in our woolen garments.

The moth, measuring less than half an inch across its spread wings, easily makes its way through the smallest crevices, and unless care is taken in the spring and summer we may find garments Fig. 1.—Clothes-Moth. a, the moth (natural size); b, larva; c, case; d, pupa (b, c, and d are enlarged).[1] that have been carefully laid away in boxes and drawers, as well as clothes hanging in closets, are infested by this creature. As a general rule, the worm seems to prefer partially worn and soiled garments to new cloth.

Early in the spring garments should be well beaten and brushed to dislodge the moths or any eggs that may have been deposited in the folds of the cloth, and then hung in the air and sun for a while.

When possible, garments should be folded in paper, leaving no chance for the moth to enter; large paper bags being convenient for this purpose. Camphor-wood or red-cedar chests are valuable in protecting articles which can not easily be wrapped in paper, as the odor of these woods is disagreeable to the moth; and when these are not to be had, oil of cedar poured on paper, which is then rolled up so that the oil shall not grease the garments, will make an ordinary box moth-proof. These rolls of paper should be scattered through the box and should be renewed two or three times during the spring and summer. It is said that black pepper or whole cloves sprinkled among woolen clothes will prevent the moth from depositing its eggs, as will also pieces of tallow wrapped in paper, and the odor of carbolic acid, turpentine, or benzine is very offensive to the moth. Camphor, as is well known, is beneficial in keeping away moths, but should never be placed near seal-skin, as it causes this fur to change color, showing streaks of gray or yellow. The great secret in taking care of furs is said to be frequent and thorough beating, the furs being kept in close closets lined with tar-paper.

It has been said that the odor of tobacco is disagreeable, but in the experience of some it has seemed rather to attract than to repel the moths. In more than one case it was found that clothes belonging to men using no tobacco were free from the attacks of moths, while in the pockets of-those who smoked constantly were found both eggs and larvæ mixed with bits of tobacco, the garments having been eaten in various places. Of course, this is not an absolute proof of the inefficacy of tobacco, as there may have been other causes of attraction, and fresh, clean tobacco may, after all, be found effectual.

The larvæ or the eggs can be killed by putting the article in which they are found in a tightly closed vessel, and plunging it for a short time into boiling water, or it can be placed in an oven heated to a temperature of 150° Fahr.

It is hardly necessary to describe the moth, which, although so small, is easily recognized as an enemy by most housewives, though in many cases little moths of various species attracted to our rooms by the lamp-light in the evening are often mistaken for the clothes-moth and destroyed. It may be well to state that the clothes-moth rarely flits about the light.

Soon after the moth issues from the cocoon the female finds its way to the substance suitable for food for its young, and upon this material it lays fifty or more eggs. In about a week the egg is hatched, and almost immediately the worm begins to eat, and not only uses for food the fibers of the article upon which the egg was laid, but also makes of the material a covering for itself—a little tube in which it lives, spinning for a lining the softest silk, which it emits from glands in the head. From time to time, as the little worm grows, it enlarges its case, either by adding to the ends or by cutting with its sharp jaws little slits in the sides of the case, filling in the space between the edges with the substance nearest at hand, forming a neat patch. Not content with eating and making a shelter for itself of the cloth upon which it lives, the little worm cuts through the cloth as it makes its way in various directions, dragging its case after it. If the case is torn from it, or in any way injured, it soon makes a new one or patches the old. After a while, at the approach of warm weather, the little worm closes the ends of its case and changes to a pupa or chrysalis, and in two or three weeks the moth appears.

Buffalo-Bug (Anthrenus scrophulariæ).—Within fifteen or twenty years there has appeared a new addition to the already long list of injurious insects introduced into this country from Europe. Although called a bug, which is the name commonly applied to all insects having inconspicuous wings, it is in reality a beetle, and why the name buffalo is applied is not known for a certainty; some say it was first noticed in this country in the city of Buffalo, New York, while one writer says it was named from its fancied resemblance to a buffalo. Whatever may be the reason for this name, and however inapt it may be, it is known more commonly by it than by its more proper name of "carpet-beetle."

The larva which does the damage measures when full grown about three sixteenths of an inch in length. It is covered with hairs, the longest ones being on the last segment of the body, forming a sort of tail. It makes no cocoon, but when full grown remains quiet for a short time, then the skin splits along the back

Fig. 2.—Carpet-Beetle. a, larva, upper side; b, larva, under side; c, pupa; d, perfect insect (after Riley). The straight lines at the sides show the actual length of each form.

and the pupa is seen. It continues in this state for a few weeks, when the skin of the pupa bursts and the perfect insect is disclosed—a beautiful little beetle, less than an eighth of an inch in length, marked with red, black, and white. From October until spring the beetles may be found in all stages of growth—that is to say, in the larval, pupal, and perfect states.

It is found that few of the usual preventives are of any use against the attacks of this beetle, and for this reason it is a difficult pest to eradicate. In some places it has proved so destructive that carpets have to be dispensed with, and in their place rugs are used, as being more conveniently examined.

Tallow or tallowed paper placed around the edges of the carpet, which are often the parts first attacked, is said to be effectual. In many cases the carpets are cut, as if with scissors, following the line of the seams in the floor, and as a remedy for this it has been recommended that the seams be filled during the winter with cotton saturated with benzine. Kerosene, naphtha, or gasoline are offensive to the beetle as well as benzine, but benzine is perhaps the simplest and safest preventive to use. It can be poured from a tin can having a very small spout, it being necessary to use but little.

Before tacking down a carpet it should be thoroughly examined, and if possible steamed. If in spite of precautions a carpet is found infested, a wet cloth, can be spread down along the edges, and a hot iron passed over it, the steam thus generated not only killing the beetles and larvæ, but destroying any eggs that may have been laid. Clothing is sometimes attacked as well as objects of natural history—such as stuffed birds and mammals.

It was believed that the beetle must feed on some plant, for in a number of cases it was captured out of doors, and it was finally discovered feeding on the pollen of the flowers of spiræas, the beetle living on the plant for a while and then returning to the house to lay its eggs. When this was proved, it was suggested that spiræas should be planted around houses infested by the beetle; by doing this the plants could be often examined and the beetles destroyed.

Cockroaches (Blattidæ).—Among the Orthoptera, to which order this family belongs, we find a different mode of transformation. Were it not for its small size and the absence of wings, the Fig. 3.—Cockroach. a, male; b, female. young would closely resemble the parent, and, after molting or changing its skin several times, it reaches maturity without having passed through a stage in which it keeps perfectly quiet, as in the case of the moth and beetle.

The eggs of the cockroach are carried about in a little case by the female, and when these eggs are ready to hatch, this case is dropped; and it is said by some writers that the little ones are helped out by the mother. Just after the young come from the egg, and after each molt, they are white, but the usual color is brown or black. They molt five or six times before reaching maturity.

Cockroaches are very troublesome, eating anything that comes in their way; are unpleasant to look upon, and are specially disgusting to us on account of their disagreeable odor.

The large cockroach (Periplaneta orienialis), or "black beetle," as it is sometimes called, might in some cases be not unwelcome, as it acts as a scavenger, keeping the corners of the rooms it frequents clean, and furthermore it feeds on that most disgusting of pests, the bed-bug. Though this is said in its favor, we think there is no doubt that the remedy might be thought as bad as the disease, and it would be considered more agreeable to find some other way of exterminating the bed-bug; and most people would prefer having their corners cleaned in the ordinary way, with soap and water; nevertheless, it is sometimes of service in this way. This cockroach is of a dark-brown color, about an inch in length; the male having short wings, while the female has only rudimentary wings. It is very troublesome in kitchens, coming out at night when the lights are out.

A somewhat larger insect is the American cockroach (Periplaneta americana), which is a lighter brown color, both the male and female having well-developed wings. This species is not so often found in houses, but frequents water-pipes and sewers and the cargoes of vessels.

The smallest cockroach which is a pest in our houses is the "water-bug" (Ectobia lapponica). It is also known as the "Croton-bug." This insect is very common in houses in New England, and, though eating any kind of food, is especially fond of bread. It frequents bakeries, where it proves a great annoyance, sometimes being baked in the bread in spite of care. It also eats the covers of books bound in cloth, but will not touch those bound in leather.

It has been said that sailors have been greatly troubled by cockroaches eating the nails of their fingers and toes, and the hard parts of their feet and hands, but this has been questioned. However, a writer in Nature affirms that while in Australia he was awakened one night by cockroaches nibbling his feet, which were badly blistered, and in the morning he found the skin had been eaten from a large blister, causing a painful sore, and that the hard skin of the heel had also been eaten. Another writer in the same journal says that this habit of cockroaches is well known to all West Indians.

Borax is very disagreeable to cockroaches and will drive them away, and it is said to kill them if mixed with white sugar and sprinkled around the corners frequented by them. The following receipt for a preparation to exterminate cockroaches is given in a late number of Science: thirty-seven parts of borax, nine parts of starch, and four parts of cocoa. This preparation should be sprinkled around their haunts.

Insect-powder does not kill them but renders them stupid, and while in this condition they can easily be swept up and destroyed. In England cockroaches are sometimes caught with stale beer, which is placed in a deep dish, bits of wood being so arranged that the cockroaches can climb into the liquid. The following preparations are mentioned in Harris's Insects Injurious to Vegetation, but, as they are poisonous, they should be used with the greatest care. The first is a tablespoonful of red lead and Indian meal, mixed with enough molasses to make a thick batter; the other is a teaspoonful of powdered arsenic mixed with a tablespoonful of mashed potatoes. These preparations should be used for several nights in succession.

Bristle-Tail or Silver-Fish (Lepisma).—Often when looking into a box or drawer which has remained in a damp place for some time, or on opening an old book, we see a curious little silvery creature running swiftly out of sight. It is so unlike the insects which we usually find in our houses that one hardly knows what to call it. It is nevertheless an insect, though belonging to a low order. Its long, slender body is covered with delicate iridescent scales, from which is derived its name "silver-fish"; it has no wings and passes through no metamorphoses. It feeds on silken clothing, tapestry, and the like, but is more destructive to books, eating the paste of the binding and even the leaves, though loose papers are more often attacked. A few years ago one species was found doing a great deal of damage in museums by eating the labels. The labels which were, rendered illegible by the attacks of this insect were made of heavily sized paper, in most cases common unglazed paper remaining untouched by them; and it was also found that only clothing finished with starch or sizing was subject to their attacks. Prof. Hagen, writing on this pest, recommends that insect-powder, which easily kills them, should be sprinkled about silk dresses or any articles liable to be' injured by them. Where papers are pressed close together the Lepisma can do no damage; but in cases where pressure might injure the papers or pictures they might be inclosed in boxes, taking care that the covers fit so closely that no space is left for the insect to enter, or the boxes might be sealed up by pasting strips of paper around the covers, a paste with which insect-powder has been mixed being used for this purpose; valuable framed engravings might be covered on the backs with common paper, the same kind of paste being used. There is no doubt that labels washed in an alcoholic solution of corrosive sublimate would be rendered proof againstr the attacks of this insect. Death-Watch (Anobium).—Books are also eaten by the larva and the mature insect of several species of beetles belonging to the genus Anobium. These beetles produce the ticking sound sometimes heard in the wood-work of houses, specially noticeable at night, when everything is quiet. This sound is probably a sexual call, and is made by the beetle rapping the wood with its head. Injury is also done by them to furniture and food, and they sometimes prove a great annoyance. Their depredations may be prevented by washing articles liable to be attacked in a solution of corrosive sublimate in alcohol, or objects such as books may be exposed to the odor of carbolic acid or benzine, or they may be fumigated with burning sulphur.

There are still other insects which do more or less damage in libraries[2] by eating the books, but those already mentioned are the principal ones.

Ants (Formicidæ).—Of the large black or brownish ants that trouble us in store-rooms but little can be said, as, so far as I have examined the authorities within my reach, I have found but little mention of them. Judging by my own experience, they are very difficult pests to expel from the house. Cayenne pepper is said to be disagreeable to them, and arsenic mixed with any kind of attractive food will kill them. Oil of peppermint is found very effectual in driving them away, but everything in its vicinity is so permeated with the odor that its use can not be recommended. It is often said that borax will drive them away, but this has been tried without success; however, according to a writer in the Popular Science News, the borax should first be heated, to deprive it of its water of crystallization. Hot alum-water is very offensive to most of the insect pests of the house, and should be applied with a brush when nearly boiling hot.

Ants are extremely fond of sugar, and anything containing it will attract them. A glass of jelly left uncovered within their reach will be found tunneled in every direction, and, by pouring boiling water upon it, the ants within may be killed.

An excellent and simple trap for them is a sponge wet with some sweet sirup. When the interstices of the sponge are filled with the ants, it can be carefully taken up and plunged into boiling water, and again set for them after saturating the sponge with the sirup.

Another trap which is still more simple is a plate covered with a thin layer of lard, which should be placed in the closet frequented by them. This would probably prove more effectual in catching the little yellow ant (Myrmica molesta), which is sometimes very troublesome in the house.

Mention should be made of the white ants, which, although resembling the true ants in appearance, really belong to the order of Neuroptera. The only species found in the United States does great damage by eating the interior of the wood-work of buildings. These ants enter the timbers of the foundation from below, and extend their galleries to the top, leaving the outside untouched, so that their presence is unsuspected until the supports suddenly give way.

Several years ago the "dungeon" as it is called in the State House in Boston, was found to be undermined by them, and Dr. Hagen apprehended considerable trouble if their depredations were not immediately checked. In addition to the danger of the supports giving way, there was reason for alarm in the fact that they also destroy books and paper; but in this case, fortunately, the papers stored in the part of the State-House in which they appeared were of little value. Measures were taken at the time to prevent their devastating work, and it is hoped that they have been exterminated; but Dr. Hagen, in an article on the subject a few years later, thought it not improbable that they had spread farther, as nothing was done to prevent their entering other parts of the building.

These ants feed on rotten wood, living in old stumps of trees, and sometimes in old fences, and Dr. Hagen suggested the removing of every old stump around buildings and in the vicinity of cities, thus diminishing the number by depriving them of their necessary food. Places kept moist by hot steam are particularly favorable for the work of these little creatures; and more or less trouble was occasioned in Cambridgeport, at the telescope works of Alvan Clark and Son, where a timber constantly moist from the steam was honey-combed by them; and some years ago a bridge near Porter's Station in Cambridge was destroyed, probably from the same cause. As many trains stopped under this bridge, it was constantly moist from the steam of the locomotives.

So far the insects mentioned are those that do direct injury to our clothes, carpets,* food, books, etc., but there are still others which frequent our houses and prove very annoying in various ways; and besides these there are numerous insects which cause much trouble in collections of natural history, and in museums the utmost care must be exercised to prevent their attacks. It is not often that these museum pests prove of much annoyance in the house. I have found the larva of a beetle (Attagenus pellio) in the sawdust of a doll's arm; and the larva of another species (Attagenus megatama) is sometimes found to have eaten the feathers in pillows, and the short particles of the feathers become so firmly fastened in the ticking by the repeated shakings of the pillow that a fine, soft felting is made, resembling the fur of a mole.

Bed-Bug (Cimex lectularius).—The eggs of the bed-bug are white in color and oval in shape. The young differ but slightly from the parent. The full-grown bug is wingless or possesses rudimentary wings, is less than a quarter of an inch in length and of a brown color. It is about eleven weeks in attaining its

A brief mention may be made of a fly (Scenopinus pallipes) whose habits are but little known. The larva is a long, white worm living under carpets, upon which it is supposed to feed, and it is also found in rotten wood, but as yet it has not appeared in numbers sufficiently large to prove an annoyance in the house. The fuil-grown fly measures about a quarter of an inch in length. growth. Dr. Packard, in his Guide to the Study of Insects, says that bed-bugs may be destroyed by "a preparation consisting of thirty parts of unpurified, cheap petroleum, mixed with a thousand parts of water"; and in the Popular Science News was published Fig. 4.—Bed-Bug. a, young; b, adult (after Kiley), both enlarged. the following formula for a bed-bug poison: Into one half pint of alcohol put one ounce of camphor, with one ounce of pulverized sal ammoniac and one ounce of corrosive sublimate; to this add one half pint of spirits of turpentine and shake well before using. These solutions may be applied around the cracks and crevices of a bedstead;

benzine, too, may be used with good effect, and boiling water will destroy them, but the best preventive is perfect cleanliness. Curiously enough, they live parasitic upon domestic birds.

Flea (Pulex canis).—The fleas, although having no wings, have until lately been classed with the flies (Diptera), but are now placed by many writers in an order by themselves, the Aphaniptera. Fig. 5.—Flea, (much enlarged). During the past summer and fall there has been considerable annoyance caused in and around Boston by this troublesome insect, and owing to its habit of attacking man it was supposed to be the true human flea, but a letter of inquiry on the subject, addressed to an eminent entomologist brought the following reply: "So far as I know, we do not have the human flea in North America, and ours is Pulex canis, the dog and cat flea. It seems to breed in sandy cellars and such places at certain seasons."

The eggs of this flea are laid on the dog or cat, and, being sticky, adhere to the hair until almost ready to hatch, when they fall to the ground. These eggs are very small, white, and oblong, and but eight or ten are laid by one female.

The young larvæ are hatched in about a week, and their growth is usually attained in less than two weeks; they then pass two more weeks in the pupal stage, when the perfect insect appears. When dogs are badly infested by them, the use of common olive-oil is recommended. This should be well rubbed into the hair and over the skin, being allowed to remain for half an hour, when it should be washed out with the best yellow soap and lukewarm water. Dalmatian insect-powder has also been found efficacious. This powder can be rubbed into the hair, and it can be sprinkled around their kennels. It is not, however, best to use Fig . 6.—Larva of Flea. it on cats, but possibly it might do no harm to sprinkle it around their sleeping-places. A better plan is to have the cat's bed made of shavings or some such material that can often be replaced, the old bedding being carefully taken up and burned.

Some years ago there were on exhibition a number of so-called educated fleas, and it is thought by some people that the intelligence of fleas must be very great if they can be trained in this way; but an article by Mr. W. H. Dall, in the American Naturalist, a few years ago, showed that in every case the motions made by the flea were caused, not by the training it had received, but by the struggles made in its efforts to escape.

House-Fly (Musca domestica).—Familiar as we all are with this insect in its mature state, it will be found that to many its history before it appears in our houses is still very obscure, and until some years ago, when Dr. Packard made a study of its life-history, naturalists, too, were somewhat unfamiliar with its early stages of growth, and to him we are indebted for the following facts:

We find the flies most annoying and abundant in the hot dog-days of August, and, unless the greatest care is taken, our rooms are filled with them, even though we maybe some distance from a stable, where the desired food for the young is found. The eggs are laid in bunches in manure, often buried out of sight, and, the conditions being favorable, they are hatched in twenty-four hours. The worm or maggot has no legs, and, after changing its skin, appears larger, though otherwise remains about the same in appearance. After two or three days it again sheds its skin, and in this stage of development it remains two or three days longer. It then transforms into a chrysalis, in which state the body contracts somewhat and becomes brown and hard, and, after six or seven days, the perfect fly appears and lives for five or six weeks, perhaps longer. A few flies probably live over the winter in crevices of buildings until the warm spring days bring them out.

Dr. Packard kept a fly in a bottle from 6 p. m. one day until 8 a. m. the following day, in which time one hundred and twenty eggs were laid.

Oftentimes flies are found dead on the window-sills or adhering to the walls or ceilings, a white powder surrounding them; death in these cases having been caused by a parasitic plant growing upon them, the white powder observed about them being the spores of the plant.

It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to speak of the various methods of preventing the entrance into our houses of these annoying insects, or the manner of expelling when, in spite of screens and nettings, we find them in our rooms. One must be always on the watch, and better than any fly-trap or fly-paper is the little whisk broom, constantly at hand to be used on these disturbers of the peace. A strong solution of quassia, mixed with sugar to attract the flies, is said to be an excellent fly-poison.

Flies can be kept out of stables by keeping the floor well swept and clean, and sprinkled with kerosene-oil, only a very little being used.

Mosquito (Cidex pipiens).—Another dipterous insect which frequents our dwellings is the common mosquito, an insect too well known to need any description. During the season a female will lay about three hundred eggs in several litters. These eggs are deposited in standing water, running water being free from them on account of the danger of the mosquito being drowned when emerging from its pupa-case, which serves as a sort of raft until the wings and legs are strong enough to support the perfect insect.

The egg hatches soon after being deposited, and the young lives upon decaying matter, growing very rapidly and changing its skin several times. While in the pupa, state it takes no food, and, unless disturbed, remains near the surface of the water. In about four weeks after hatching, the pupa-skin splits along the back, and the mosquito appears. It is perhaps hardly necessary to mention that it is only the female that bites, or, more properly speaking, stings.

A writer in Nature says that the "smell of American pennyroyal (Hedeoma pidegioides), when sufficiently strong, drives them away at once." This remedy is often given, but I have never yet seen it used with any effect. Another writer in the same journal advises the use of a solution made by pouring boiling water upon quassia-chips. This wash may be applied and left to dry on the skin, acting as a preventive against the annoyances of mosquitoes, gnats, etc. In a later volume of Nature a writer reports having tried this wash with no beneficial results; still, it may be of use in some cases, and, being so simple, could easily be tried. Still other washes are made, some of which may be found a protection. A number of rules are given in The Popular Science News during the year 1882. The house can be kept tolerably free from mosquitoes by using care, and a netting over the bed protects one during the night; but, when one wishes to spend his summer vacation in the country, he is willing to try anything that will protect him from these most annoying creatures, which make a morning spent in the woods a torture instead of a pleasure.

  1. Figs. 1, 5, and 6 are from Our Common Insects, by Prof. A. S. Packard, and we are indebted to the kindness of the author for permission to use them.
  2. Prof. Verrill found in the library of Yale College a caterpillar belonging to the genus Anglossa eating the leather bindings of old books. When ready to transform, this larva spins a silken cocoon, and after a short time there issues from it a little moth measuring half an inch across its spread wings.