So hurrah for Lane County, the land of the free,
The home of the grasshopper, bedbug, and flea!
These lines from the Kansas folksong, “The Lane County Bachelor,” may be a delight to entomologists today, but they were a lament of prairie homesteaders. Of the trifecta named in the song, we may observe, first, that the rocky mountain locust is extinct, with the last known specimen taken in Manitoba more than a century ago. The flea is still with us, and difficult to control in domestic situations.
As for the bedbug, we thought we were done with it with the advent of DDT in the 1940s, but of course, DDT had other issues that led to its ban. Insecticides such as diazonon then filled the need for control, until these, too, were subjected to controls. Over the past couple of decades we have come to realize that our presumed modern cleanliness might be next to godliness, but it is no protection against bedbugs.
Regular studies by the National Pest Management Association report a disturbing rise in bedbug infestations across the country, mainly in residential situations. Private homes were a haven for bedbugs in the nineteenth century, whereas in the next, they retreated into public accommodations of the seedier type. Now they are back in the homes. My reading of Australian Geographic tells me the same is the case in Australia.
It appears to be a global, post-DDT phenomenon, whereby, “The little bedbug, so cheerful and bright, Keeps me a-scratching two-thirds of the night.”
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty from bedbugs still today, but I am interested particularly in their history on the homesteading frontier of the Great Plains. The common bedbug, Climex lectularius Linnaeus, was an Old World species that traveled worldwide with colonization. Frontier conditions, with rude habitations, cluttered interiors, sanitational challenges, and transient people, were great for bedbugs, not so good for human slumber.
We read of many folk methods for combatting the pest: smoke, boiling water, sweeping out, and being careful of strangers as houseguests. I don’t think we should accuse prairie homemakers of poor housekeeping. The conditions just favored the bedbugs over their best efforts.
It is notable that bedbugs were not so much a problem north of Nebraska—note that the folksong here quoted came from western Kansas. A recent publication in the Journal of Economic Entomology gives a clue why. Exposure to temperatures of 0 F. for four days, or to -4 F. for half that time, kills bedbugs, larvae, and eggs.
Northern homesteaders had to meet residence requirements, but they commonly vacated their shanties during the worst of winter, leaving them unheated—thus, inadvertently, purging them of bedbugs. Bedbugs getting bad in the home place? Just go visit the wife’s folks a few days.
There were concerns about bedbugs on the northern plains well into the twentieth century, but they were voiced by traveling men—salesmen and product representatives—who frequented lodgings and wanted the hotels to clean up their act. They agitated for legislation, got little relief, and probably just had to keep scratching until DDT came along.