It is time, once again, to talk about the little bugs that would have plagued fur traders everywhere — carpet beetles!
The story begins with my mother, who at 90 years of age moved into a seniors’ residential home. Shortly after she moved in, the staff of the facility noticed a ‘line of bugs’ that marched down the back of her couch, and panicked. It was a new building and they didn’t want to introduce carpet beetles to the place, so they moved her out for a few days while they had her room fumigated.
Oddly, my mother was furious! But this is her history: she believed the care-givers were calling her ‘dirty,’ and this took her right back to her childhood in very-English Duncan, B.C. This Vancouver Island town had more than its share of English immigrants who were very prejudiced against the Natives. Even though my English grandmother (my mother’s mother) was the laziest and dirtiest housekeeper around, she was English and there fore accepted in Duncan society. But to Duncan residents of the time, my mother’s father, Arthur Beattie Anderson, was the youngest son of Alexander Caulfield Anderson, and therefore “Red Indian.” My mother and all her brothers and sisters grew up in Duncan with the experience of being called “a dirty Indian.”
But we are not speaking of my mother’s past and the prejudice she endured: we are speaking of the bugs that upset her so much as a ninety year old. She was blind: these bugs had probably emerged from her couch every year to march toward the light, but she would never have seen them. They could have lived forever in the natural fibers of that clunky piece of furniture, and probably had. She had cats, and the fibers of her old couch were plugged with the cat hair her old cat shed — and that is what carpet beetles live on!
Carpet beetles live on wool and other natural fabrics such as cotton, fur, animal hair and bird feathers, leather, silk and linens. They can destroy expensive clothing and furniture, and devastate museum collections. They can live on dogs (did my mother’s “body-rot” dog have carpet beetle infestation rather than an allergy to fleas?) and rats. They often appear after a rat or mouse infestation, in fact.
At the time I first wrote about carpet beetles I had been living in the place that my mother had occupied before she moved into the residential home. But I never saw them, until one day when a beetle wandered out onto the piece of paper I happened to be looking at under a strong light. I caught it and identified it — and then worried about the damage these “millions of little bugs” were doing.
More than that: when I learned that they traveled from one house to another on a person’s clothes, I thought I was spreading them to all my friends’ houses! What was worse: I knew what to look for, and I found their little corpses in the window-sills of all my friends’ houses. That panicked me! But I quickly learned not to worry about my carpet beetles, and my friends’. Let me tell you why:
Almost every house has a few carpet beetles, and some houses more than others. Maybe you have some: they are the small red and black (or black) wavy-striped little beetles that die on your windowsill every spring from now (early April) to August every year. The little beetles are generally dead when you find them. Probably you’ve seen them a million times and never paid any attention to them.
But these are the adult carpet beetles, and they have left batches of tiny larval beetles behind them. The larvae are the beetles that do the most damage, and you will never see them as they come out at night — well, that’s not absolutely true…
I saw the larvae of a carpet beetle once, entirely by accident. I was kneeling down at the time, and it emerged from under a carpet and crossed the pink tile floor in front of me. It moved at a good clip and slid under a baseboard before I even realized what it was! It was about the size of a semi-colon — ; ! And it was transparent, in the way that a silverfish seems transparent. Now do you see why you will never see one, except by accident?
And that’s what taught me not to be afraid of these things: yes, they might be voracious, but at that size, how much can they eat?
So it entirely depends on how many you have. If you have dozens of carpet beetles dead on your windowsills, you have lots of larvae.
How do you get them:
They come in on fresh flowers and don’t leave. They fly in your windows, and walk in your doors. They come in on dried food and dog foods (very common). They may appear after a mouse or rat infestation. They might live inside your furniture, and one source says they might be in your pillow or mattress (now that would upset me).
Once inside your house, the female lays eggs — 30 to 100 eggs a year. One source describes the eggs as small and white, located near a food source such as lint, or dog-hair, around the baseboards, or the duct work of hot-air furnace systems. Larvae hatch five or six weeks after being laid (depending on the species). They feed in dark undisturbed places like closets, or in areas under heavy pieces of furniture where there is no foot traffic, and where dust and hair collect.
So if you find the adults on the windowsill, take a look around. Vacuum the carpet next to the walls, and the baseboard heaters and heating ducts. Clean bottom of closets, especially where you store your dried dog food. Look for large hidden cobwebs and remove them — that is a carpet beetle nest, not a spider web (they might be in your attic or basement). Drop some boric acid (from pharmacy) behind baseboards if there are gaps, and behind or under heavy pieces of furniture. DON’T BREATH IT IN, AND DON’T PUT IT ANYWHERE CHILDREN OR PETS WILL TOUCH IT. Just doing that fixed mine, though I also sprinkled boric acid underneath my wool rugs.
Or do nothing. This is not usually a serious insect infestation, unless you have a ton of them. By the way, if you live in an old house that has horsehair as part of its insulation (or to hold the plaster-mix together) — give it up. The Carpet beetles are there to stay!
So far this does not sound like a fur trade story, does it? But it is. In the springtime the fur trade employees shook insects out of the furs — amongst them the visible adult beetles. What they didn’t see of course, is the larvae, and these were shipped with the furs, to London. I am certain that every person in London that wore furs or beaver hats from Rupertsland, also wore carpet beetle larvae! These bugs were everywhere! And they are everywhere today, even in places in Canada where the current residents enjoy a long, fiercely cold winter!
So take a peak at your window sills and see if you see little round, dead bugs that look like tiny lady-bugs (with almost the same pattern on their back). They are about the size of an O ! That is probably a carpet beetle. Celebrate the fact that these little bugs are part of fur trade history!
This article was first published in my old blog: Fur Trade Family History, at http://furtradefamilyhistory.blogspot.ca/2013/05/carpet-beetles.html
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2015. All rights Reserved.
- Little Fort, on the North Thompson River
- Alexis Bellanger