Saturday, May 25, 2013

Carpet Beetles!


Carpet beetles: I have been thinking about these little buggers a lot lately.
These, I think, are the bugs the fur traders found every spring, when they shook out their furs before packing them for the outgoing brigades.
These tiny beetles emerge as adults every year, in mid-April or early May, and crawl out to die on the windowsills.
They do this even today. If you look on your windowsill, you might well find some small, round, red-striped (or black) beetles there.
These are the oh, so-common-everywhere carpet beetles!

I first came to know of these bugs when the staff of the seniors facility my ancient mother lived in noticed a "line of bugs" marching down the back of her couch, and moved her out for a few days to have her room fumigated.
She was furious! She believed her care-givers were calling her "dirty!"Her reaction was a complete throwback to her youth in veddy-English Duncan in the 1920's.
This Vancouver Island town had more than its share of English residents, 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 therefore was accepted in Duncan society. (Well, almost completely accepted -- her own family members would not speak to her after her marriage because she had married "an Indian.")
But my mother's father was the youngest son of Alexander Caulfield Anderson, and Duncan residents knew he carried Indian blood.
Therefore, my mother and all her brothers and sisters grew up with the stain of being called "a dirty Indian."

But we are not talking 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 window, but she would never have seen them!
They could have lived forever in that sofa; it was old enough to be made of natural fabrics, and its fibres were plugged with the cat hair her old cat shed.
And that is what carpet beetles live on: wools 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 an allergy to fleas as the vet told us, or did Carpet beetles make their home in her hair?)

I am now occupying the place where my mother used to live before she moved, and once the carpet beetles were discovered in her couch at the seniors' home, my sister and I both knew that the carpet beetles were where I lived too.
But I never saw them, until one day one 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 bugs" were doing.

When I learned how they travelled from one house to another on a person's clothes, I thought I was spreading them to all my friends' houses.
What was worse: when I knew what to look for, I discovered carpet beetles in all their homes too.
But I quickly learned to not worry about my carpet beetles, and theirs.
Let me tell you why.....

Everyone of my friends had more carpet beetles on their windowsills than I had.

Almost everyone has a few carpet beetles, and some people have more than a few.
Maybe even you have some: they are the red and black striped beetles [or small black beetles] that appear on your windowsill every spring from mid-April or early May all the way through June and early July, at least.
Apparently there is another rush of carpet beetles in August, but I haven't seen it anywhere here.
The little beetles are probably dead when you find them, and probably you've seen them a million times and have never worried about them.
But these are the adult carpet beetles, and they have left batches of tiny larval beetles behind them.

Of course, the larvae of the carpet beetles are the beetles that do the most damage.
They are the ones that you do not see -- you do not even know you have carpet beetles until you see the adults dead, on your windowsills.
So, should you be afraid?

Well, not really.
Everyone has them, and if you have three or four or six or a dozen, don't worry about them too much.
If you have a lot more than that, then start considering getting rid of them before they march in an orderly little line down the back of the couch they have been consuming for years!

There are four kinds of carpet beetles, or maybe more depending on where you live.
I think the beetles I see here on the west coast are Black Carpet Beetles, and Varied (or variegated) Carpet Beetles -- these appear to be red and black striped beetles but apparently have other colours as well.

The Black Carpet Beetles measures about 2.5-5mm long; it is dark brown to black in colour.
It is just a little oblong black beetle, smaller (the ones I have seen, at least ) than the apparently more common Varied.

The Varied (or Variegated) Carpet Beetles are about 2 to 3mm long and nearly round. Its top body is gray with a mixture of white, brown and yellow scales and irregular black cross bands according to most descriptions.
Still, on the west coast, they look like red and black striped bugs to me. Almost like tiny lady bugs, in fact.

I don't think I have seen any Common Carpet Beetles, but you might have. They are rounder than the black carpet beetle and about 3mm to 4.5mm long. Its colouration is gray to black with 3 wavy white bands on the wings, and a reddish stripe running down the centre of the back.

Furniture Carpet Beetles are slightly larger than the varied carpet beetle (and I might have seen these once). They are 2.5mm long with an oval, plump shape. It is coloured yellow, white and black and has a definite wing cleft (the stripe down the middle of the back of the beetle).

These things fly! I never knew that.
They are said to be very efficient flyers, in fact.

The larvae of the carpet beetles have visible hairs along their body and may vary from pale to dark in colour, depending on the species. Some are quite big (bigger than the adult) and some very small.
I actually saw one and I can see why no one knows they are there -- this one was tiny, like the tiniest little spiders you see -- and white to almost transparent, similar to those whitish silverfish you occasionally see.
It was almost invisible, and I only saw it because I happened to be kneeling down at a time when it was moving from its food source to its home.
It crossed the tile floor at a good clip, and disappeared under the base board before I even realized what it was.
It was about the size of this semi-colon " ; " -- pretty darn small.

But it makes sense: the adult is about the size of a large bold capital O, or " O " -- again, depending on the species.
The black carpet beetles I see are perhaps this size: " 0 " or a bit larger -- though the information I have given above says they are the same size as the others.
And that's what taught me not to be terrified of these things -- yes, the larvae can be voracious and is described as a big eater, but it is also very much smaller than pest control companies picture it!
It depends on the numbers, I think. If you have a lot of larvae, you have a lot of problems.

How do the first carpet beetles get into your house?
They come on batches of fresh flowers, and don't leave again.
They fly in your windows!
They walk in your doors.
They are outdoor insects, and may be carried into your house on your firewood.
They come in on dried food or pet food -- yes, very common. They are closely related to the bugs that infest dried foods, in fact, and you can probably bring them home from the grocery store!
They also appear in your house after a rat or mouse infestation; perhaps they live in the coats of rats and mice.
They can live in your attic for years before you know they are there, and slowly spread downstairs.
They can live behind, or beneath, heavy pieces of furniture -- and maybe even inside the furniture!

They may be in your mattress or pillow.
If you have what appears to be bed-bug bites (especially if one person in the bed is bitten and the other is not), it could be you are allergic to the larvae of the carpet beetle!

Once they are in your house, the adult females lay eggs.
Depending upon the species of course, the female can lay from 30 to 100 eggs, once a year or more often than that.
One source describes the eggs as small and pearly-white, located near a food source such as the lint around baseboards, or the duct-work of hot-air furnace systems.
Eggs are laid on clothing, in dust-balls or lint in cracks under or behind baseboards, in dusty heating ducts, or on dead insects that have accumulated inside light fixtures! (Obviously, these bugs get everywhere!)
Do you have a dog, and does the dog hair go under your frig? I bet the carpet beetles are there!

Larvae hatch five or six weeks after being laid (again, that depends on the species) and they feed for about nine months before hibernation.
They feed in dark, undisturbed areas like closets, and in areas under heavy pieces of furniture (couches, pianos) where there is no foot traffic.
Carpet beetle larvae tend to be secretive and only come out in the dark to feed.
They live between 250 to 650 days, depending on the species, and most of their time is spent scavenging for protein rich food in dimly lit areas.

Yes, I think these fur traders would have had a problem with these bugs!

When you are searching for the source of your infestation, look at the following:
Search your attics, basements and storage places;
Check rugs next to walls; upholstered furniture; closets; shelves; radiators and the space beneath and behind them; registers and ducts, baseboards; moldings, corners and floor cracks (between tiles, for example).
Stored woolen and flannels in wooden chests or boxes, or in dresser drawers or cupboards.
Around the edges of, or underneath, rarely moved furniture.

If you have holes in your clothes, it could be either carpet beetles, or clothes moths.
The difference between the two seems to be quite apparent -- if clothes moths you will see the adult moths flying nearby, and you will find moths or pupae casings in your clothes.
Carpet beetles are less conspicuous.
They feed, and then they move elsewhere after feeding.
Tell-tale signs of carpet beetle infestation in clothes is: small, irregular holes, especially around the collar!
Why I do not know, but they like soiled or sweat-stained clothing (even if polyester), and so might be attracted to the neckline of the garment.

I am not going to talk about dealing with a carpet beetle infestation, but I will tell you what I did.
I only had three or four on my windowsill last year -- that is not a lot.
However I panicked: thinking that I was spreading these things on my clothes to all my friends' houses!
I did a bit of research, and put borax on pieces of paper which I slid them under every single piece of furniture I had (if you mix borax with sugar and do the same thing it works on silverfish).
I stuffed all the many gaps behind my baseboards with borax or boric acid powder.
That was last summer.
I haven't done a thing since.
And I haven't seen a single carpet beetle this year, in my place, anyway!
Problem solved, I think.

Caution: Do not put borax straight on the carpet, it might bleach or stain it. I don't think you have to worry about boric acid, but check first.
You can buy boric acid in a pharmacy: do not breath in the powder!
Do not put either borax, or boric acid, anywhere your child or pet might lick it up -- it's toxic. That's why I put it under all the heavy, immovable pieces of furniture that go all the way to the floor.

So while this might not sound like a fur trade story, I think it is.
The fur traders shook out their furs every spring to get rid of the bugs: the adult and very visible carpet beetles emerged in the springtime about the same time.
A little research told me that carpet beetles are everywhere in Canada, even in the cities that experience winters much more fierce than Victoria's.
Every article I opened up told me that carpet beetles loved furs -- in fact, furs were at the top of every experts' list.
I have no problem believing that these outdoor bugs moved into Native houses and lived there; they were also in the log houses the fur traders lived in.
I think these bugs, in their larvael stage, were carried in the Natives' furs traded every spring at the various fur trade posts.  
I have no problem believing that the red and black adult carpet beetles were the insects that the fur traders spotted every spring, ant that these are the bugs they shook out of their furs every spring. They may have rid themselves of the adults; the larvae, however, remained in the furs to be shipped to England.

So someone on Twitter called me a nerd the other day; I felt quite flattered.
I later discovered that the definition of a nerd is "a person utterly fixated on a certain subject."
I'm happy with that: I think that when I can take a perfectly common and totally unconnected subject such as modern-day carpet beetles, and turn it into a fur trade post, then I have passed the nerd test.
I accept that I am a fur trade nerd.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing safety precautions about Borax, Nancy! It is considered as an all-purpose cleaner, but just like any other cleaning solutions, improper use of it can cause more harm than repair. Most of the time, we tend to forget the importance of following instructions because we tend to rush things, which often results to making things worse.

    Katherine Perry

    ReplyDelete