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Pests at home: the good, the bad and the ugly

Posted:
20 April 2018
Posted By:
Wendy Richardson
Categories:
Behind the Scenes
An English Heritage conservation assistant kneeling on a patterned carpet and vacuuming it.

Throughout the country we face a battle against an almost invisible enemy, our weapons a vacuum cleaner, magnifying glass and sticky traps. That’s right, the bugs are coming – and if we’re not vigilant, they could eat our collections…

English Heritage staff caring for historic collections throughout the country are on the lookout for the insect pests that can be particularly damaging to our objects. These tiny critters can cause visible structural damage or even cause some items to disintegrate completely. They can be a real risk to our cultural heritage – they must be stopped!

A woman holding a small microscope and looking closely at a small sticky trap

The author identifying bugs on a sticky trap

Read on to learn about the pests we battle here at English Heritage and that you might find in your own homes: the good, the bad and the just plain ugly…

The good…

Most insects harmlessly go about their business in their natural habitats and keep away from us humans. We even have allies in the insect world, informers who can alert us if we have a problem or help in our campaign against insect pests. Let’s meet three of the good guys, agents working undercover for us!

The double agent: the silverfish (Lepisma saccharina)

A small grey silverfish

A small grey silverfish

Distinguishing characteristics: Silvery and torpedo-shaped, no larger than 15mm long.

Modus operandi: This individual is most definitely embedded in deep cover in the enemy camp, and has an attraction to starchy objects on which it feeds.

Criminal damage: Thins papers, books and wallpaper.

Assistance: Likes to live in damp conditions, and so its presence alerts us to problems with damp and high humidity.

The informant: the woodlouse (Porcelio sp.)

A brown woodlouse

A brown woodlouse (image courtesy of English Heritage / Collections Trust / CSL)

Distinguishing characteristics: Segmented and grey with more than ten legs; no larger than 15mm long.

Modus operandi: Officially a crustacean and not an insect, this character is harmless and feeds on rotting wood.

Criminal damage: None. A blameless character!

Assistance: The woodlouse only breeds in very damp areas and therefore alerts us to problems such as leaking gutters.

The universal predator: the spider (Arachnida)

A brown British house spider against a white background

A British house spider

Distinguishing characteristics: There are a large number of different spider species, with different appearances. They always have eight legs, though, and are officially not insects but are in fact arachnids.

Modus operandi: The spider is harmless to our collections, although its webs can be unsightly.

Criminal damage: None. An innocent in the pest world.

Assistance: Spiders feed on insects, some of which are the very pests that we’re fighting.

The bad…

There are millions of insects in the UK, but only a few commonly pose a threat to our collections and to your belongings. Scrutinise these mug shots of three of English Heritage’s ‘most wanted’ insect pests.

Beautiful but dangerous: the webbing clothes moth (Tineola bisselliella)

Light brown clothes moths, close-up, against blue fabric fibres.

Webbing clothes moths (image courtesy of English Heritage / Collections Trust / CSL)

Distinguishing characteristics: Small and dainty with gold wings and ginger hair on its head. No larger than 10mm long.

Modus operandi: These offenders are attracted by animal products such as wool, silk and fur, where they lay their eggs. Their larvae then feed on these fabrics when they hatch.

Criminal damage: Small uneven holes in textiles and natural history specimens.

Evidence: Larvae leave a signature silk webbing across the surface of an object.

Distinct and daring: the two spot carpet beetle (Attagenus pellio)

A close up of a dark brown beetle with one fawn spot on each wing

A two spot carpet beetle (image courtesy of English Heritage / Collections Trust / CSL)

Distinguishing characteristics: Small and oval, with two spots on its wing cases that gives it its name. No larger than 6mm long.

Modus operandi: The adults are attracted to dead insects and animals as well as textiles, carpets and natural history specimens. They lay their eggs in these materials so their larvae can feed upon them when they hatch.

Criminal damage: Small holes in textiles or animal carcasses.

Evidence: Damage is often accompanied by the distinctive striped cast-off shells of their larvae.

Unobtrusive yet destructive: the furniture beetle (Anobium punctatum)

A brown beetle with a ridged back

A furniture beetle, or woodworm (image courtesy of English Heritage / Collections Trust / CSL)

Distinguishing characteristics: Small dark brown beetle with a little hump on the middle part of its body, this offender is also known as the woodworm. No larger than 5mm long.

Modus operandi: The beetle is attracted to wood, where it lays its eggs. It tends to prefer starchy sapwood over harder timbers as this is what sustains its larvae.

Criminal damage: Small round holes with a diameter of about 2mm in wooden objects and books.

Evidence: Small conical piles of dust (called frass – insect poo!) beneath its emergence holes.

The rest of the gang

Want to be on the lookout for more marauders? Full mug shots can be viewed on the English Heritage Pest Poster, free to download from our website.

How does English Heritage defend against these insect pests?

Our best weapons against these enemies are vigilance and good housekeeping. Some simple rules help us in this task, and you can use these to defend your home territory too.

Join us in discouraging these malcontents by:

  • Keeping doors and windows as sealed as possible. We don’t make it easy for them to enter our properties and damage our collections.
  • Keeping their food to a minimum by vacuuming up dirt and debris regularly, removing easy and convenient food sources for them.
  • Regularly disturbing them to encourage them to head back to their natural habitat. Checks and cleaning disrupt adult pests and help prevent them laying their eggs, making our collections a less comfortable option.
  • Undertaking regular inspections. We regularly check dark and undisturbed areas around the edges of rooms or in the folds of clothing and curtains to look for evidence of the presence of pests. We also check numbers regularly through a trapping programme. The pests that are found are identified, counted and added into a central database to discover trends and pick up on problems as insect numbers increase).

Want a full plan of attack to use in your home? English Heritage have compiled all their expertise about pests into a handy illustrated book, which includes clear imagery of the rogues to watch. You can get your copy of Pests in Houses Great & Small, English Heritage (Dee Lauder and Dave Pinniger) in the English Heritage shop.

And remember: keep calm and carry on vacuuming!

Wendy Richardson using a vacuum cleaner nozzle on a table surface.

The author, English Heritage Conservation Assistant Wendy Richardson, undertaking some vacuum cleaning on a historic surface in York Cold War Bunker.

Find out more

Others looking after historic properties might also find the English Heritage website pages with conservation advice and guidance of use. These include more detailed information such as fact sheets for specific insects and tools for tracking and counting pests.

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  • About the Author

    Wendy Richardson
    Wendy works at English Heritage as a Collections Care Assistant in our Curatorial department. She is based at Dover Castle but her job takes her all across the country.

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