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ENTM News: Bugs in Rugs

Bugs in Rugs

​Tom Turpin
On Six Legs
December 12, 2013

Alter Flea Beetle.jpg


Years ago, cold winter nights would often elicit a comment from my mom or dad about being as snug as a bug in a rug. That little saying frequently was in reference to someone - usually a kid - headed to bed for the night.

 
Those were the days when central heating in houses was the exception, not the rule. Fireplaces and potbelly stoves were used to heat some rooms in the house. Those rooms were most often the kitchen and sitting or living rooms.
 
Bedrooms were infrequently heated directly. Some bedrooms garnered a little heat from the brick or stone chimneys that ran through the rooms from the floor below. Based on the principle that hot air rises, open grates in the floor above a heated room sometimes were used to take a little chill out of the bedroom air.
 
In addition, houses in those days were not well insulated and windows were, to put it mildly, a bit drafty. I can remember waking up on cold winter mornings and finding frost had formed on the bed covers as a result of the air temperature and the moisture in my exhaled breath. Sometimes snow sifted in around the poorly fitted window frames to leave a light dusting on the bed covers.
 
So, in those days, maintaining body temperature throughout the cold winter nights depended on flannel pajamas, wool socks and a thick layer of blankets. It also helped to be good and warm before hitting the sack.
 
In our household, we would create a foot warmer. This was a clothes iron that had been heated on the stove and wrapped in newspaper. Next, we would stand as close to the stove as possible while slowly turning our bodies to warm all sides equally. Then we would grab the heated, newspaper-wrapped iron and rush upstairs to the bedrooms. When we got near the bed, we would throw back the covers and place the heated iron so we could put our feet on it. Finally, we would jump in bed and cover up our head to keep our face warm until we got the bed warmed up. Presumably we would sleep as snug as a bug in a rug!
 
No one really knows how that old ditty originated. The first printed use of the phrase was in 1769. Most of us would agree on the definitions of snug, bug and rug, even though the specific word meanings have changed a bit from early usage. Today, the saying evokes a mental image of person warmly encased in blankets.
 
What if the saying really is about an insect in a rug? What insect would it be? In Charles Dickens time, it might have been a cricket. After all, the rugs in front of the fireplace could have been a good place to hide for a cricket on the hearth.
 
If you just go by the name, bug in a rug, I think the insect of choice would have to be a carpet beetle. Carpet beetles are so named because they do serious damage to fabrics, including carpets and clothing.
 
Carpet beetles are classified in the insect family Dermestidae.  Dermestids are small, oval-shaped beetles that are usually hairy or covered with scales.  These beetles are scavengers and feed on such things as leather, fur and skin. They also feed on silk and wool, and even stored-food products. One of the larger and more common insects of this group is called the larder beetle, and it can sometimes be found feeding on stored meat and cheese.
 
In nature the dermestid beetles are scavengers and as such play an important role in the ecology of the earth. These insects help recycle nutrients by feeding on the hair and skin of dead animals. It is the larvae of dermestids that do most of the feeding. Dermestid larvae are normally brown in color and are covered with long hairs.
 
Even though dermestid beetles can be serious pests, including doing damage to insect collections, they also have a good side. Some species are called museum beetles to reflect the fact that the insects are used to clean skeletons for use in museums or for study in biological laboratories.
 
So a bug in a rug is not a good thing to most folks, if the rug is a carpet. But being snug as a bug in a rug is a good thing. At least it is to someone sleeping under wool blankets in an unheated bedroom during the winter months!