“Oh, punaise!” the French exclaim, calling on the name of this creature to express their feelings when faced with people whose ugliness, odour, lack of proportion, cowardice, flat feet, poor manners, insincere friendliness or gargantuan capacity for absorption they find irritating. We can’t heap enough abuse on bugs. The louse, flea, tapeworm, fluke, filaria, mites; there is a long list of parasites which settle somewhere, take responsibility for their actions and die on their hosts. The bug, on the other hand, attacks, drinks its fill and then makes itself scarce. And on top of that it’s fussy about its living conditions.
Everyone is familiar with the unpleasantness of the disease ozena, in which a fetid discharge is secreted from the nose. In the case of the bug itself, from which the French name of the disease comes (‘punaisie’), the foul smell is not secreted from its nose but from glands which are a source of pride. The oval body of the bug, which has generally been dried to be used as a tack, is 5 millimeters in length and narrow at the front, and ends in a square head, a symbol of stubbornness and a slow-witted character, and we can see a sort of hood functioning as a cover for four stylets - so there are spares.
Every two months, regular as clockwork, this little bed-dweller lays 50 eggs which hatch within a few days. We’re told they hibernate in winter, but human body heat means that it’s not winter, never winter for these bolster ravagers. During the day, peek-a-boo! They’re hidden behind a door, in a wooden skirting board, behind a painting, a curtain, under the mattress – such a convenient place.
And they’re relentless too… if you go away for a week, they will fast for a week – if you go away for six months, they will fast for six months. Faithfully, they await your return. Faithful, but not exclusively so; they will bite anyone and swell right up in five minutes. They cluster in dense armies when there are lots of people around, while the non-domestic bugs particularly preferring to spread themselves out up the length of a vertical support. (Household bugs have to get used to restoring their strength on human forearms, or trekking around on our bodies so that their stylets can pierce the skin in the best place they can). Acrobats have shown us that it is perfectly possible to eat hanging upside down. Sated, the bugs escape into the night – they’re not stupid. Each little prick leaves you with a small white mark surrounded by a red patch. Nothing serious, but sometimes itchy.
To drive the bugs to suicide, they have been accused of spreading everything from tuberculosis, recurrent fever and Orient boils (Leishmaniasis) to New Year greetings. They can be driven away with mothballs or covered in pyrethrum powder which explodes when it is set alight.
Jean Painlevé,"La Punaise", n.d.