Biopredation: Which Pests Damage Books?

Biopredation sounds so sci-fi, but it’s just a fancy term for the damage caused to books by insects and mice.

12 comments

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Biopredation refers to attack of books by living organisms, like insects, mice or mildew. It’s a fancy way of saying that something was happily munching on the book.

Libraries and archives have to be aware of the types of pests infesting books and book bindings and the conditions that encourage their growth.

Biopredation rat gnawed pages
Biopredation

Which insects damage books?

Insects that damage books do not bite humans but their leavings may cause allergies and asthma.

Insects tend to infest the pages, book bindings, leather, cotton, linen, parchment, cardboard, collagen glues and even wooden shelves.

They live in books in the larval stage, hence they are small and difficult to detect. They are able to hide well. You may need a magnifying glass to find them.

A few species of insects love to snack on books:

Beetles

The larvae of the biscuit beetle (Stegobium paniceum), the cigarette beetle (Lasioderma serricorne), the Australian spider beetle (Ptinus tectus), the white marked spider beetle (Ptinus fur) and the carpet beetle (Anthrenus verbasci) cause damage to books by eating book bindings with starch glue.

Biscuit beetle biopredation
Biscuit beetle

Biscuit beetles can reproduce and spread quickly, so they cause the most damage. Modern historic libraries will often have infestations of the biscuit beetle and the spider beetles because these species are more tolerant towards temperature and humidity.

Previously, when the atmosphere in libraries was less controlled, furniture beetles (Anobium punctatum) could be found in books, book bindings, and paper.

Carpet beetle biopredation
Carpet beetle

Carpet beetles live in the larval stage for most of their lives and feed on the surface of pages and book bindings. Their casings may be found in pages after the larvae have mottled. Faint trails may also be seen on the surfaces of pages.

Cigarette beetle biopredation
Cigarette beetle

Cigarette beetles burrow into pages and book bindings during their larval stage, creating holes and tunnels.


Silverfish

Silverfish biopredation
Silverfish

Silverfish feed on cotton and linen bindings, mould, detritus, human skin or hair, glue and paper. They thrive in moist and dark places.

They damage book bindings, paper, wallpaper, starch glue, papier-mache, and cellulosic materials.

Silverfish are wingless insects with a silver-grey color and fish-like movements, giving it its name.

Different species of silverfish are found inside buildings:

~ Silverfish (Lepisma saccharina),

~ Paperfish (Ctenolepisma longicaudatum),

~ Four-lined silverfish (Ctenolepisma quadriseriata), and

~ Firebrat (Thermobia domestica).


Book Lice

Book lice biopredation
Book lice

Book lice (Psocoptera) thrive in humid conditions (60% RH or above). They’re not true lice but look like lice. They snack on the mould and fungi in damp books.

They’re so small that they look like specks. They can reproduce quickly in the right conditions and damage book bindings and books.


Cockroaches

Cockroach biopredation
Cockroach

Cockroaches will eat just about anything, but favor leather, mold, glue, fabric, cardboard, and paper. They leave egg casings in books and the larvae leave stains on the pages.

The skin shed by cockroaches may cause allergies in humans.


Which animals damage books?

Rats and mice commonly attack books and libraries. They can gnaw through wood, plastic, aluminum sheeting, sheetrock and cinderblock. This makes it difficult to control rat populations.

Rat biopredation
Rat

The most common rats are the Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus) and the roof rat/black rat (Rattus rattus).

House mouse biopredation
House mouse

The house mouse (Mus musculus) is commonly found in and around buildings and is difficult to remove completely.

Rats and mice shred paper to line their nests and gnaw through books to keep their teeth sharp. Their urine and fecal matter also damage books.


How to treat pest infestations

If you see signs of insect infestation such as holes and tunnels in pages, egg casings, excrement, skin casings, live or dead insects and wings, your books are under attack.

Wrap each infested book in a towel, put in a sealed plastic bag and then place the bag in a freezer at -22 degrees Fahrenheit for at least a week.

Take out the books from the freezer, check to see if the infestation is still there. If yes, repeat the treatment.

Large libraries use any of the four methods to get rid of insects:

a) Low temperature – Books are kept in sealed polythene bags and exposed to low temperatures like -30 degrees Celsius for 3 days or -18 degrees Celsius for 1-2 weeks. Most libraries, archives and museums prefer to treat insect pests in this way because it can kill insects at all stages of its life cycle.

b) High temperature – Books can be de-infested by placing them in a special chamber at 52 degrees Celsius for 24 hours.

c) Nitrogen anoxia – Books are placed in an atmosphere with greater than 99.7% nitrogen concentration for around 1-2 weeks at 25-30 degrees Celsius to deprive the larvae of oxygen and kill them. At lower temperatures of 15-20 degrees Celsius, the process may take 4-5 weeks. Special chambers are required for this treatment.

d) Oxygen scavengers – Individual books are sealed in barrier film bags with an oxygen scavenger product that removes oxygen from the air in the bag.


References:

  1. https://www.swanngalleries.com/news/books/2020/07/glossary-for-items-found-in-early-printed-books/
  2. http://www.ioba.org/pages/resources/book-terminology/
  3. https://animals.mom.com/kind-bug-eats-books-5583.html
  4. https://www.archeobooks.com/pages/book-terminology#:~:text=A%20book%20whose%20text%20block,color%2C%20leaving%20an%20impression%20only.
  5. Querner P. Insect Pests and Integrated Pest Management in Museums, Libraries and Historic Buildings. Insects. 2015 Jun 16;6(2):595-607. doi: 10.3390/insects6020595. PMID: 26463205; PMCID: PMC4553500.
  6. https://chinapreservationtutorial.library.cornell.edu/content/pest-control
  7. https://www.bl.uk/britishlibrary/~/media/bl/global/conservation/pdf-guides/managing-pests-in-paper-based-collections-guide.pdf

12 comments on “Biopredation: Which Pests Damage Books?”

  1. You’ve done a lot of research and painstakingly written this, but my oh my, this gave me creeps. It’s a real problem when books are attacked by insects. Usually I throw them away but will now use your pointers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Varsha! From my research, I understand that if our books get infested, we can seal them in plastic bags and place them in the freezer for a week to kill the larvae.

    Like

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