Who's Bugging Me?


Who’s Bugging Me? By Amy Sampson, Associate Preventative Conservator at The National Archives

Whether you like insects or hate them, they live all around us. There are between six and ten million different types of insects and they make up over half of all living organisms on the planet!


Insects are invertebrates, which means they have no backbone. They have three parts to their body, six legs, two antennae and many also have wings. They come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colours and from beautiful Butterflies to dingy Dung Beetles, they are a vital part of our environment. Some of the important jobs they do include cleaning up waste material, keeping pest insects in check and pollinating food crops.


But why are we interested in insects at The National Archives? Like all living things, these six-legged friends need food and shelter to survive. Humans provide this, with our warm buildings and the things we keep inside them – maybe you have found a spider in your bedroom, or a moth nibbling on your favourite jumper? The National Archives is no different.


Insects eat plants and other animals (blood too, but that’s another story…) and most of the documents we care for are made of paper, which is made from cotton or wood; or parchment, which is made from animal skin. To many insects these materials are a delicious meal.


This piece of colourful fabric has been eaten by the larvae of the Webbing Clothes Moth. As you can see, it’s caused a lot of damage that can’t be repaired. Looking after historical collections like ours means we have to protect them from all the different things that might cause them damage and this includes insects. We do this by keeping storage spaces clean, storing documents in protective boxes and by checking the building regularly for the insects most interested in eating the documents. The “Most Wanted” are:

Varied Carpet Beetle larvae

Likes: Dark corners that need vacuuming; birds’ nests

Dislikes: Open space; being hungry

Favourite Food: Wool, fur, silk and feathers

Damage: This larvae, or “Woolly Bear”, eats VERY fast!

Common Silverfish

Likes: Small hiding places; bathrooms

Dislikes: Daylight

Favourite Food: Paper, glue and dried food

Damage: It will chomp your paper and books

Webbing Clothes Moth

Likes: Warm weather

Dislikes: The smell of lavender

Favourite Food: Wool, fur, silk and feathers

Damage: It will make holes in your fabrics

Book Louse

Likes: Damp buildings

Dislikes: Central heating

Favourite Food: Mould

Damage: Very hard to see as they’re so small, but if you’ve got these, you’ve got a damp problem.


It would be impossible to keep insects out of our buildings completely, so the best way to make sure that they don’t turn 1000 years of history into a snack is to understand what they like and how they behave. We can then use that knowledge to make our storage spaces uncomfortable places to be (would you like it if someone turned off the heating and hid all your food?) and try to preserve our documents for as long as possible.

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