The woodworm’s revenge

I’m starting a new project, a book on house guests and house pests, a natural history of the animals that invade our homes. I’ve been lucky enough to find plenty of animals in my own homes.

Mealworm beetles flew in through the open windows of the flat in Peckham; sparrows and starlings were nesting in the roof space when we moved into a half derelict house in Nunhead Grove; biscuit beetles floated to the surface in the milk of my breakfast shreddies in Bellwood Road, and here we flap ineffectually at clothes moths and scratch at the occasional cat flea.

I’m pretty relaxed about all of these interlopers. Even pulling back the old kitchen carpet — it was thick, pink, shag pile! — to reveal thousands of larder beetles (three species) and their larvae was more about enthusiastic exploration and focussed eradication than disgusted revulsion.

The only time I ever lost sleep over an animal in the room was on holiday on the Greek island of Lesvos (sometimes Lesbos). Having abandoned our cheap package holiday pension because it was so noisy from other guests, we upped and shipped out to the local fishing village of Molyvos, where we found a room in a guest house in the steep cluttered streets of the old town.

The nights here were silent, perfect, but just beside my ear I could hear an insect chewing in the wood of the small bedside cabinet. It wasn’t loud exactly, more persistently and irritatingly irregular. It was gnawing, and just as the jaws of my unseen persecutor rasped at the wood, so too the jarring scrapes rasped at my not-quite-unconscious mind.

Banging on the wood would shut it up for a short while, but, inevitably, just before I finally drifted off to sleep it would set up again — screek, screek, screek. The offending piece of furniture was a small spindle-legged cupboard, simple, barely ornamented, and probably meant to house a po, or perhaps other night-time accoutrements. But it only had three legs now. The remains of the fourth spindle, a short stump, hanging down like a damaged stalactite, clearly showed that it was riddled with the smooth tunnels of some chewing insect.

From the diameter of the tunnels maybe 5–7 mm, I’m guessing house long-horn, Hylotrupes bajalus, or perhaps golden jewel beetle, Buprestis aurulenta. Hylotrupes is apparently native to the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, but the forests of this area have been cleared long ago in antiquity, and instead it ekes out a living in building timber across much of Europe, South Africa and North America. Buprestis is native to the Pacific coast of North America, but furniture made from infested timber is shipped all over the world; adult beetles can emerge years (or decades) later.

I never saw an adult beetle, and after a couple of interrupted nights I stuck the cupboard out into a corner in the hallway for other guests to trip over. Peace at last. Apart from the American woman getting stuck in the lavatory in the middle of the night, and the dormouse dropping its dropping into my coffee cup, the lasting memory I have of this lovely old guest house is the grinding noise from the bedside table, which kept me awake at night.

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