I’ve been doing lots of research into household pests, for the new book on House guests, house pests, so I was excited to discover I’d found another of them myself. OK ‘excited’ might be exaggerating a bit, but there is definitely a sense of satisfied intellectual rigour and achievement on identifying a pale brown 1.75-mm-long beetle that I’ve never seen before. Working at the microscope through some tiny specimens I’d collected over the year, I came across two specimens that had flown in, attracted to a moth light I’d run, just outside the kitchen door on 28 June 2012.
I should add, for the benefit of any North American readers perplexed by my title, that ‘fag’ is a quaint old British expression for cigarette; this, then, is the cigarette beetle, Lasioderma serricorne.
It supposedly gets its name for its habit of infesting tobacco, whether dried leaves, stored bales, cigars, and especially cigarettes. Related to the domestic woodworm beetle, Anobium punctatum, it will actually feed in a wide range of products including spices, beans, cereals, seeds and cocoa.
Being dull brown, I can only assume that in the days of pipes, cigars and chewing tobacco, this tiny beetle often went unnoticed by the smoker or chewer, much as another close relative the biscuit beetle, Stegobium paniceum, is still overlooked in the kitchen cupboard, unless the occasional struggling insect floats to the surface of the milk poured over infested breakfast cereal. But when cigarettes started to gain serious popularity in the 1940s, the beetles’ neat round holes in the neat, clean, delicate, white, paper casings started to cause more than mild consternation.
It was during this period that a previously more or less ignored minor pest of such mundane items as ginger and liquorice suddenly acquired its common name. Thankfully, in an era before daft tabloid headlines and media inanity, it was never called the fag-bug.