Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

27 August 2013

The Bookie Monster: attack of the creepy crawlies!

Have you ever been described as a bookworm?

We hope the only bookworms encountered in our reading rooms are of the Studious genus, but did you know that there are a whole host of pesky pests out there hungry for paper? Fires and floods are usually the scenarios we think of when we hear about damaged books, but books are also susceptible to pest damage. “Bookworm” is actually a generic term and doesn’t apply to any particular species, although it is often used to describe the Anobiid beetle (Anobium punctatum).

A close look at a wooden book board which has been damaged by Furniture beetle. The board is flat with a slightly brownish texture, with no text or images present. The damage is represented as deep furrows,running into bore holes, At the top of the board, the edge has been completely eaten away, exposing a section of board resting underneath, which has also been damaged in the form of the furrowsand also bore holes by themselves.

Figure 1: The larvae of furniture beetles, Anobium punctatum, attack wooden book boards, shelving, frames and compressed paper. Copyright DBP Entomology. 

Where the passionate reader sees inspiration and literary genius, the pest sees a delicious and satisfying papery meal. Holes in books and bindings, large chewed areas and scraped surfaces are all evidence of pest attack. Thankfully, damage like this is largely historic and it is a matter for conservation rather than pest control. Our Preservation Advisory Centre (closed since March 2014) produced a free to download information booklet on Managing pests in paper-based collections written by Consultant Entomologist David Pinniger. Although there are physical and chemical treatments to control infestation, it is much cheaper and far more effective to use preventive methods. Here we take a look at a few of the culprits.

Name: Silverfish (Lepisma saccharina)
Likes to eat: Paper

Silverfish (or fish moths) are nocturnal wingless scaly insects (10-15 mm) associated with damp conditions and require a localised humidity above 70-80%. They are named in light of their silvery exterior and slithery fish-like movements. 

A close-up view of a Silverfish, on a plain grey background. The Insect is on it's legs, resting slightly right of centre in the image, orientating at a 70 degree angle from head to tail. The Silverfish is brownish in colour, with three legs visible either side of the external shell of it's body, which overlaps slightly similar to armour plate. The tail has two 'spikes' that come out on either side at an angle The head is very small, emerging from the carapace with two very long antennae coming out and forward, which are almost the length of the body in size.

Figure 2: The Silverfish is a primitive insect with three bristles called cerci at the tail end where the abdomen tapers. Copyright Aiwok. 

Post-meal evidence includes irregular holes in paper and ragged, scraped surface areas. If they are particularly greedy they will preferentially target areas with glue or ink which may be more nutritious.

A page showing extensive damage by Silverfish. The paper, appearing slightly brownish in the image, is on it's side. The damage is at the top, the bottom and towards the fore-edge. The damage appears as grazing, and looks similar to cartography of maps of fjords, the way the damage isn't in one segment, but areas of large or very small removal of paper from the page.

Figure 3: Silverfish (sometimes known as fish moths) leave irregular holes in paper around a scuffed surface.  Copyright DBP Entomology.

Name: Varied carpet beetle (Anthrenus verbasci)
Likes to eat: Animal glue

The varied carpet beetle is the most common species found in Great Britain. The adults are 2-3 mm long with a grey and gold scaly exterior. They enjoy flying in warm weather and typically hang-out on window sills – the carpet beetle equivalent of the shopping mall. It is the offspring that causes damage to collection material. Young offenders hatch from eggs into hairy larvae (< 1 mm), and grow up to 5 mm. They shed their skins as they develop and tend to wander around randomly chewing holes in bindings and mounts where animal glue resides.

A close-up of a Varied Carpet Beetle on an unidentified surface. The Varied Carpet Beetle shown here is quite colorful, with a body of orangey-brown and black splotches and white. The underside appears from the side to be mostly white, or cream in colour. The Antennae are short and bulbous, and three legs are visible from the side. The wings can be seen jutting out from the underside of the wing casing at the rear of the insect.

Figure 4: The varied carpet beetle, as well as being partial to animal glue, can be found dining on wool, fur, feathers, silk and skins.  Copyright André Karwath


Name: Biscuit beetle (Stegobium paniceum)
Likes to eat: Starch and dried food

A close-up view of a Biscuit beetle (Stegobium paniceum) from a top down view. The beetle appears a rich red-brown in colour, on a plain white background. It has two medium length antennae which each have three nodules on the end. One leg is visible juttin out from the right hand side of the beetle. The thorax is quite bulbous, and the abdomen with wing casings, has lines of dots running down it's length, almost like a peanut. The wing casings are spilt in the middle to reveal the folded wings underneath. Their is a fine fuzz around the insect.

Figure 5: The biscuit beetle bores holes in harder materials and emerges leaving a symmetrical exit hole. Copyright Sarefo

They may sound friendly (or tasty!), but beware the biscuit beetle. Unlike woodworm larvae which eat wood and cellulose, biscuit beetle larvae bore holes and cavities in paper, papier maché and starch-rich composite board in books and boxes. They are also known as the Drugstore beetle or the Bread beetle with adults reaching about 2-3 mm long.


Name: Woodlouse
Likes to eat: Damp paper and cardboard

Two types of Woodlice are exposed on a small section of wood, upon which they are busily engaged in devouring. The larger Woodlice is horizontal to the image and appears as dark grey, with flecks of yellow or gold on each section of the exoskeleton whixh consists of ridges not unlike armour plate, that rise over the adjoining plate and flare out at the sides, almost at the underside of the insect. The ridges reduce to a tail of three small soft spikes. Three legs, appearing almost translucent in colour can be seen poking out under the ridges. The other woodlouse is smaller, is facing the top of the image, is smaller and appears a much more dull grey colour. It is also only half the size of the other, which it appears to be climbing over. It has two long antennae that hang down and out, and are rather thick.

Figure 6: Woodlice Porcellio scaber (left) and Oniscus asellus (centre) in wood  

The woodlouse is not an insect but belongs to the Crustacea group which includes shrimp and crabs. They love damp high humidity conditions such as rotting wood or vegetation and cause damage by grazing on damp paper and cardboard if located nearby. Most people have encountered woodlice by disturbing old logs outside and watching as they scurry around in bewilderment. They cannot survive in dry conditions so when found inside have usually wandered in from a damper outside environment, and therefore do not live very long.

Land and air attack

It’s not just insects that attack books, rodents and birds also play their part. Mice can be particularly damaging as they tend to gnaw materials habitually to keep their teeth sharp, while females shred paper to make nests for their young.

A image of a Mouse damaged book. The book is open, resting on a dark grey background. The book is open and the narrow text margins can be seen; the script appears possibly Italian. The left hand page appears fairly fine, but the right hand side of the book has been heavily damaged. A large section of pages have been eaten away, with almost a quarter of the book taken away in a giant chunk, from the bottom of the pages to around halfway up. A small section of the pages are left close to the sewing. Underneath the removed area can be seen the the pages that were not removed.

Figure 7: Mouse damage Copyright DBP Entomology

Birds are unlikely to directly target books for nutrition, but as anyone who has tried to shoo a pigeon out of a room will know - bird droppings can cause unsightly stains and be very corrosive.

Integrated Pest Management

A close-up image of four book spines, green in colour, with the focus on their ends and the wooden bookshelf they are resting on. On the wooden shelf and around the spines can be seen the light-coloured frass which looks a little similar to sawdust in this image.

Figure 8: One of the first signs of a furniture beetle attack is frass (insect excrement) which is pushed out of the larvae tunnels when the adult furniture beetle emerges. Copyright DBP Entomology.

Pests will only usually damage material because they are seeking nutrition. Collection items boasting mouth-watering edible materials such as wooden boards, textiles, adhesives, gelatine and starch can satisfy the pickiest of pests. Prevention is always better than cure so it is important to be vigilant for the signs of an infestation. If you are unsure about a potential pest problem contact the Preservation Advisory Centre for some helpful advice.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)


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