Saw Toothed Grain Beetle
Saw Toothed Grain Beetle

Although these insects may have been pests to the colonists in the seventeenth century, they are some of the most exciting artifacts in the Jamestown collection. The remains of insects from 400 years ago can help us understand what the environment was like on Jamestown Island, and are evidence of another type of exchange occurring between Europe and North America – that of invasive species.

More than two dozen European beetle species were found in Jamestown’s second well, discarded along with other trash after the well had gone bad. Beetles like the saw-toothed grain beetle and the Trox scaber beetle would have infested stores of food as they were loaded onto English ships, and these insects were transported to Virginia when those food stores were unloaded upon arrival. Stores of cereal grains, vegetables, meats or animal furs, or even packing material like hay or straw were all preferred environments and food sources for these tiny creatures and they thrived while on board the ships. Some beetles are picky eaters, which helps us understand more specifically what types of plants were on Jamestown Island. Pseudopithyophthorus sp. is particularly fond of Oak, which means that oak trees were nearby. Other insects prefer molding grain to fresh grain, indicating that the food stores probably weren’t in the best condition even upon first packaging for shipment.

More than once, John Smith recorded infestations of the colony’s food stores, writing in 1607 that the stores “contained as many wormes as grains” and in 1608 he recorded “al the provision of the store…was so rotten with…wormes, as the hogs would scarsely eat it, yet it was the souldiers diet”

Beetles like Carpelimus obesus may have been living in moldy areas of barked wood that was also found discarded in the well. The colonists used wood as construction material to build the palisade walls and for many of the structures inside the fort, and timber was used for warmth and cooking over a fire. Bark was removed from wood, especially when used in construction, and was also found by archaeologists as part of the trash thrown away into the second well.

Also identified were the remains of what may be the common bedbug, Cimex lectularius, representing what may be one of the earliest dated finds of imported bedbugs to North America.

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