Sunday, September 13, 2020

Bow Bugs- Little Bugs That LOVE Bow Hair

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins,

and Ivana Truong

 If you open up your case and you see this- You Have BOW BUGS

"What??? Bugs are eating my bow?"

No! Just the bow hair. (Fans of Schitts Creek are now hearing Alexis say "EW!")

If you're an active string player, you may have never encountered this problem, especially if you have one primary instrument and practice very regularly. But here at the shop, we've seen a thing or two... and we're very cautious about bow bugs! If you do have bugs eating at your bow, it's important that you can recognize the problem and quickly treat it before it becomes a much more serious issue.

When we use the term "bow bugs'', what we're actually referring to are carpet beetle larvae.
THEY LOVE TO EAT BOW HAIR. Most bow hair is natural horsehair and that makes excellent food for carpet beetle larvae.

Carpet beetles are very common, especially in warmer climates. They are about 3 mm in length, with oval-shaped black and brown bodies covered in bristles. Some common species have orange or white patterning. Fully developed carpet beetles eat pollen and can fly into the home from nearby flowering plants or be carried in on old clothes and upholstered furniture. Once inside, their eggs can be found on deposits of lint or pet hair near a food source, and this is where they evolve from slightly gross to actually problematic. After eight to fifteen days, eggs will hatch into larvae that eat animal-based materials- wool, silk, leather, and yes, bow hair. This larval stage can last from 60 days to a year, so they can wreak some serious havoc while they're growing! [1]

Larva and adult carpet beetle (Fans of Schitts Creek are now saying "EW" themselves)

It can be difficult to detect bow bugs before they become seriously problematic, especially if you aren't looking for the signs (remember- they’re only a few millimeters in length!). At first, the only symptom may be a few molted shells in the back corner of your case or couple bow hairs split in the middle. Although the effects may not appear immediately concerning, bow bugs are always a problem to take seriously. We’ve often seen old violins where over half the bow hairs are eaten and flying off in every which way! Bow bugs are also fairly “adventurous”, meaning they will crawl around and spread to other parts of your house or to other instruments. 

A bow hair that has been bitten by a bow bug

After being stored away for two months, these bows have been chewed through by bow bugs

Once you recognize what’s happening, bow bugs are fairly easy to treat. Start by removing the violin and bow. Check the bow carefully for any bugs. Cut the bow hairs off with scissors and throw the hair away outside of your home. Then get a rehair at your local violin shop. If you have more than one bow, you can count on all the bows having bow bugs. Clip off all the hair and get all the bows rehaired.

What about the case and all the bugs inside of it? Best thing- throw the case away and get a new (bug free) case.

Not willing to do that? Then vacuum the case very thoroughly making sure to get into the different pockets and crevices where the bugs like to hide. Then leave the case out for a couple days in sunlight, this should encourage the bugs to move elsewhere since they avoid bright environments. If you live somewhere cold, leaving your case at 0°F for a minimum of 48 to 72 hours should kill the larvae and other eggs [1]. Make sure you remove your instrument and any accessories and put them somewhere safe BEFORE you put your case outside. There's no guarantee any of that will get rid of all the bugs. Really. Get a new case.

Some websites suggest using bug spray, but we wouldn’t recommend that, as it may damage the varnish on the instrument or leave a residue in your case. We would also strongly caution against using mothballs since the fumes are noxious and shouldn’t be used in a confined, frequently accessed space like a violin case. The mothballs will cover your violin and bow in a film of Naphthalene, a neurotoxin-
please don’t do this [2]!

Mothballs are very effective at killing bow bugs, but they are also toxic to humans and pets. Try to avoid them for the safety of yourself and your violin.

Wiki Commons

After getting rid of bugs, prevention is key. Just leave a satchel filled with cedar shavings or a couple cedar balls in the case. The volatile oils in the cedar, which are what cause the wood's distinctive smell, are toxic to the bugs and will help prevent another infestation and kill young eggs. I’ve also heard of different essential oils, like cedar and even lavender or eucalyptus, being helpful through similar volatile oils. Just put a couple drops in the case where the scroll or chinrest would sit and let the case dry for at least an hour before returning your instrument [3]. With both these methods, the volatile oils that repel and kill the larvae will evaporate over time. Players should replace or reapply regularly as the scent wears off. If you're planning to put a bow or instrument away for an extended period of time, a little prep can go a long way in preventing bow bugs. Check for bugs thoroughly beforehand, then store the bows in a sealed plastic bow sleeve with some cedar or oils in the case.

Try adding cedar balls or satchels to your case as prevention

For bow bugs, prevention is key! Take some steps to avoid an infestation and you'll be saving yourself some trouble (and heebie-jeebies) in the long term. 

If you already had a bow bug problem, we offer rehairs (locally in Minnesota) and bows! During COVID-19, we have a no-contact policy, so call, text, or email before coming in and we'll figure out together how we can best help. Of course, our web store is always open! 

IMPORTANT- If you have bow bugs, or you think you do, DON'T bring your case to a violin shop without cleaning it out first. Or better yet, leave it at home and clean it out as best you can. If you don't, the bow bugs will be quite happy to move from your case to the yummy new hair on bows in a violin shop. That will cause thousands of dollars of damage. Please don't bring the bugs with you!







  1. Thanks! I didn’t know! I will check carefully now!

  2. I am an entomologist and piano technician and I see these insects (also known as carpet beetles) often. No-Pest-Strips work well to kill these insects, but you would only need a small amount of one strip to be effective.

  3. I didn't practice over summer and now I keep finding them and don't want to go near my violin... AAAAAAAAAAA