What are they?
Often known as carpet beetles, these are a tiny beetle from the Dermestid family; they are extremely common, and most likely living in every house. Unfortunately, they love to eat the horsehair on violin bows, hence the name of ‘bow bug’ used by musicians and luthiers.
How do you know if you have them?
The typical scenario is pulling out a violin that hasn’t been used for a long time, and finding when you open the case that the bow has lots of loose hairs all over the place. You will often be able to see the small casings that the bugs and larvae shed as they grow – these will usually be transparent or red-brown in colour. Less commonly, you may see the larvae on the bow hair or a bug crawling away into the crevice of the case.
What can you do about them?
The best way of preventing this nuisance is to use the bow regularly! The bugs like darkness and being undisturbed - so opening the case on a regular basis is enough to keep them away. If they do manage to find their way into a case, don’t panic; it is usually pretty straightforward to get rid of them. Empty the case, give it a good vacuum using one of the crevice tools, and then leave the case open for a while. This should be enough to do the trick!
If you do have to store a bow for an extended period, consider leaving it out of the case somewhere safe or else use a plastic bow sleeve to protect the bow while inside the case.
Bow bugs also like whalebone sometimes used in lapping and tortoiseshell sometimes used in the frog of valuable bows – so be particularly vigilant in these cases as those materials are irreplaceable, and damage to the frog of a bow will significantly affect its value.
If the bow has been badly affected, the bow will need to be rehaired. But if you are not planning to use the bow in the near future, consider waiting to rehair the bow until the bow will be used regularly again; ask your violin or bow maker to remove the hair and store the bow as is, to discourage further bow bug activity.
Moth balls are NOT recommended – apart from a very unpleasant and long-lasting smell, they leave a residue over the case and instrument which is very difficult to remove, and contain neurotoxins which are unhealthy (especially if your instrument is close to your face for extended periods!)