”Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.” That rhyme had no relevance for decades, but not any longer. After vanishing from the scene after World War II, bed bugs are back in our nightmares and, more importantly, our reality. Thankfully, bed bugs pose no threat from the transmission of blood-borne pathogens, but what they lack in virulence is more than made up for in litigations. Here is what you need to know about these insidious pests.
Cimex lectularius is a member of the family Cimicidae in the order of true bugs (Hemiptera). Like all true bugs they have piercing-sucking mouthparts. Bed bugs use their beaks to drink the blood of human beings. Yes, we are the preferred host of this parasitic insect. Pets, other mammals, and birds suffice in a pinch for starving bed bugs, but people are the real target.
These are small, wingless insects, dorso-ventrally flattened (top to bottom) to the point of being paper thin. Adults measure only 4-6 millimeters, 7-8 millimeters immediately after feeding. First instar nymphs (those just emerged from the egg) are only one millimeter, and so pale as to be nearly invisible on the typical mattress or sheet.
Bed bugs go through five instars before becoming adults. An instar is the interval between molts. Each bed bug must have one blood meal in order to graduate from one instar to the next.
Eggs usually hatch 6-10 days after being laid, though it can take up to 21 days. Each nymph stage lasts about one week under ideal conditions, longer if blood meals are irregular. Adult bed bugs typically live ten months to a year, feeding about every ten days. Since the average female can lay 500 eggs in her lifetime, you can imagine how quickly a population of bed bugs can build.
Obviously, inexplicable bite wounds can be a clue that you might have bed bugs. Bites are typically in a linear arrangement of three, evidenced as red, slightly-raised welts. However, some people do not react at all to bites, while others experience worse symptoms. If your bedmate complains, take them seriously.
A fair-sized population of bed bugs gives off a sweet, distinctive odor, so use your sense of smell. The French word for bed bug is punaise, a reference to this stinky aspect of bed bug biology.
If you suspect bed bugs, strip the bed and look for the insects and their signs, especially along mattress seams, under mattress buttons, the slots where the bed frame attaches to headboard and footboard, and other tight spaces. Bed bugs have to poop, and reddish or dark brownish stains are another sign of their presence.
Inspect, inspect, inspect! You cannot be too careful in avoiding infestations. When traveling, inspect your lodging thoroughly, and elevate your luggage off the floor. Maybe put the suitcase in the bathtub. Look behind headboards that are flush against the wall. Take drawers out of the nightstand and examine them carefully. Look under carpet where it goes up the wall like a baseboard. Look in mattress seams and under mattress buttons.
Any place where there is serial occupancy is prone to infestations, from five star hotels to rental cabins, dorms, prisons, hospitals, movie theaters, planes, trains, buses, taxicabs….
Beware of secondhand furniture and avoid used mattresses. The rise in popularity of thrift stores is credited in part with expanding the bed bug empire, so again, inspect items thoroughly before purchasing.
Don’t panic, but do seek professional help. Bed bugs are extremely difficult to eradicate, so find a reputable, recommended company that has a successful track record. Understand that the extermination process is highly invasive. Furniture will have to be taken apart, perhaps even discarded. Your best bet may be heat treatment. Unfortunately, this is usually the most expensive option, but it is highly effective.
Complications may arise if you are in a multi-family dwelling, rental, or are the proprietor of a hotel, motel, campground, or other lodging enterprise. This is when legal representation is often sought to determine (or avoid) liability. Do make sure your interests are protected, but try to refrain from making any situation more adversarial than it already is.
Sources: Berenbaum, May R. 1989. Ninety-nine Gnats, Nits, and Nibblers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 263 pp.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2013. Parasites – Bed Bugs
Maestre, Ralph H. 2011. The Bed Bug Book. NY: Skyhorse Publishing. 181 pp.
National Institutes of Health. 2014. “Bedbugs,” Medline Plus.