On a recent flight from Phoenix with my family, I had the very distinct displeasure of spotting a bed bug on the passenger seat in front of me. In an instant, 20 000 years of evolution was wiped from my brain and I turned into a cavewoman, wild and deathly with the novel I was holding in my hand; I hit the bed bug so hard with my book that the person in the seat in front of me shouted as my book sideswiped his head on the way by. The remainder of the three hour flight was neither very joyful nor relaxing, as every shadow I saw out of the corner of my eye looked like a looming bed bug attack and every wisp of air felt like the legs of a hungry troupe of bed bugs about to take a bite. When the plane landed and I finally got home, I forced my family to get undressed on our front step (with –20 degree weather and all, and thank goodness our flight came in at night because I can just imagine what our neighbors would say if they saw us standing half naked on our doorstep in the midst of a winter cold snap), and left our clothes and suitcases outside to hopefully kill any other bed bugs that were hitching a ride. My husband, not a large dramatist when it comes to mice, bedbugs, or any other vermin, kept calmly repeating to me (as if I had totally blown a few too many critical neural connections and was about to suffer a schizophrenic break) that “everything was fine” and that “we had nothing to worry about.” I simply told him that he was completely wrong and that his words offered about as much comfort to me as wearing padded underwear in the running of the bulls…didn’t he know, bed bugs were horrible, awful, blood-sucking parasites that are impossible to get rid of, and which are invading homes, businesses, and now planes the world over?!!!
So who was right? Are bed bugs truly such a pestilence threat, stubbornly resistant to our eradication efforts that once we get them they never go away? Or are they just a nuisance that we don’t have to worry too much about, with one or two individual bugs simply being too few of a number to raise alarm bells? The answer seems to lie in the origins of the bed bug, its co-evolution with human beings, and our cumulative efforts to rid ourselves and our homes of this pest.
How It All Started
Fossils of bed bugs have been dated as far back as 3500 years ago. Originating in caves that humans shared with bats, it is widely believed that bed bugs were parasitic of bats first and then evolved to choose humans as their hosts. By the mid 1600’s, bed bugs were reported on every continent in nearly every climate. Urban populations were overrun with the bug in most areas of the globe, and efforts at controlling or eradicating them were largely unsuccessful. The problem was that all of the conditions that humans require to live (i.e. warm temperatures, shelter from major elements, protection from predators) were also beneficial to bed bugs.
The global bed bug population took a huge dive however in the mid 1960’s due to the use of DDT pesticide. Targeted at killing food crop bugs, DDT was also unbelievably effective at killing bed bugs; people could simply sprinkle DDT dust on their beds and around any affected area to rid themselves of the parasites. DDT was so effective at eradicating bed bugs, in fact, that it was actually difficult to find outbreaks for scientists to study. But we all know the story of DDT: along with killing bed bugs, it was discovered that DDT was also extremely effective at killing humans. Use of DDT was largely phased out of use internationally over the next few decades.
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, stories of bed bug outbreaks were once again becoming known around the globe. Increasingly, reports of this pest invading and “taking over” homes and businesses in major urban centers and rural locations have been making headlines. Termites, cockroaches, and even rats are taking the backseat to bed bugs in the list of most hated home pests, and indeed, it seems that globalization has an unwanted hitch-hiker: those detested blood-sucking bugs. As of 2014, statistics from governments and watch-dog groups the world over are reporting that bed bug levels are approaching record levels, with the majority of the 92 recognized species of bed bugs happy to have a human meal when available. Increased travel, better building design and architecture, more elaborate furniture and bedding, and better indoor heating (in cold areas) and cooling (in hot areas) have all contributed to the massive increase in bed bug populations. So what can we do to get rid of these things if they venture into our living space?
About the size of a grain of rice before feeding and the size of an enlarged sesame seed after feeding, bed bugs are easily visible with the human eye. They tend to range in color from light tan to red to dark reddish-brown (but always the reddest after feeding.) Members of the hemiptera order (the hemiptera order also contains other piercing / sucking insects such as aphids), bed bugs have 6 legs, are wingless, have 2 antennae, and grow to about 0.5cm long. Hiding in crevices / bedding / floor boards / paper / furniture during the day, they tend to come out at night to feed, when they sense their prey is still. Typically, they feed in the hour or so just before dawn, taking 3 “bites” (sometimes called “breakfast, lunch, and supper”) in a linear pattern before they become engorged and fall off of their host. Victims of a bed bug bite typically don’t feel the bite as the bed bug injects a numbing chemical into the bite site. It typically takes 3-5minutes for a bed bug to make a meal out of its host; most bed bug bites are small, raised, circular bumps that are red and may be mildly itchy. Bed bugs are not known to be responsible for transmitting any diseases to humans. As with most other insects, bed bugs are not born live; they have several life stages, including egg, nymph (6 molts to become sexually mature adults), and adults. Bed bugs tend to live for about a year. They are able to go for several weeks between meals. Major predators of bed bugs are centipedes and cockroaches.
Getting Rid of Bed Bugs
No one wants bed bugs. No one. But unfortunately these pests are out there and they want to come raise their families in your home. The best method of keeping them at bay is prevention. Government agencies, travel websites, and pest control companies all recommend becoming bed bug smart. When traveling, keep your luggage off of the floor (store your suitcases in the tub if necessary), carefully inspect mattresses, linen, and dresser drawers in hotels. If you suspect bed bugs, wash all clothing in hot water and dry on high settings when you return home; be sure to vacuum all crevices in your suitcases. If you are using a transit service (bus, taxi, plane, metro, etc.) that you are worried may have bed bugs, remove your clothes immediately upon returning home and wash in high heat / dry in high heat. Bed bugs are very sensitive to high heat; recommendations of 45 degrees Celsius and higher for an hour are cited by all agencies to kill all stages of bedbugs (eggs through to adults.) They are also susceptible to extreme cold; temperatures of –26 degrees Celsius for a day or so have been proven to be effective at killing all stages of the bug as well.
In your home, try to make your living spaces as inhospitable to bed bugs as possible. Even if you can’t wash your clothing and bedding on high heat, use high heat to dry (for at least an hour per load). Reduce clutter (read: places for bed bugs to hide), vacuum crevices where bed bugs may hide (fill with caulking if possible), and monitor for these bugs on your mattress and couch once every month or so (more often if you are a frequent traveler.) Look for these bugs hiding in the cracks of your mattress, corners and crevices of your bed frame, framework of your furniture, behind stoves and shower stalls, and along baseboards. Set up monitoring traps in any area you are worried about, and use bed bug spray for any crevices you think may be harboring these pests (always read and follow manufacturer’s instructions; only use pesticide labeled for bed bugs.) These bugs will be easier to get rid of if you catch an infestation earlier than later; if you are unable to eradicate the bugs yourself, call an exterminator. There are several options to get rid of the bugs, including heat treatments, cold treatments, pesticide treatments, and C02 treatments to name a few. Most reports forward that it will take 2-4 treatments to fully get rid of a bed bug infestation.
So it seems that both my husband and I were right. Bed bugs are a major pain in the backside, they are persistent, and they won’t leave your home willingly once they have arrived. They are not, however, the bane of all existence, and they probably don’t warrant instituting martial law and making your household members get undressed outside in sub-Arctic temperatures just to make sure one of these bugs doesn’t cross the threshold to your home. A modicum of information on these parasites will help any concerned party in identification, prevention, and treatment options. Just as we have become accustomed to other undesirable insects such as mosquitoes, we unfortunately also need to acknowledge that bed bugs are part of our new reality. Science is working tirelessly in developing strategies to help us get rid of these nasty insects; until they can come up with an environmentally-friendly solution to eradicate these bugs for good, however (and yes I said eradicate: I make no apologies for wanting the bed bug species that feed solely on humans to be beaten down to extinction…centipedes and cockroaches can find something else to eat. Perhaps we can keep a few colonies of bedbugs in a laboratory somewhere for scientific purposes only…), we need to make a little room on the food chain for these bugs. Don’t let these unwanted guests spoil your enjoyment of your home!