For the next week or so Bug of the Week will focus on a few members of the true bug clan. True bugs are those that pass through life first as eggs, then as nymphs, before becoming adults. True bugs lack a larval stage and the marvelous pupa found in insects with complete metamorphosis such as butterflies, beetles, flies, bees, and many others. True bugs feed on plants or animals with sucking mouthparts called a proboscis or beak they insert into their host rather than by chomping bits of food with jaws. The scientific name of the true bug clan is Hemiptera, which means half wing and refers to the fact that many true bugs have a forewing that is membranous at the tip and leathery at the base.
Our first stop in the realm of Hemiptera is with the bed bug that has forsaken its ability to fly and lacks wings. The despicable bed bug has received much press it recent weeks when it turned up at clothiers in New York City. During the past month, I have heard several stories of bed bugs appearing in places without beds including office buildings and movie theaters in addition to retail stores.
What is in a bedbug's diet and where are they found?
Like many obligate parasites, bed bugs lead an interesting life. They must have a blood meal in all stages, except eggs, to survive. They insert tiny sucking mouthparts, pump in saliva, and remove blood. Females take in several times their weight in blood in a feeding bout lasting from 3 - 10 minutes. They will bite any part of the body including the face, neck, shoulders, arms, and legs. When temperatures are warm, it takes less than a month to complete a generation and when cooler it may take 4 months to complete the life cycle. Like other bugs, these have scent glands that give them a distinctive odor and a sweet smell sometimes accompanies a heavy infestation. Bed bugs are tough. Nymphs can live several months without a meal and adults can survive more than a year without food.
Females lay 200 to 500 eggs during the course of their lifetime. The eggs are roughly the size of a period at the end of a sentence. The immature stages, the nymphs, are reddish brown when full of blood and tan when empty. Adults are about the size of a peppercorn and brown to chestnut colored when empty or full of blood, respectively. During the day, bed bugs usually hide in bedclothes, mattress seams, the box spring, spaces in the bed frame, behind the headboard, baseboards, picture frames, chests of drawers, posters, loose wallpaper, and almost any nook and cranny in the bedroom. I have heard many tales of couches and living room furniture harboring these rascals as well as seats in theaters. In offices, reports abound of infested work cubicles, whose clutter and file cabinets provide small spaces in which bed bugs can hide.
Recent upswing in bed bug detection especially in cities
Several hypotheses explain the marked increase in reports of bed bugs in dwellings, college dormitories, hotels, hospitals, and elder care facilities. Prior to the Second World War bed bugs were commonplace in detached homes and multifamily dwellings in the US. The advent of insecticides such as DDT after the Second World War greatly reduced the incidence of bed bugs in this country and abroad. Indoor pests including cockroaches and ants were targets of liberal applications of potent residual insecticides. These practices also probably knocked populations of bed bugs way back. With a shift away from broadcast applications to site specific treatments such as baits and traps, insecticide use has declined. This is good. However, bed bugs generally hide in protected refuges during the day and seek blood at night. They are not attracted to bait designed for ants or cockroaches. Hence, they are free to feed and reproduce unchecked. Second, an increase in international travel to regions of the world were bed bugs are prevalent provides an opportunity for these clever stowaways to enter this country. Bed bugs readily hide in concealed places such as luggage and due to their small size and cryptic habits; they travel right along with international globetrotters. In addition, back in the day when bed bugs were more common less stigma accompanied infestations, making it easier, perhaps, for all parties to discuss the issue and deal with it.
Bed bug bites
If there is a good side to this story, it is that bed bugs are not known to be carriers of human disease. However, following a bed bug bite, the human body reacts to proteins injected into the skin by the bug as it feeds. The reaction to the bite is highly variable and ranges from nothing to large itchy red welts. My reaction appears within a day but for others welts can appear weeks after the encounter. According to a recent study by Michael Potter at the University of Kentucky and his colleagues, for many people, the reaction to the bite is minimal. Factors such as gender and ethnicity do not seem to affect the strength of one’s reaction to a bite. Age, however, apparently does. The elderly are less likely to react to bed bug bites than are younger folks. This is not good news because bed bug bites are often a harbinger of an incipient infestation. More importantly, these findings underscore the need for a high level of bed bug awareness and vigilance in facilities providing care and housing for seniors who may not know that they are being bitten.
Avoiding bed bug infestations
How can you avoid bed bug infestations? When you travel be aware of your surroundings. If you stay in a hotel, inspect your bed. Look for the bugs or their telltale signs such as shed skins or dark excrement spots on the mattress, especially along the seam; use a small flashlight to look on the bed frame and behind the headboard. To reduce the risk of little stowaways entering your luggage and coming home with you, elevate your suitcase; place it on a luggage stand. Keep soiled and clean clothes in sealed plastic bags. Do not toss worn items on the floor. After returning home, vacuum out all luggage and wash clothing in hot (120 F) water. Dry clothes on the hot cycle. Portable heating boxes are available to heat items that might be damaged or are too large for dryer.
Avoid creating an infestation in your home with used furnishings. Beware of second hand furniture especially bedroom items. Be sure to inspect thoroughly any used mattresses, box springs, bed frames, nightstands, and mirrors. College students returning to campus should resist the urge to go dumpster diving for dorm-room or apartment furnishings! This is a good way to move infested furniture into your room. Experts recommend the use of bed bug – proof encasements for mattresses and box springs. Bed bugs love to hide in these places and encasements force them into the open where they are more easily detected. Small entrapment devices can also be place under the legs of the beds or sofas. Bed bugs climb in but cannot climb out. This makes detection easier, even when populations are low.
Management of bed bug infestations
Unusual bites may be your first sign of an infestation. If you suspect an infestation, confirm that the cause of the bites are human bed bugs and not another arthropod or closely related bugs associated with bats or birds that have entered your home. To do this you will need to capture one of these rascals and have it identified by an expert. Bat bugs and bird bugs are common and often mistaken for bed bugs. If bird or bat bugs invade, then the solution is to eliminate the nest (birds) and exclude birds and bats from the house with screening and repair of structures.
If you confirm a bed bug infestation, you may not want to go it alone. A professional pest control operator will have the tools, techniques, and an integrated pest management plan to deal with the problem. The solution will involve more than one visit. Some things that you can do to help eliminate an infestation include removing clutter in the bedroom and around the home, vacuuming floors and baseboards thoroughly and repeatedly, washing all bedclothes in hot water, discarding or encasing infested mattress and box springs.
Ridding a home, apartment, office, business, theater, hotel, health care facility, or any structure with bed bugs involves a serious ongoing commitment of time and resources by all parties involved – renters, occupants, owners, property managers and pest management professionals. As bed bugs become more widespread and commonplace, early detection, rational discussion, and carefully designed and executed management program will help us deal with these disagreeable characters. To listen to a recent bed bug broadcast on NPR, please click on the following link. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129345182
Special thanks to Robin G. Todd and Reg Coler at Insect Control and Research, Inc. for providing bed bugs for this episode. Stimulating discussions with Reg Coler, Larry Pinto, and Rich Cooper provided much of the insight for this story. The fascinating article “[Bed Bugs] The Sensitivity Spectrum: Human Reactions to Bed Bug Bites” by Michael F. Potter, Kenneth F. Haynes, Kevin Connelly, Michael Deutsch, Erich Hardebeck, Don Partin, and Ron Harrison in Pest Control Technology on line was consulted for this story.
For more information on bed bugs, please visit the following web sites: