During the depression, bedbugs were commonplace in homes and apartments. Bedbug management was dramatic and included tactics such as soaking wire bedsprings in kerosene and igniting them to kill the bedbugs hiding within. The advent of insecticides such as DDT after the Second World War greatly reduced the incidence of bedbugs in this country and abroad. However, in recent years, there has been a marked increase in reports of bedbugs in homes, apartments, college dormitories, hotels, and motels. Why?
Hypotheses for Population Increase
Two hypotheses have been suggested. First, for many years indoor pests, including cockroaches and ants, were controlled with liberal applications of residual insecticides in dwellings. These practices also probably knocked bedbug populations way back. With a shift away from broadcast applications to site specific treatments such as baits and traps, less insecticide is being applied. This is good. However, bedbugs hide in protected locations during the day and seek blood at night. They do not encounter insecticides in baits and traps and are not killed. Hence, they are free to feed and reproduce unchecked.
Second, an increase in international travel to regions of the world where bedbugs are prevalent provides an opportunity for these clever stowaways to enter this country. Bedbugs readily hide out in clothing and suitcases, and due to their small size and cryptic habits they travel right along with international travelers.
Like many obligate parasites, bedbugs lead an interesting life. They must have a blood meal in all stages, except eggs, to survive. Bedbugs are tough. Nymphs can live several months without a meal and adults can live more than a year without food. Female bedbugs lay 200 to 500 eggs during the course of their lifetime. The eggs are small, 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 the size of a peppercorn and brown to mahogany in color when empty or full.
During the day, bedbugs hide in bedclothes, mattress seams, the box spring, spaces in the bed frame, behind the headboard, baseboards, picture frames, posters, loose wallpaper, and almost every nook and cranny in the bedroom. Late at night while you're sleepin', the bed bugs will come a creepin' around. They insert tiny sucking mouthparts, pump in saliva, and remove your blood. Females take in 6 times their weight in blood in a feeding bout that lasts 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.
If there is a good side to bedbugs, it is that they are not believed to be important carriers of human disease. For many people, the reaction to the bite is minimal. However, some may develop large welts and rashes that are inflamed and itch for several days after the bite. As with any introduced protein the saliva of bedbugs can cause some victims to develop a severe allergy. Scratching the bites can also result in secondary infections.
When you travel, inspect your bed. Look for bedbugs 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. Elevate your suitcase; place it on a luggage stand. This reduces the risk of little stowaways entering your luggage before you return home. When you get home, vacuum out all luggage and wash clothing in hot (120° F) water. Dry clothes on the hot cycle.
Avoid creating an infestation in your home. Beware of second hand furniture, especially bedroom items. Be sure to thoroughly inspect 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.
If you suspect an infestation, confirm that the cause of the bites are human bedbugs and not closely related bugs associated with bats or birds that have entered your home. Bat bugs and bird bugs are very common and often mistaken for bedbugs. If it is bird or bat bugs that have invaded, then the solution is to get rid of the nest (birds) and exclude birds and bats from the house with screening and repair of structures. Second, if you confirm a bedbug infestation, you may not want to go it alone. A professional pest control operator will have the tools and techniques to eliminate the problem. Some things that you can do to help are to remove all clutter in the bedroom, vacuum floors and baseboards thoroughly and repeatedly, wash all bedclothes in hot water, discard infested mattress and box spring if you can, or wrap them in zippered, plastic covers.
By now many of you are scratching. Sorry, bedbugs give me the willies too. For this Bug of the Week, I bid you, good night, sleep tight, and don't let the bedbugs bite.
Special thanks to Robin G. Todd and the fine folks at Insect Control and Research, Inc. for providing bedbugs for this bug of the week.
For more information on bedbugs visit the following web sites: