Bed Bugs – Know the Enemy [How to Identify]
It hides in closed places, slinks around at night, and has a taste for human blood – no, we’re not talking about Dracula.
The bed bug is not lovable, for obvious reasons. It’s a nocturnal, wingless insect that hides in cracks and crevices, and has fed on human blood for thousands of years. While they are not known vectors of infectious diseases, a bed bug infestation can be mortifying.
Although they were starting to go extinct due to the use of powerful pesticides in the mid-20th century, bed bugs have returned with renewed vigor. Now, you can find millions of the little critters in homes, hotels, and public spaces around the world.
What makes bed bugs such survivors? Where do they come from? How do you know if you have a bed bug infestation? Here’s all you need to know about bed bugs – how they look, how to identify them, and importantly, what you can do if they show up uninvited in your bed.
Meet the bed bug
Bed bugs are tiny, wingless, oval shaped insects. Adult bed bugs measure up to about ¼ inches long – about the size of an apple seed – and nymphs (newborn bed bugs) are roughly the size of a poppy seed.
Bed bugs typically have a flattened body. However, they can double in size, after their bodies become engorged with a blood meal. The insects are generally deep brown in color, although when seen up close, this color may range from a light tan to a burnt orange color.
There are two main species of bed bugs associated with human habitats. These are scientifically called Cimex lectularius and Cimex hemipterus. While the lectularius can usually be found just about anywhere, the hemipterus are typically found in tropical regions. There’s little difference between them though – they both prefer warm-blooded mammals.
Bed bugs are thought to have evolved over millions of years as nest parasites, especially inhabiting bird nests and bat roosts. But some of them made the jump from animals to humans, and have been observed in human dwellings for thousands of years.
True to their name, you can generally find bed bugs anywhere humans spend a lot of time sitting, sleeping, or just relaxing. They prefer the dark and will rarely be seen out and about during the day.
Bed bugs typically have to feed regularly in order to reproduce, and they can be very prolific. Since they prefer to congregate in nests, seeing even a single bed bug can mean you have a sizable nest of the insects around – or may even signal an infestation of respectable proportions.
What do bed bugs eat?
Bed bugs are strictly hematophagous – meaning they really love blood and can survive on nothing else. They prefer warm-blooded hosts and are even known to be picky eaters. They don’t drink spilled blood and will only feed on live, hot-blooded hosts. They can go for several months without feeding.
The insects require a blood meal to survive though. They must feed in order to reproduce, lay eggs, and go through each of the 7 stages of molting from a nymph bed bug to an adult. When deprived of a food source, bed bugs will often die from hunger, although that can take a while.
How do they feed? Bed bugs typically feed when their hosts are asleep. Their peak feeding time is between 12am and 5am, and they can crawl several feet in order to reach a sleeping host.
All of the insects are equipped with a long, sharp proboscis that they insert into a host’s skin. When the proboscis is inserted in a host, they also secrete a chemical that works as an anesthetic, meaning they can draw blood without causing pain. They tend to bite in rows of three and the bite marks can become red and inflamed after about 14 days or less. When not feeding, the proboscis is tucked under the insect’s body.
They are able to locate hosts by sensing body heat from a sleeping host. They also have an affinity for the carbon dioxide we exhale, and can use this to find food.
Where do they come from?
Bed bugs are hardy little pests. Since they don’t fly, and cannot jump long distances (or at all), they must find a way to move from host to host, and habitat to habitat. They do this by attaching themselves to luggage, clothes, and hair, basically being transported by the very hosts they need to survive.
What makes bed bugs really frustrating as pests are there aren’t really any practices that invite them into the home. Just visiting any place that has a few of the critters is enough. If they hang onto your luggage or clothing, using their strong legs, they can reproduce quickly in any environment, whether dirty or clean, luxury or humble.
Before the 20th century, bed bugs infestations were a normal occurrence. Due to many factors, including general poor hygiene and ineffective removal methods, bed bugs were everywhere. Some even say about half of the residences were infested at the time and most Americans had either seen one of the insects or been bitten by one.
At the time, techniques used to remove the bugs included trying to smoke them out of dwellings with peat fires, using hot water to sterilize furniture, and scattering plant ash around the house. Cyanide fumigation was even used to manage the pests at one time in the 1920s but that failed spectacularly due to its incredibly harmful nature to humans.
The real turning point in the fight against the bugs was around the 1950s when DDT became introduced into the fight against pests. Due to its potency, and ability to linger in the home for up to a year, DDT proved very effective against bed bugs. But this would not last as DDT was also found to be highly toxic, and was eventually banned in 1972.
With the banning of DDT and the rise of international travel, bed bugs are prolific once more and have resurfaced with renewed vigor.
How do they reproduce?
Bed bugs are quite prolific. The typical female of the species can produce 5-7 eggs per day and will lay hundreds of eggs throughout its lifetime. The eggs are typically a pale white color and are quite tiny.
The insects reproduce through a process called “traumatic insemination”. The male essentially inserts a reproductive organ directly into the abdomen of the female where it injects sperm. Under good feeding conditions, a nymph bed bug can grow to adult size within a month and be ready to reproduce.
How do you know you have bed bugs?
That’s another problem with bed bugs – it’s hard to tell when the critters have taken up rent-free accommodation in your home. Bed bug bites are hardly distinctive, since they look just like flea or mosquito bites. As a result, the only real way to tell if there are bed bugs in your home to see a live specimen frolicking on your white sheets.
There are several other ways to know if you have a brewing or full-blown bed bug infestation on your hands:
- Look for reddish-brown spots of bed bug excrement on bed sheets, mattresses or furniture
- Also, look for signs of bed bug eggs – they will look tiny, whitish, and about the size of a pen point.
- You may find the papery shells of the insects from past molts, they look like popcorn kernels but are much smaller
- If you experience a lot of bites predominantly at night, you may have bed bugs
- An especially powerful infestation may produce a slight coriander-like odor
If you see any of these signs, you should investigate further by turning up the ends of bed sheets and turning over mattresses. Bed bugs like to hide in dark places, including in between the fittings of bedposts and furniture. You can put a credit card into likely cracks and crevices to see if they’re hiding in there.
Sometimes, the bugs would have spread from one room to several other rooms in the home. You can repeat this for other rooms and check the ends of rugs, behind wallpaper, or any location that is within several feet of where you would usually rest, recline or sleep.
How to get rid of bed bugs
Bed bugs are notoriously difficult to be rid of. Once the insects have perpetuated themselves in a habitat, it can often take a while to fully exterminate them, and this can require several treatments.
One of the reasons for this is the insects can evolve to become resistant to certain insecticides. According to studies in the Journal of Economic Entomology, the bugs can be resistant to pesticides, with up to 25% of certain populations surviving after an attack. As a result, a bed bug infestation should be treated with absolute care.
If you suspect there is a bed bug infestation in your home, or if you have seen the live critters, it is important to call in professional help. Trying to get rid of the problem by yourself can only make things worse, as the insects really can take a beating.
There are several ways to deal with bed bugs that your professional pest exterminator will advise you about. These include heat treatments for bed bugs, which are unable to survive above room temperatures of 122 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you have found bed bugs in your home, call the professional exterminators at Thermal Eradication for help. We are here to answer any questions you have and help you understand how to get rid of the problem permanently.