You have bedbugs? You must be dirty. That’s a pretty common conception about bedbug infestations – but it’s actually not true. Bedbugs aren’t attracted to dirt; they’re attracted to our body heat and to the carbon dioxide we exhale. What IS true is that having a lot of clutter can make it easier for bedbugs to hide, and it can also make it more difficult to treat an infestation. And it’s also true that high-rises and apartment buildings can be more prone to infestations since the bedbugs can easily – and quickly – move from one location to another. But that doesn’t mean bedbugs can’t or won’t move into an exclusive neighborhood or a swanky home. In fact, bedbugs are pretty nondiscriminatory – they’ll infest any home, and plenty of other placed too.
Another myth: Despite their name, they’re not restricted to beds. They can be found in plenty of locations, and they also tend to “hitchhike” by clinging on to clothes, shoes, purses, briefcases and backpacks. And that means no matter how clean you keep yourself or your home, you could still become the victim of an infestation. (Incidentally, their Latin name is Cimex lectularis, with “cimex” meaning bug and “lectularis” being derived from the Latin word for bed. Pretty straightforward.)
But is that all there is to know about bedbugs? That they can – and will – invade and infest anywhere? Hardly. Just like any other insect, bedbugs have a long and rich history and a complex life cycle which, if you can get past your initial squeamishness about these tiny bloodsuckers, can actually be pretty interesting.
Bedbugs and humans have been keeping each other company for a long time – like, a really long time. Research shows they were feasting on us thousands of years ago when our “prehistoric” ancestors moved into caves in the Middle East. As it turns out, these caves were already inhabited by bats which were, at that time, the bedbugs’ primary source of food. Thanks to their non-discriminatory nature, the bedbugs soon found the human cave dwellers to be just as tasty as bats, doubling their available food source.
Of course, living with humans posed a few challenges; for instance, those early human hosts were awake during the day while the bats preferred to be awake at night. So, the bedbugs that preferred their human hosts had to adapt and change their own schedules in order to feed while humans were immobile and sleeping. And that’s not the only adaptation they’ve made. Back in the early 20th century, bedbug populations in the U.S. began to decline sharply as a result of the widespread use of pesticides containing DDT. In order to survive the onslaught, some of the tiny bugs developed a resistance to DDT and similar pesticides, passing on that resistance through their genes to subsequent generations. Some scientists feel that kind of genetic adaptation is clear evidence of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, making the bugs an fascinating model to study. In fact, the bedbugs we find in homes and other human-inhabited dwellings today are so different from their prehistoric cousins, researchers believe they’re on the cusp of developing into an entirely new species of bedbug. But as interesting as that may be, for the rest of us, the adaptation to many modern pesticides just means the little bugs are much more difficult to get rid of, typically requiring a multi-step process that can be pretty costly and much more intensive than the process our great-grandparents might have used.
Bedbugs are tiny, with adults measuring less than a fifth of an inch long (about 0.18 in or 4.5 mm). And of course, the babies and young bugs are much smaller and much more difficult to detect. They’re often mistaken for deer ticks, which are actually quite a bit smaller but otherwise have roughly the same reddish-brown coloration and flattened-out appearance. Fortunately, they can’t fly – but they can move and skitter around very, very rapidly, diving for tiny cracks and crevices where they can hide and be extremely difficult to find.
Like other insects, bedbugs begin their lives as an egg, which the female deposits in those same cracks and crevices to enable the egg to develop without being disturbed. Eggs are whitish in color, which means they can blend beautifully with most mattresses, and they’re initially sticky, so they can’t be easily dislodged.
Before the eggs are laid (at a rate of about two per day, females can lay hundreds and hundreds of eggs during their lives), the male bedbug fertilizes the female by piercing her body and depositing sperm directly into her body cavity. If you want an “up close and personal” view of this process – which, incidentally, is referred to as “traumatic insemination” – YouTube has a handy video for your viewing pleasure right here. (Just try not to picture that going on dozens of times each night in your own comfy bed.) Eggs hatch about a week after being laid. The newborn bedbugs are about the size of a pinhead and pale yellowish in color.
Before reaching maturity, a nymph must shed about five times, sloughing off its outer skin to enable the growing body room to expand. During this stage, nymphs need plenty of nourishment, and they need a full meal between each molt to successfully shed their old skin and grow a new covering. Under ideal circumstances, it only takes about a month to develop from a nymph into a full-grown adult, capable of reproducing and laying eggs. But what if it’s cooler, or what if humans try to “starve them out” to get rid of them? Never fear, the bedbug has developed a built-in solution for that: Nymphs can go for months without eating – and at cooler temperatures, they may be able to survive for more than a year without a meal.
As if the thought of dozens of tiny puncture wounds across your body weren’t enough to deter you from these little creatures, some studies suggest bedbugs could also have the potential to spread several diseases. Research efforts have focused on a host of blood-borne diseases including antibiotic resistant diseases like MRSA and VRE, and while these studies all confirm the potential for disease transmission by bedbugs, the good news is, so far there has been scant evidence to show the little critters are actual vectors (disease transmitters) for these or any other serious diseases. What has been confirmed is that bedbug bites can cause a nasty allergic reaction as well as dangerous skin and systemic infections, especially if the bites are scratched. Particularly bad bites have the potential to cause scarring and disfigurement that can take its own toll on human hosts.
Considering that so far, studies haven’t demonstrated a clear link between bedbug infestations and serious blood-borne diseases, you might think an infestation would be handled logically and methodically, much as one addresses an infestation of other bugs like ants or cockroaches. But you’d be wrong. As it turns out, bedbugs can play some pretty intense “head games” too. In fact, several studies have shown how emotionally devastating bedbug infestations – or even the fear left following an infestation – can be. At least one study compared the fear and anxiety associated with bedbug infestations to a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with people who had experienced bedbug infestations more likely to develop “major depressive episodes and anxiety-spectrum disorders, including acute stress disorders, adjustment disorders, and specific phobias.” In addition, the authors noted those who had experienced infestations were more likely to be stigmatized by their friends and peers, experiencing increased social isolation that can contribute to depression and anxiety. And of course, the high cost of exterminating bedbugs once they move in can intensify all these issues. Even more alarming, another clinical study reviewed the case of a woman who committed suicide following a particularly bad infestation. (It should be noted, however, that this particular person had been previously diagnosed with bipolar disorder, borderline personality and chronic alcohol abuse).
While a lot of research has focused on the actual and potential negative effects of bedbugs, some studies have looked at the bugs from a more positive vantage point, suggesting that the bugs may be able to provide some assistance in actually preventing disease. Happily, scent gland secretions and saliva from the bugs possesses some pretty strong antimicrobial properties that could potentially help scientists develop new drugs to ward off diseases caused by bacteria and fungi.
How do you know if you have an infestation? Aside from the bite marks, you might be able to spot the bugs in crevices and folds in mattresses and bedding or around bed frames and box springs. Bedbugs also tend to leave telltale rusty stains from their blood-filled feces as well as a characteristic musty odor. They can also bite cats, dogs and other pets, so if you see them scratching a lot, recognize that fleas may not be the cause.
Probably millions of kids have drifted off to sleep with that sweet parental blessing resonating in their ears. Of course, it only sounds sweet because most of us haven’t had the pleasure of sharing our beds with these tiny blood-sucking creatures. Aside from their ability to adapt to our lives and their potential for spreading disease, there are a few other potentially interesting facts about bedbugs:
So how can you get rid of a bedbug infestation? Generally, it takes a multi-pronged assault with special pesticide applications and lifestyle changes to destroy the insects at every stage of their lifecycle and to make it difficult for bugs to find a refuge during the assault. Some bedbug “wranglers” use intense heat distributed by large circulating fans to de-infest homes and other dwellings. But be warned: Bedbugs are opportunistic; they live by the adage, “Mi casa es su casa.” And remember – they love to hitchhike. All it takes is a little contact with another infested area (think other homes, hotels – even movie theaters and buses) – to bring home a few new bugs that are all too willing to call your home their own.