Mosquitos, ants, beetles, flies—all insects we can live with. We don’t have to like them, but we’ve reached a certain peace with their place in our seasons. And besides, they’re easy to kill.
But bed bugs? No way! They’re as creepy as vampire bats; sneakier than snakes.We imagine them crunching through feeding time while we dream away peacefully. Can’t hear them. Can’t see them. Can’t feel them.
But what are bed bugs, really? Before you panic about the possibility that these little guys have invaded your home, or are just waiting to jump into your luggage at the hotel, read on to find out all you need to know about an old problem that’s recently raised its head again.
What Bed Bugs Are Not
Let’s dispel a few myths about bed bugs. These are surprisingly common misunderstandings, and knowing they’re false may help you to get past the “yuck” factor when thinking about these pests. Bed bugs are not:
Too Small To See
Bedbugs are easily visible—they’re just often mistaken for something else. At up to .2 inches (5 mm), they can be about the size of an apple seed.
There’s been no evidence of diseases transmitted by bed bugs. People can become infected at the site of an itchy bite, but only because of the scratching. Some people can develop an allergic sensitivity to bedbugs, but this is unrelated to the bites themselves.
A Seal Of Bad Housekeeping
Even the cleanest, most sanitary home can become a pleasant haven for bed bugs.
Only A Problem In Poor Neighborhoods
Related to the above, the appearance of bed bugs is not at all related to living conditions. The severity and persistence of the problem, however, will depend on measures taken to control it.
Infesting Every Fabric In Your Home
Unless you’re completely oblivious, you will no doubt notice a bed bug infestation before your home becomes a house of horrors. Bed bugs like beds, of course, but they may also choose to take up residence in draperies or sofas—they are often found in the seams of things like mattresses and furniture. They like nooks and crannies—they won’t be running amok throughout your carpeting or crawling over every item of clothing in your closet.
Impossible To Exterminate
There are many effective treatments available for bed bugs. The problem is that no one product or method will solve the problem. A thoughtful, informed structure of eradication can be mounted. In some cases you can do this yourself, but your best bet is to contact a licensed pest control professional.
A Problem Only In Warm Weather Or Hot Climates
Bed bugs thrive pretty much everywhere in the world.
Check out our Common Bed Bug Myths articles for more info on what bed bugs are and are not.
What Bed Bugs Are
Scientifically? Bed bugs are true bugs, of the order Hemiptera (meaning half-wing), having mouthparts specially developed for piercing and sucking. There are 50,000-80,000 species in this order of insects, including box-elder bugs, gnats, and cicadas.
More specifically, bed bugs are of the genus Cimex, and its Latin name is thus Cimex Lectularius. That sounds kind of noble, and perhaps the common bedbug should be admired for its persistence. The first mention of these parasitic insects occurred as early as 400 B.C., in Greece. But they were living with us long before that, ever since we moved into caves and provided as good or better a meal than the bats that probably originally hosted the bugs.
They have been with us ever since, and were quite common even in the U.S. up until the middle of the 20th century. General Douglas MacArthur even took the trouble to remark on the nuisance of bed bugs at U.S. bases during World War II.
What Do They Look Like?
Adult bed bugs are oval-shaped and wingless. Before feeding, they’re as flat as a sheet of paper; once gorged, they turn dark red (hmm) and appear bloated. As mentioned earlier, they are typically about the size of an apple seed, or one of the digits on a credit card.
Eggs are much smaller—the size of a speck of dust—and white. But they’re usually found in clusters of 10-50 in just about any kind of crack or crevice. For instance, the recess around a screwhead in a bed frame would be a good place to lay eggs, if you were thinking like a bed bug.
As they go through their life stages, the pinhead-sized hatchlings become increasingly darker and larger until they’re adults ranging from light-brown to red-brown.
What Are Bed Bug Signs?
One excellent way to deal with bed bugs is the same thing recommended in 1916 by the USDA: eternal vigilance. Today, the only way to really accomplish that is to set up periodic inspections. Once you know what to look for, you can do this yourself.
If you or a family member is sensitive to the saliva of a bed bug, red welts will develop. The severity of the rash will vary depending on the individual, from flat, localized patterns to actual fluid-filled lumps. Bites can appear on any area of the body, but typically they will be areas exposed during sleep (feet, neck, hands, arms, etc).
Just remember that an absence of bites does not mean there are no bed bugs in the home—not everyone has an observable reaction. Most people do not feel the bite itself, they only react to the itchiness.
On light-colored bed linens, it should be relatively easy to find the stain left behind from a bed bug’s blood droppings. They could be light brown to black in color, and may either bead up or be absorbed. These will not flake off when rubbed, and will smear if wiped with a damp cloth.
Bed bugs molt five times from the egg stage to adulthood. Each stage leaves behind an increasingly larger shell. Finding these skins together with the droppings makes a pretty convincing case for bed bugs, especially if they’re concentrated in areas like the bed or the piping on a piece of upholstered furniture.
An Actual Bug!
If you suspect you have bed bugs, but are not certain, carefully inspect your mattress, headboard, box spring and platform, casings around windows and doors, and any other hiding place you can think of to capture an actual bug. Bag it and the supporting evidence up and bring it to a pest control expert for identification.
Make Inspection Easy
There are a couple of tricks you can use to make it easier to keep tabs on your surroundings. Mattress encasements eliminate the excellent hiding spots found in bed components and let you easily spot-check for blood spots, eggs, and shells of bed bugs. Capture cups put under each leg of the bed will trap a fraction of the bugs and let you know they’re trying to move in and that you should ramp up your search efforts. De-cluttering your home also makes it easier to check for bug signs, as does a regular schedule of deep cleaning that includes nooks and crannies that you wouldn’t normally consider a problem.
Bed Bugs On The Rise
No one knows exactly why bed bugs have returned in force to the U.S. The development of powerful pesticides like DDT in the 1940’s all but wiped out bed bugs in developed countries of the West. Some have suggested that increased international travel has re-introduced them in a world where DDT is now banned. Others speculate that simple complacency has allowed them a new foothold in the West.
Whatever the reason, calls to pest management companies have increased 81% since 2000, according to a recent survey of pest control companies (the 2010 Comprehensive Global Bed Bug Study). Although eradication is not impossible, bed bug extermination is rated the most difficult by pest control professionals in both the U.S and overseas.
Luckily (it’s important to look on the bright side), this also means that new methods are being developed to more efficiently and inexpensively treat bed bug problems.
What Doesn’t Stop Bed Bugs
Bed bugs are notoriously difficult to get rid of. There’s a thriving number of so called bed bug home remedies passed around these days; most of these simply don’t work. Among the things that don’t work (these are home remedies that your grandmother or neighbor might come up with):
- Rubbing alcohol
- Using a metal bed
- Hanging the feet of a hare or stag at the foot of the bed
Okay, that last one was from early Greek philosophers. The others, though, were widely used in earlier times. They just weren’t terribly effective. In today’s crowded cities with their high-rise apartments and condos, the flammable liquid route is just plain dangerous.
There are a couple of very convincing reasons for turning to a professional to solve a bed bug problem today, even if your great-grandmother’s diary convinces you there’s an old-timer’s trick to lick the problem:
- The reason bed bugs thrive in cold climates as well as warm is because we have central heating. In olden times, bed bugs did infest on a more seasonal schedule, and it was easier to control the problem (by painting beds and furniture with kerosene, for instance) by attacking it when you knew the bugs were young and just starting out. Today’s indoor environment doesn’t have that “start” point.
- Earlier generations had a lifestyle that made it more likely they would detect an infestation in the first place. They had spring cleaning routines that removed entire carpets, mattresses, draperies, from the house for beating (vacuuming does little to help a bed bug situation); they washed clothes by hand and could inspect every seam; furniture tended to be plainer with fewer fancy hideouts for the bugs; they had less clutter in their homes. Trying to control an infestation on your own, with the limited time you probably have to devote to it, is just an exercise in frustration.
Fortunately, there are some legitimate bed bug treatments that actually do work; some of these methods are complex and should be done by professional bed bug exterminators, while others can be attempted as a Do It Yourself bed bug treatment. Unfortunately, it’s quite costly to hire a professional bed bug exterminator (and even this may not completely solve your problem — you might be looking at multiple treatments before you get rid of bed bugs completely), which is why people often try the do it yourself bed bug extermination methods (and quite often, fail!).
What Are Bed Bug Extermination Options?
As we said earlier, detecting the presence of bed bugs early is the most effective way to ensure a successful extermination. As they proliferate, larger areas of the home become affected and treatments become progressively more involved.
There are no popular over-the-counter remedies that will alleviate a bed bug problem. For instance, “bug bombs” or sprays are not effective against this particular insect. So if you prefer or are advised to go the chemical route, for your own safety and that of your family you really should rely on a pest control specialist. Some of the chemicals in current use are:
- Synthetic pyrethrins: these were developed based on the effectiveness of their natural counterparts in killing bed bugs. However, the natural chemical did not have a long-lasting effect—new bedbugs could move in happily after the old ones were dead. The synthetic versions have a better residual effect, meaning they will keep bed bugs at bay longer. They also are less damaging to wood and furniture in the home.
- Hydropene, an insect growth regulator: this option disrupts the reproductive cycle of the bugs, but does not actually kill them. Still useful, since the typical bedbug lives a little less than a year.
A variety of application methods will be used when designing an extermination program for the home. Powders, for instance, may be blown into wall cavities or between apartments, while liquid insecticides may be applied along baseboards. It is likely that more than one product will be applied in a total program, in an attempt to balance the danger of chemicals used around people with the desire to kill bed bugs with lasting effect.
It would not be unusual to combine chemical solutions with some of the non-chemical treatments below.
- Heat and Cold: Very hot and very cold temperatures can kill bed bugs and their eggs almost instantly. Applications methods are continually evolving, from steam-treating beds, furniture and drapery, to constructing heat enclosures that will contain nearly any household item. Even the household dryer is effective in this scheme: by using the high-heat setting for at least 30 minutes, bed bugs in infested clothing and bedding will be killed.
- Diatomaceous earth, silica, boric acid: these inorganic materials are long-lasting, and they won’t drive the bugs away. The goal is to get as many of the bugs in contact with the material as possible, so that it scratches their skin and inhibits their ability to store water (being able to go a long time between feedings is one of the bed bug’s greatest secret weapons). This option requires a dry environment, and it can also leave a whitish film on some surfaces in the home.
The Bed Bug Reality
We may be entering an era where bed bugs are as common as they were when parents teasingly warned children to “not let the bed bugs bite” as they went to sleep. Having bed bugs in your home is nothing to be ashamed of. The most vigilant housekeeper is as susceptible as the laziest.
The important thing is to keep an eye out for the critters and develop a rapid-response plan in the event they show up. Having an annual or semi-annual inspection contract with an exterminator is a good move, but it’s important to check the obvious hideouts yourself periodically to stay on top of a potential problem.
We don’t want to scare people into thinking the bed bug problem is an unsolvable pestilence, but the reality of a rising bed bug problem does exists and there are no firm solutions as of yet. If you do suffer from a bed bug infestation and you opt to hire a bed bug removal service, you are going to have to spend a sum of money (perhaps hundreds to thousands of dollars) to solve your problem. There is a huge range of prices you will pay for a pest removal service to “treat” your bed bug problem. The prices generally may range between 200 to a 1000 dollars per room.