How Do Bed Bugs Exist

Everything you never wanted to know about bed bugs, and more

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Chercheur à l’Institut de systématique, évolution, biodiversité (UMR 7205 MNHN-CNRS-UPMC-EPHE), Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (MNHN)

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Romain Garrouste has received financing from the MNHN, CNRS, National Geographic, LABEX BCDiv, ANR, Sorbonne Universités and the Ile de France region, among others.

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Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle provides funding as a member of The Conversation FR.

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If some insects could save the world, others do their best to seriously complicate life on Earth. Among them the prize perhaps goes to the bed bug, which after decades of absence has returned to our homes, hotels and public facilities to seriously disturb us.

These intrepid little insects aren’t picky about where they set up shop – luxury suites and hospitals, public housing and rich neighbourhoods are all equally attractive to them. Given that bed bugs like to hang out where people congregate in the largest numbers, however, they prefer the city over the country.

So why have bed bugs returned, why are they so successful and what solutions exist to help us get rid of them? And beyond our fears and phobias, what is the true impact of these little demons?

What do they want?

The bed bug,Cimex lectularius, is a small insect, generally 6mm in length (about a quarter inch). It feeds exclusively on human blood and has great sensory capabilities that allow it to detect its prey even in complete darkness.

The insect’s biology reflects its role as an external parasite: high fertility (a single female can lay up to 500 eggs), the ability to resist deprivation (it can go three months or more without feeding) and high mobility.

While the bed bug long ago lost its wings, it’s perfectly adapted to be transported by its hosts and their belongings – it can hitch a ride on clothing, furniture, luggage and more.

Another peculiarity that may explain the bed bug’s success is its curious mode of reproduction – males inject their sperm directly into the abdomen of females using a syringe-like organ, a process called traumatic insemination.

To locate others of its species, and thus regroup, bed bugs have an effective chemical ecology, including an odour that humans can smell.

Traumatic copulation by a maleCimex lectularius. The ventral shell of the female (above) is pierced by the male’s syringe-like organ. Rickard Ignell/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Blood meals are needed for the adults to lay eggs and for the larvae to complete their development. The insect’s bite and its saliva causes itching and allergies, as well as social phobias and even outsized fears.

But rest assured: even in the most highly infested setting, the bed bugs’ small size means that they only withdrawn a tiny quantity of blood – there’s no risk of anaemia, even if our discomfort remains.

Because of its age-old companionship with humans, bed bugs are one of the most widely distributed insects in the world. They can live in polar latitudes, high altitudes, deserts and… everywhere else.

In the tropics, a second species proliferates,Cimex hemipterus, now also present in Europe (in south of France). It has same way of life and the same appetite for human blood.

Nice and warm, in the cave…

But why does this darn bug “love” us so much? Part of the family Cimicidae, this strict hematophagous – meaning “blood eating” – insect can only survive thanks to hot-blooded hosts. Some specialize in bats, others on birds. Two are particularly fond of humans,C. lectulariusandC. hemipterus.

All bed bugs are equipped with mouthpieces that have been transformed to bite through the integumentary system of its host – the skin, fur or feathers that protect it. All the species of this family (there are about a hundred in the world) live at the expense of their hosts, and feed on them in their nests or special habitats such as caves.

This is where climate change comes in. Not today, but tens of thousands of years ago. The first modern human populations had to deal with several glaciations – the previous one in Europe lasted from the period -115,000 to -10,000.

Given the cold climate in formerly temperate areas, humans sheltered themselves in caves when possible. Unfortunately,Cimicidaeand other parasites already lived there, taking advantage of the presence of birds, bats and other hot-blooded mammals.

Bites fromCimex lectularius. Hermann Luyken/Wikimedia

It is thought that bed bugs’ developed their fondness for humans and their blood during this time. They then hitched a ride with us on our migrations during warmer weather, and a true domestication – known as commensalism, to be precise – was established.

While still theoretical, this hypothesis is supported by genetic analysis of two lineages of bed bugs: one feeds off bats, the other off humans. There is also archaeological evidence of the presence ofCimicidaein early human settlements. And looking farther back, the first knownCimicidae, found in Burmese amber dating about 99 million years ago, had wings.

This relative long history is perhaps only the beginning, because it seems that there has not yet been an adaptation of human pathogens to take advantage of this “new” vector.

While the bites of bed bugs are unpleasant, they’re not particularly dangerous. This is a crucial problem: if the viruses bacteria that infect humans could be transmitted through bed-bug bites, what does the future hold for us?

Why have they returned?

While bed bugs had followed humankind and lived off our blood for millennia, beginning in the 1950s we got the upper hand through improved living conditions and the use of synthetic insecticides.

The bed bugs simply bided their time, and were able to make a comeback thanks to a phenomenon known as pesticide resistance. This has allowed them to progressively rebuild their populations and reconquer territories from which they’d been banished. Any new pesticides would inevitably fall victim to the same process.

Our increased ability to travel has also played a role in the bed bugs’ return, as well as the psychological and social stigma associated with infestations. For example, if bed bugs move into your town’s luxury hotel, are its owners likely to want big red pest-control van out front? Not particularly.

Sniffing them out

When it comes to fighting bed bugs, detection is the first step. Given that these insects have millions of years of experience hiding from their annoyed hosts, specially trained dogs can sometimes be used.

If bed bugs have one weakness, it’s that they’re intolerant of extremely high or low temperatures. Washing clothes and bedding at the highest possible setting followed by drying for at least 30 minutes at high heat should do the trick. You can also freeze clothing or other objects you suspect of being infested.

There are also traditional methods: for example, the sticky leaves of some plants can be used to trap them, and it is known that powdery substances repel them. A bed with its four feet placed in low dishes filled with flour or diatomaceous earth is thus protected. But remember that bed bugs can also drop from the ceiling…

A combination of early detection, careful hygiene and continuous control afterward (to prevent any remaining bed bugs from feeding, and thus causing them to eventually die of hunger) is essential.

But remember that the bed bug is devious: in the absence of food or at low temperatures, adults can enter a state of dormancy called diapause that allows them to wait for a better tomorrow.

On your nice clean sheets, an unwanted guest. Romain Garrouste , CC BY

While bed bugs themselves are preyed on by spiders and centipedes, any kind of biological control would be complex to implement. Indeed, despite such predators’ proven effectiveness, it seems counter-intuitive to release evenmoreinsects in your house to fight bed bugs.

The scene of the crime

Thus while bed bugs aren’t particularly nice companions to have, there are ways to fight back, and for now at least they don’t spread serious diseases. But this situation could change and it’s worth considering improving how we control these unwanted guests.

But there’s one aspect – albeit a slightly gruesome one – where bed bugs could remain useful: Because human DNA can persist for up to 90 days after a blood meal, police investigators could potentially use them in criminal investigations. The bed bug could thus help found a new branch of police science, “forensic hematophagy”.

This article was originally published in French

Bedbugs

Bedbugs are small insects that often live on furniture or bedding. Their bites can be itchy, but do not usually cause other health problems.

Check if it’s bedbugs

Jeff March / Alamy Stock Photo

Bedbugs can hide in many places, including on bed frames, mattresses, clothing, furniture, behind pictures and under loose wallpaper.

Signs of bedbugs include:

  • bites – often on areas exposed while sleeping, like the face, neck and arms
  • spots of blood on your bedding – from the bites or from squashing a bedbug
  • small brown spots on bedding or furniture (bedbug poo)

Bedbug bites can be red and itchy. They’re often in a line or cluster.

Otto Pleska / Alamy Stock Photo

Some people have a reaction to the bites. They can be very itchy and there may be painful swelling.

How you can treat bedbug bites

Bedbug bites usually clear up on their own in a week or so.

Things you can do include:

  • putting something cool, like a clean, damp cloth, on the affected area to help with the itching and any swelling
  • keeping the affected area clean
  • not scratching the bites to avoid getting an infection

You can ask a pharmacist about:

  • using a mild steroid cream like hydrocortisone cream to ease bedbug bites (children under 10 and pregnant women should get advice from a doctor before using hydrocortisone cream)
  • antihistamines – these may help if the bites are very itchy and you’re unable to sleep

Non-urgent advice: See a GP if:

  • the bites are still very painful, swollen or itchy after trying treatments from a pharmacist
  • the redness around the bites is spreading

You may have an infection and need treatment with antibiotics.

Coronavirus update: how to contact a GP

It’s still important to get help from a GP if you need it. To contact your GP surgery:

  • visit their website
  • use the NHS App
  • call them

How to get rid of bedbugs

contact your local council or pest control service – it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get rid of bedbugs yourself because they can be resistant to some insecticides

wash affected bedding and clothing – use a hot wash (60C) or tumble dry on a hot setting for at least 30 minutes

put affected clothing and bedding in a plastic bag and put it in the freezer (-16C) for 4 days (alternative to hot washing)

clean and vacuum regularly – bedbugs are found in both clean and dirty places, but regular cleaning will help you spot them early

do not keep clutter around your bed

do not bring secondhand furniture indoors without carefully checking it first

do not take luggage or clothing indoors without checking it carefully if you have come from somewhere where you know there were bedbugs

Page last reviewed: 21 January 2019
Next review due: 21 January 2022

Do bed bugs exist ?

Wiki User
September 23, 2009 2:55AM

Yes, bed bugs are real and can be a serious problem. I work at a

University and we have several cases each year as many students are

coming and going. Once you have bed bugs, they are very difficult

to get rid of. Bed bugs are also very easy to spread to other

dwellings if you are not aware you have them. If you find you have

bed bugs, contact an extermination company who has experience with

treating and fumigating bed bugs (most effective way is to use a

trailer fumigation system). Getting rid of bed bugs is a lengthy

and sometimes costly process that requires a great deal of

cooperation. I’m not aware that bed bugs can be exterminated

without professional help. Also, bed bugs don’t just live on beds.

Bed Bugs

Bed bugs (picture on the left) likely get their name from their habit of feeding on humans while they sleep in their beds. They are found in virtually every place people tend to gather, including residences, hotels, schools, offices, retail stores and even public transportation.

If you do identify bed bugs in your home, contact a pest professional promptly. They will be able to inspect your home, confirm the species and recommend a course of bed bug treatment.

Pest Stats

Color

Unfed adults are mahogany; engorged bed bugs are red-brown. Nymphs are nearly colorless.

Shape

Flat, broad oval when unfed; swollen and elongated when fed.

Adults are 1/4 inch long. Nymphs range from 1.3 mm to 4-5 mm.

Antennae

Region

Found throughout U.S.

Bed Bug Photos

Photo of an unfed adult bed bug on the skin

Photo of a male and female bed bugs with eggs

Photo of a bed bug to scale on a penny

Close-up photo of the head and thorax of a bed bug

Photo of a bed bug on human skin

Photo of an adult bed bug on a piece of velcro

Photo of bed bug skins – a telltale sign of a bed bug infestation

Photo of a baby bed bug and fecal spots

Snapshot of the appearance and distribution of bed bugs

Videos View All Videos

This video will take you on an educational trip through the history of bed bugs, teach you how to be vigilant to minimize your risk of encountering them and how to effectively deal with this resilient pest if you have an infestation.

Watch this demonstration on the proper way to inspect for bed bugs.

Here are some tips to avoid bringing bed bugs inside your home after traveling.

Bed bugs feed on the blood of humans and other warm-blooded hosts. If you are bitten by a bed bug, the most common threat is from the bite-mark itself, which can turn into a large, raised, itchy welt. For more on this blood-sucking pest, check out the bed bug pest guide.

Bed bugs are NOT known to transmit disease to humans. They also do not transmit MRSA, or methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus. For more information on bed bugs, visitAll Things Bed Bugs.

Concerned about bed bugs and disease? Dr. Parada assures us there is no evidence that bed bugs transmit disease to humans. Learn more about bed bugs here.

Think you may have bed bug bites? Dr. Parada explains the signs and symptoms of bed bug bites, which can be difficult to tell. Learn more about bed bug bites here.

How do I know if I have bed bugs? Dr. Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist for the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), shares some advice. Visit All Things Bed Bugs for more information about this elusive pest.

Why are bed bugs so hard to control? Dr. Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist with the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), has the answer! Learn more about bed bugs in the All Things Bed Bugs hub.

This public service announcement highlights the dangers of bed bug infestations. It features close up footage of bed bugs feedings on human skin.

Bed bugs (picture on the left) likely get their name from their habit of feeding on humans while they sleep in their beds. They are found in virtually every place people tend to gather, including residences, hotels, schools, offices, retail stores and even public transportation.

If you do identify bed bugs in your home, contact a pest professional promptly. They will be able to inspect your home, confirm the species and recommend a course of bed bug treatment.

Pest Stats

Color

Unfed adults are mahogany; engorged bed bugs are red-brown. Nymphs are nearly colorless.

Shape

Flat, broad oval when unfed; swollen and elongated when fed.

Adults are 1/4 inch long. Nymphs range from 1.3 mm to 4-5 mm.

Antennae

Region

Found throughout U.S.

Videos View All Videos

This video will take you on an educational trip through the history of bed bugs, teach you how to be vigilant to minimize your risk of encountering them and how to effectively deal with this resilient pest if you have an infestation.

Watch this demonstration on the proper way to inspect for bed bugs.

Here are some tips to avoid bringing bed bugs inside your home after traveling.

Bed bugs feed on the blood of humans and other warm-blooded hosts. If you are bitten by a bed bug, the most common threat is from the bite-mark itself, which can turn into a large, raised, itchy welt. For more on this blood-sucking pest, check out the bed bug pest guide.

Bed bugs are NOT known to transmit disease to humans. They also do not transmit MRSA, or methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus. For more information on bed bugs, visitAll Things Bed Bugs.

Concerned about bed bugs and disease? Dr. Parada assures us there is no evidence that bed bugs transmit disease to humans. Learn more about bed bugs here.

Think you may have bed bug bites? Dr. Parada explains the signs and symptoms of bed bug bites, which can be difficult to tell. Learn more about bed bug bites here.

How do I know if I have bed bugs? Dr. Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist for the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), shares some advice. Visit All Things Bed Bugs for more information about this elusive pest.

Why are bed bugs so hard to control? Dr. Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist with the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), has the answer! Learn more about bed bugs in the All Things Bed Bugs hub.

This public service announcement highlights the dangers of bed bug infestations. It features close up footage of bed bugs feedings on human skin.

Habits

Bed bugs like to travel and are good hitchhikers. They will hide in suitcases, boxes and shoes to be near a food supply. They are elusive, nocturnal creatures. They can hide behind baseboards and in cracks, crevices, and folded areas of beds, bedding and adjacent furniture, especially mattresses and box springs. Bed bugs can also hide in electrical switchplates, picture frames, wallpaper and nearly anywhere inside a home, car, bus, or other shelter. Bed bugs usually come out at night for a blood meal. However, they are opportunistic insects and can take a blood meal during the day, especially in heavily-infested areas. Bed bugs usually require 5-10 minutes to engorge with blood. After feeding, they move to secluded places and hide for 5-10 days. During this time in the bed bug life cycle, they do not feed but instead digest their meal, mate, and lay eggs.

Habitat

So where do bed bugs live? Bed Bugs like to hide in small cracks and crevices close to a human environment. They can be found behind baseboards, wallpaper, upholstery, and in furniture crevices. Bed bugs are also known to survive in temporary or alternative habitats, such as backpacks and under the seats in cars, busses and trains.

Threats

Although bed bugs can dine on any warm-blooded animal, they primarily dine on humans. Bed bugs do not transmit diseases, but their bites can become red, itchy welts.

What Is The Purpose Of Bed Bugs?

Purposes of Bed Bugs

There are several organisms and microorganisms that give scientists and laypeople alike pause to wonder as to their purpose in the circle of life. Examples of these organisms include insects such as cockroaches and bed bugs.

What purpose do Bed Bugs have?

Could the planet without them?

Do Bed Bugs contribute anything to the ecosystem or are they just simply parasites?

The Life Span of a Bed Bug

Bed bugs are wingless insects that are nocturnal and reddish-brown in color. They feed on the blood, specifically capillary blood, of humans and animals, making the question of what purpose do bed bugs have even harder to answer.

The life of a bed bug begins as an egg that resembles a piece of grain in appearance and is white in color. These eggs are laid in crevices with tight, tiny openings. A female bed bug will lay between 1 and 5 eggs in a day, and up to 500 in her lifetime. About two weeks after being laid, the eggs will hatch and baby bed bugs will emerge to immediately begin feeding on blood.

Upon reaching maturity, adult bed bugs will feed when food is available. They can go for months without feeding while lying in wait for its next food supply.

The lifespan of a bed bug typically lasts from four to six months, although if living in cool conditions they can survive for a year even with no food supply.

So What Purpose Do Bed Bugs Have?

Despite the overall consensus that the earth’s ecosystem could survive without bed bugs, some scientists insist that bed bugs are a food source for spiders, a very necessary element for making the planet habitable.

Bed bugs have evolved to live off of us, so they are here because we are here too. Like many species low on the food chain, bed bugs can nourish other organisms, such as centipedes. Animals like birds and toads, in turn, eat centipedes. Parasites can also get parasites, such as parasitic bacteria, which would bite the dust if their host went extinct.

Regardless of which side of the argument you may find yourself, it is important to remember that if you find yourself with a bed bug infestation, it is possible to get rid of them as well as their unhatched eggs. The best mode of action is to assess the problem, kill the bugs and their eggs, and possibly retreat to prevent recurrence.

Getting a bed bug infestation is certainly not the end of the world, but it will be some work to get rid of them. At the end of the day, I would like to think that bed bugs serve a purpose, even if we don’t see it or know it. Same thing can be said about roaches and they have existed for a long time as well. Bed Bugs at the least serve as a meal for another organism, bug, or critter.

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