More In This Article
Chances are, you or someone you know has had a run-in with bed bugs. It might have happened in a scrupulously clean bedroom. Or maybe it was a hotel room, office or college dorm. In the February issue of Scientific American entomologist Kenneth Haynes of the University of Kentucky explains how, after a lengthy absence, bed bugs are staging a comeback. The good news is scientists are intensively studying these insects, and their insights suggest novel ways of detecting the bugs and eradicating infestations. Some of those potential solutions are a long way off, however. In the meantime the best bet is to avoid bringing bed bugs home in the first place. I called Haynes to ask him how to do that and what to do if one suspects an infestation (eek!), among a bunch of other practical-minded questions.
Do bed bugs only feed on humans?
No. Bed bugs are also pests in poultry operations, and they're known to parasitize bats. Some labs that study bed bugs rear them on guinea pigs and mice. The bugs might feed on cats and dogs. Fur is probably a barrier to them, but they could feed at any place on the body without fur. Bed bugs are not specific to humans, but they are adapted to parasitizing us.
Could you have a bed bug infestation in your home and not know it?
That's very possible. I have heard of couples reporting that only one partner is getting bitten. The truth is that both are getting bitten, but only one has a reaction to the bites. Thirty percent of people or more don't react to bed bug bites at all, and the elderly are less reactive than the rest of the population. Among those people who do react to the bites, most of them don't respond to early bites, but develop a sensitivity to subsequent ones. Those individuals who are not sensitive to bed bug bites may not know they have an infestation. Because bed bugs are nocturnally active, it's hard to see other signs of their presence—unless you're accustomed to waking up at 3 A.M. and taking a census. With a huge infestation, bed bugs start to move away from the bed, so you're more likely to see one in an exposed place during the day. In very severe infestations people can become anemic. That takes a lot of bugs though—maybe 100,000 feeding once a week or more.
Another clue to infestation is odor. Like many species of bugs, bed bugs release odors called alarm pheromones. When a group of bed bugs gets disturbed, you may get a whiff of that odor, which is similar to the odor stink bugs give off. At higher concentrations the odor is unpleasant. Some people say at low concentrations it's a pleasant smell—like coriander. In fact, older literature refers to the bed bug as the coriander bug. I've tried to smell the coriander scent in bed bug alarm pheromones and have not been able to make the connection, however.
What can one do to avoid getting bed bugs?
The first thing is you have to be able to recognize and distinguish a bed bug from any other insect. Everything starts to look like a bed bug if you start to worry about them. An adult bed bug is about the size and shape of an apple seed. If it has not fed recently it will be flattened and brown. If it has fed it will be round in circumference and reddish. Immature bed bugs have a similar appearance to adults, with the smallest being the size of the head of a pin. You can then learn to look for their fecal spots, which can be easier to detect than the bugs themselves. Check your hotel rooms when you travel. And think twice before bringing home used furniture. If you are purchasing used furniture, ask the furniture store how they deal with bed bugs. If they have no plan whatsoever, that's probably not a good sign. If you purchase used clothing, put it through a clothes dryer on a medium to high setting for a cycle as soon as you bring it home. And before you move into an apartment, ask the landlord whether there has been a bed bug infestation, or whether the building has ever been treated for bed bugs.