ADVERTISEMENT
latest stories:

What are bedbugs? Are they dangerous?

The blood-sucking insects are the bane of most city-dwellers, but one entomologist proudly keeps a colony at the American Museum of Natural History. Is there any way for the rest of us to steer clear of them?



FLICKR/BEDZINE

NEW YORK—Sleep tight and don't let the bedbugs bite? If only. The creepy critters have become such a nuisance here that the city council is mulling legislation that would establish a bedbug task force, ban the sale of used mattresses, train exterminators, and regulate mattress disposal. Just how infested is Gotham? According to the New York Daily News, there were 22,218 complaints to the city's 311 hotline about infestations of the blood-sucking hemipterans, a 34 percent jump since this time last year.

And the Big Apple is not alone in its battle against the bugs. In Chicago, the number of official complaints doubled from 900 to 1,650 during that same period, according to the Tribune. Boston already slaps warning stickers on discarded furniture and Cincinnati has its own bedbug task force. The bugs, which originally hailed from Europe, were nearly wiped out by DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) in the 1950s. But they have been making a comeback since the insecticide was banned in the U.S. in 1972, a decade after journalist Rachel Carson documented the chemical's damaging effects on humans and wildlife in her book Silent Spring.

"I'm petrified to turn the lights off at night," one discouraged New Yorker told Newsday this week. "I'm not getting proper sleep, I can't concentrate on work."

Contrary to their name, bedbugs do not only hang out in beds. They can be found in just about in nook and cranny and can survive for several months without a warm blood meal. The adults are reddish-brown, as about 0.2 inch (five millimeters) long, roughly the height of the numbers on a credit card, and resemble tiny cockroaches; when young, they're pale and about the size of a pinhead. They leave itchy red skin welts and cause endless grief for their victims.

So what's the story on these pesky ectoparasites? Is there any surefire way to avoid them—or to get rid of them if they grace you with their vampiric presence?

To find out, we spoke with Louis Sorkin, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History here, who sustains a personal colony of the bugs with his own blood.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]


What are bedbugs?
The common bedbug is Cimex lectularius. They are true bugs [of the order Hemiptera] in that they possess a hinged beak in the front of the head and have a stylet. The stylet is what is pushed through the skin to find a blood vessel inside. The bug sucks until it's full, and when it's finished it will go and hide and digest the blood. The body swells up to six times its normal size—from a flat insect to football-shaped.

So are they really just found in beds?
By virtue of its name, people always think bedbugs are found only in beds when, in fact, they fit anywhere their bodies can be hidden and they are as thin as a sheet of paper. They are found in all kinds of furniture, electric appliances, clock radios, computers, printers, behind pictures, books and, of course, bookcases. They are found in cracks and crevices in the wall and within walls as well as in electric outlets, wiring, pipes, plastic and metal conduits.

The problem with calling them a "bedbug" is people have an infestation and they throw out the mattress, but then the critters come back. It's really a nest or roost-inhabiting insect, and our homes are our roosts.

How do you get bedbugs?
They are good hitchhikers. Often people carry them unknowingly in their luggage. This can be baggage when you are traveling, a briefcase, a backpack or just clothing. They can be picked up in public transportation sometimes or in theaters. They will travel on pipes and wiring and conduits from one apartment to another.

Are they dangerous?
As far as the research shows, they don't transmit diseases, but they do bite and take blood. People can get secondary infections if they scratch their wounds. In some people, the itching is unbearable. There's some disagreement as to how many people don't itch at all. That's one reason why infestations can be so bad, because people don't realize they have them

In a few cases, there may be an anaphylactic reaction. It is also possible to have an asthmatic reaction because of the shed skin the bugs leave behind as they grow and die.

How do you know if you have bedbugs?

If you have unexplained bites, that's a good way to know. You can also look for their blood droppings. The excrement is a liquid that varies from either light brown to black and can either bead up or be absorbed by the surface.

In some cases, we use dogs who are trained to sniff out live bedbugs or past infestations. They'll pick up on the odor of even one bedbug. We can't typically smell bed bugs, but we do pick up their alarm pheromone when they are disturbed, which smells like coriander. If there are a lot of live bugs, there may be a smell of blood, like rusty iron.

If you are traveling, you should examine the headboard in your hotel room. The headboard should be taken off and looked into. Massive headboards would be a great condominium complex for bedbugs.

How do you get rid of them?
Often you have to seek the services of a pest control expert who has had a lot of experience. You don't have to get rid of your furniture. Insecticides can be sprayed on furniture or furniture can be taken apart and sprayed with orange oil or Murphy's oil, both of which have an insecticidal quality. There are special preparations labeled for mattresses.

The nonchemical ways to remove bedbugs include low-vapor steam treatments, which are done for mattresses and furniture. There are also encasements that you put the mattress box spring in. You starve them to death, but it will take months.

In medieval times, when people would travel to inns with bedbug problems, they would send a pig into the room first so the bedbugs would feed and be satiated.

Don't you have a colony of bedbugs at the museum?
I've only had them for three years, but the original population had been collected from Fort Dix in New Jersey by an Army entomologist in 1971.

I have two eight-ounce jars with about a thousand bugs. There's a fine screen and I have duct tape around the base of the screw-on lid. Inside, there is just cardboard and paper, because they like to hide between the pieces.

Once a month, I just have to invert them on my arm in order to feed them. I get a bump on my arm for an hour or two and then it goes away. It doesn't itch.

And why is it that you keep these vile creatures?

They're mostly for educational purposes. I can show people and reporters all sizes of bedbugs. I also supply bedbugs to the companies that train the bedbug-sniffing dogs.

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Holiday Sale

Give a Gift &
Get a Gift - Free!

Give a 1 year subscription as low as $14.99

Subscribe Now! >

X

Email this Article

X