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Bed Bug Biology and Health Significance


Bed Bug Biology

A bed bug taking a meal from a human

Bed bugs are small, flattened insects with piercing mouth parts, who feed on the blood of warm-blooded animals (including humans). They are wingless and reach about the size of a ladybug when they are full grown.

They also give off a sickening stench that can become quite overpowering and disgusting when an infestation is severe. Many have tried to tell bed bugs, in the kindest possible manner, about their body odor problem; but alas, it's been to no avail. They don't take the hint.

Bed bugs reproduce prolifically. It's not at all unusual for exterminators to encounter thousands of bed bugs in a single mattress. They also can spread to adjacent bedrooms (or adjacent units in apartment houses, hotels, motels, condos, co-ops, and other multiple dwellings), so one infested room or unit can rapidly lead to a bed bug problem spreading to an entire building.

Some landlords are even asking new tenants to have an exterminator inspect or treat their belonging before they move in.

Adult female bed bugs lay two to four eggs a day in crevices in upholstery, furnishings, baseboards or other trim, picture frames, or pretty much anywhere else they can find a suitable crack, crevice, or void in close proximity to humans.

Bed bugs won't be winning any Mother of the Year awards, however. This act of laying her eggs where her young will have an easy time finding a meal is the last act of kindness a bed bug mother will show to her young. Once the young bed bugs hatch, they'll be on their own.

The nymphs hatch about one to three weeks after the eggs are laid, and immediately set out looking for a blood meal. The nymphs undergo five molts before reaching adulthood, and the total time from egg to adult ranges from one to two months.


Bed Bug Behavior

Bed bugs feed at night, so they tend to take up residence in close proximity to where their hosts sleep. It makes life easy for them. Why commute if you don't have to?

Adult bed bugs usually live in structural cracks and gaps in bed frames, night tables, and headboards; as well as in mattresses and structural elements of a room. But they also may hide in the room's baseboards and other trim, in furniture, and even inside wall and ceiling voids.

Wherever they choose to hide, however, it is there that they will patiently lie in wait until you hit the sack and fall asleep.

And then they make their move.

Attracted by the warmth of a sleeping human body and the carbon dioxide that we exhale, bed bugs climb, crawl, or fall onto their hosts and start feeding, quietly sucking blood until they are full. Then once they are full, they depart without so much as a burp, much less a "thank you," and return to their hiding spaces.


Bed Bugs and Sanitation

Unlike the case with many other pest problems, obsessive cleanliness is no guarantee that you won't have a bed bug problem. You don't have to be a slop to have a bed bug problems. But it helps.

The reason for this is that even though bed bugs don't really care whether your home is clean or dirty, frequent vacuuming and cleaning will reduce the chances of a few stray, hitchhiking bed bugs becoming established in your home. So if you happen to carry a bed bug or two home with you on the subway, their chances of becoming established in your home are less favorable if they're sucked into a Hoover before they find a place to live.

That being said, bed bugs can infest even the most immaculate of homes; so keeping a clean home reduces your bed bug risk slightly, but it's not a guarantee.


Bed Bugs and Human Health

Bed bugs, like most creatures that suck human blood for a living, are pretty gross. They can even gross out exterminators -- and that's not easy to do.

One old friend of mine who recently retired from the pest control profession tells a story of a bed bug job so bad that he stripped naked outside his home before going in, for fear of carrying hitchhiking bed bugs into his home. Seeing as how he lives in New York City, that must have been quite a sight.

In terms of actual health risk, however, the jury's still out on bed bugs. Bed bug bites affect people differently. Some people get terrible rashes and welts, accompanied by intense itching and even pain. But others seem to have little or no reaction.

In terms of actual disease transmission, bed bugs are believed to be capable of transmitting relapsing fever, Chagas disease, and possibly hepatitis. They also are known to be capable, in theory, of transmitting MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and some other serious diseases, but there's little evidence that this actually happens.

Still, the bites are annoying enough and can lead to infection. Some people are also particularly sensitive to bed bug bites and can suffer serious, painful inflammation and other skin conditions that can require medical treatment. Or as the CDC so clearly and succinctly puts it:

"Bed bug bites can result in clinical manifestations; the most common are small clusters of extremely pruritic, erythematous papules or wheals that represent repeated feedings by a single bed bug... Less common but more severe manifestations include grouped vesicles, giant urticaria, and hemorrhagic bullous eruptions ... Bites should be managed symptomatically with topical emollients, topical corticosteroids, oral antihistamines, or some combination of these treatments....

Although bed bugs could theoretically act as a disease vector, as is the case with body lice, which transmit Bartonella quintana (the causal agent of trench fever) among homeless persons..., bed bugs have never been shown to transmit disease in vivo..."

(You can read the rest here if you like.)

So in a nutshell, some people can get serious rashes from bed bug bites, and the bites can become infected. Other people will have almost no reaction at all. There is also evidence that they are capable of spreading several serious disease, but no clear-cut evidence that they actually do.


Next: Bed Bug Control