“Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite!” Over the past 30 years, this phrase has had little use, but bedbugs are reemerging in the United States, prompting people to take caution before bedtime.
Bedbugs have plagued humans for centuries. Historical records show that the household pests have been linked with humans for more than 3,000 years. Often incorrectly associated with poor housekeeping and unsanitary conditions, bedbugs were originally a pest of the rich. During the 17th century, bedbugs thrived in homes of the wealthy where they were insured a warm and soft environment to feed and breed. Following World War II, bedbugs were largely eradicated from the United States through the use of DDT and other pesticides. However, some survived, especially in developing countries, and over time they have repopulated many areas of the world.
Bedbugs are known as ectoparasites, a group of insects that live outside on the bodies of humans, rats, guinea pigs, rabbits, bats, poultry, birds, and other warm-blooded animals. During the day, they hide in cracks and crevices of bed frames and headboards, behind wallpaper and wood work, inside mattresses and box springs, and even inside pictures. At night, they come out to feed, gorging themselves on blood.
There are many species of bedbugs. The common bedbug, Cimex lectularius, and the bat bedbug, C. adjunctus, are frequently found in homes of the northeastern United States. C. hemipteris occurs in subtropical and tropical areas such as Florida.
Bedbugs are not native to North America. They arrived with the first colonists who crossed the Atlantic from Europe. Until the 1940s, they thrived in the United States as a result of improved living conditions and an increase in woodwork in homes. Following a change in style to less ornate homes and furnishings, an increased use of electric vacuum cleaners, and the application of DDT, bedbug populations plummeted over the next 50 years. However, a resurgence of bedbugs has occurred in the past 10 years due to people immigrating or visiting the United States from countries having high bedbug populations. Bedbugs are easily transported by people from one place to another on clothing and used furniture and through walls in apartment buildings and hotels. Bedbugs can also be transmitted to humans from bird and bat nests that may be present in homes.
Bedbugs can be identified by their eggs, young, and adults. Adult bedbugs are light tan to reddish brown in color with oval-shaped, wingless bodies. Their upper bodies are wrinkly and covered with short, blond hairs. Prior to feeding, they are 1/4” to 3/8” long (about the size of a pencil eraser) and almost as flat as a piece of paper. After feeding on blood, they become bloated and dark red in color, resembling an “animated drop of blood”.
Young bedbugs are nearly colorless but look like smaller adults. The young (nymphs) go through five stages of development before they become adults. Each time they progress to another stage, they have to shed their skin (molt), requiring them to feed on blood.
The eggs of bedbugs are white, pear-shaped, and about the size of a pin head with a lid at one end where the young will emerge. Clusters of 10 to 50 eggs each are laid in crevices. They usually hatch in about 10 days. Bedbugs take about 21 days to mature from egg to adult.
Bedbugs thrive in numbers so you may find adults, young, and eggs all in the same location.
DamageBites from bedbugs are more of an irritation than a threat to your health. Bedbugs feed at night for about 5 to 10 minutes while you sleep and then retreat to their hiding places. Most people don’t notice anything until they wake up the next morning with red, itchy spots on their face, neck, arms, and hands. These spots develop into welts that can persist for several days. Since bedbugs also inject their saliva into the bite, some people will have a more severe reaction, resulting in painful, swollen areas. Welts occurring in rows of three or more bites are telltale signs of bedbug feeding. The nighttime feedings may also cause stress and sleeplessness.
Fortunately, bedbugs do not spread disease. The greatest risk to your health would be a mild skin infection caused by scratching the bites. You should consult your doctor who may recommend applying antibiotic ointments to the bites and taking an oral antihistamine to reduce itching and swelling.
Evidence of Bed BugsUsually, bedbugs have been around for a while before they are noticed. Since they can live for about six months without food, they may be present in abandoned buildings or vacant apartments and homes.
If you think you have bedbugs, the first thing to do is get them properly identified. The West Virginia University Pest Identification Lab can do this free of charge. To have the suspect insect identified, place it in a sealable bag and take it to your WVU Extension Service county office. That office will then send it to the lab for official identification.
Evidence of bedbugs can be found by their physical presence and what they leave behind. In the early stages of infestation, adults and young may be seen on the seams and tufts of mattresses. As the population grows, they move to cracks and crevices in headboards and bed frames, behind wallpaper and woodwork, in drapes, and among cushions of furniture. Bedbugs also leave behind drops of blood-colored excrement on mattresses, pillows, and sheets. In some cases, a distinctive, sweet odor is present.
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