Curiosity Corner: Bedbugs

February 3, 2021

Question: I’ve heard recently about people having infestations of bedbugs. Is this true, and if so, why is it happening? We used to never hear about bedbugs. (Asked by a critter-concerned, anonymous column reader.)

Reply: “Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite,” as the old saying goes. I’ve explained the “sleep tight” part in a previous column. In short, beds once had a robe lattice to support the mattress, and if you pulled the ropes “tight” the bed would be firmer for a better night’s sleep. With regard to the “bedbug” part, yes, the blood-sucking bedbugs can bite with a vengeance.

We usually think of bedbugs inhabiting rundown (maybe dirty) living quarters, but hundreds of complaints about bedbugs have been made of higher end places, such as in condominiums and swanky hotels. Schools in New York and Ohio have been hit, and theatres and retail stores in New York City have had to shut down to deal with infestations.

The little pests are reddish-brown in color and about the size of a seedless watermelon seed (the tiny white ones), about ¼ inch in length. They are wingless and flat, allowing them to get into small cracks and crevasses. Bedbugs are not known to spread disease, but they are a real nuisance.

They are nocturnal, crawling out to feed a few hours before daybreak. When they bite, an anesthetic is injected that makes it almost impossible to feel. Also, there is an anticoagulant that keeps the blood flowing for their five to ten minute meal that plumps them up.

Bedbugs are quite prolific. The female lays between 200 and 400 eggs at a time, which mature in about two months. Then, hundreds of bugs may come out for the nocturnal feeding.

The bite results in an itchy, red welt due to an allergic reaction to the bug’s saliva. On a good feeding night, a number of welts may be found on one’s body. Some people are known to have more severe reactions to the bites.

Why have they become so prevalent? No one knows for sure, but it is suspected that it has to do with the ban on the insecticide DDT, which all but eradicated bedbugs in the United States. DDT was banned in 1972 after it was linked to the dramatic decline in eagle and condor populations. First introduced in the 1930s, DDT had a lingering effect on surfaces where it was used and continued to kill bugs for weeks.

Although bedbugs are commonly found around mattresses, where the prey is sleeping, they can hide in any small space, such as joints in furniture, cracks in wallboard and linings of suitcases. Experts believe that the latter might be a major cause of the infestations. Because of increased global and domestic travel, travelers can bring bedbugs to and from hotels and motels in their luggage. Note that one female lays hundreds of eggs that may go along for the ride with some delayed biting.

So, what do we do to get rid of them? They are usually hidden — and can stay hidden — because they are able to survive for up to a year without feeding. Professional exterminators rely on sprays to kill the bugs hiding in cracks, with a dusting backup to get the ones that survive the spray. Bedbug eggs aren’t generally affected by these applications, so it takes another treatment a couple of weeks later when the eggs have hatched. Trying to take care of the problem yourself with off-the-shelf pesticides might not be the solution. Applications are usually limited and the bugs may flee to another location while their eggs survive.

In the meantime, researchers are studying bedbugs, hoping to find a chink in their armor. Maybe a new, environmentally friendly pesticide or some way to disrupt the bug’s life cycle will come along. A main thing to remember is that anyone can get bedbugs — not just from a dirty (or clean) mattress, but even from that Christmas present you got from Aunt Jane last year!

C.P.S. (Curious Postscript): “A song without music is like H2 without the O.” -Ira Gershwin

Curious about something? Send your questions to Dr. Jerry D. Wilson, College of Science and Mathematics, Lander University, Greenwood, SC, 29649, or email [email protected] Selected questions will appear in the Curiosity Corner. For Curiosity Corner background, go to www.curiosity-corner.net.