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Scientific Name: Cimex lectularius
Physical Attributes: Flat, oval-shaped with segmented abdomens
Adult Size: 4-5 mm long, 1.5-3 mm wide
Color: Light brown or reddish brown
Habitat: Mattresses, bed linens, bed frames, baseboards, furniture, clothing and bags/luggage
Lifespan: 2-9 months
Found In: All U.S. states, but most concentrated in the Northeast
As the name indicates, bed bugs are best known for living and feeding within human beds. These tiny, hard-shelled insects were a major nuisance in 18th, 19th, and early 20th century America, but were almost eradicated by the 1940s. However, in recent decades, the bed bug has made a major comeback infesting homes and hotels across the U.S., but particularly in high-density areas of the Northeast. Their resurgence is due in part to the banning of certain chemicals used in their control and the relative difficulty of finding new methods of killing bed bugs that don’t also harm people and pets. Increased travel between cities has also given these hitchhiking bugs a lift.
Bed bugs have relatively short lives. Most are complete within a few short months, although a fertilized female can live up to nine months in the right conditions. Although short, their lives consist of six stages, with five immature nymph stages and one adult stage. The transformation to each stage is marked by the shedding of their skin and hard outer shells, with each molt depending upon a blood meal.
Only fertilized females lay eggs, and can lay up to 500 eggs every three or four days during their entire adult lives.
Bed bugs are bloodsucking feeders, and they only feed on humans when other prey is not available. But because of their selected habitat, human prey is often easier to find. Bed bugs feed by piercing the skin of sleeping humans with their rostrum, a beak-like structure protruding from their heads. Along this rostrum are mandibles that have small teeth used for cutting into its prey’s skin and piercing blood vessels. Once the bed bug locates a blood vessel, it can completely engorge itself in less than 10 minutes. After a feeding, bed bugs will not feed again until they molt or digest their meal, usually every five to 10 days.
Due to their small size, bed bugs can take shelter in very small crevices, the most popular being between the threads of bed sheets and blankets. They also nest within a variety of surfaces: fabric-covered furniture, clothing, wooden bed frames, behind picture frames, or inside canvass luggage. This makes them easily transportable, hence the rise in reported bed bug infestations.
Bed bugs are nocturnal, which makes it difficult to detect live activity. The most common signs of a bed bug infestation are shedded exoskeletons, fecal matter and blood smears on sheets. Sometimes their eggs can be found on hard surfaces, like below beds and behind furniture.
If you do spot a live bed bug, it will usually be brown and flat, unless it has just fed, in which case it will have a bright, red abdomen and appear more rounded.
And like many bugs of this classification, the bed bug emits a strong, unpleasant odor when crushed.
Bed bugs are known to carry a number of disease-causing bacteria, such as MRSA and VRE, and their bites can cause large welts and rashes on the skin of human prey. So when an infestation is detected, it’s important to eliminate them quickly. Years ago, pesticides such as pyrethroids were used. But these are now deemed unsafe for long-term exposure, plus, many species of bed bugs have become resistant to most pesticides.
Now pest control companies will often use a combination of extreme heating or freezing to kill of bed bugs. This is a much safer method, and bed bugs have no chance of developing a resistance to it. In cases of extreme infestation, whole-structure fumigation is another option many pest control experts will suggest. Wrapping mattresses is special encasements is also recommended to prevent future infestations.