5 Disturbing Facts About Bedbugs

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It’s every traveler’s nightmare: you check into your hotel after a long day on the road, only to discover huge, itching welts all over your body the next morning. Congratulations — your room is infested with bedbugs. A scourge of humanity since ancient times, bedbug infestations are on the rise. The problem is getting so bad, that even upscale hotels now have them; Cleveland Cavaliers star Kyrie Irving recently missed playing time with “flu-like symptoms” after being bitten by bedbugs the night before in his ritzy hotel. Although Hilton Hotels apologized, many hotels are either indifferent to or ignoring the problem, and lawsuits against major chains have thus far been unsuccessful. Here are five issues and strange facts surrounding the rise of bedbugs.

 

5. Bedbugs Have Made a Surprising Comeback

This scanning electron micrograph image shows a bedbug with its skin-piercing mouthparts highlighted in purple and red. Credit: Janice Harney Carr, Center for Disease Control

This scanning electron micrograph image shows a bedbug with its skin-piercing mouthparts highlighted in purple and red. Credit: Janice Harney Carr, Center for Disease Control

Common in communal areas for centuries, bedbugs were nearly eradicated in the mid-20th century. Modern travelers are largely unfamiliar with these tiny pests. Yet in the past decade, bedbugs have made a comeback in a dramatic way. The main reason: many of the chemicals used to kill them in the past, while effective, are now banned. Also, increased international travel is helping spread the scourge. Another possible culprit in the U.S. is the Great Recession, which resulted in a larger migrant homeless population, often living long-term in hotels while looking for temporary work.

Often, bedbugs are thought to inhabit filthy living conditions, although they’re actually quite clever in evading detection, and can turn up in even the cleanest establishments. A single female bedbug can lay hundreds of eggs during an average nine-month lifespan, and infest an entire building in a short time. Some pest control companies in New York City — ground zero for the recent bedbug explosion — receive more than half a dozen calls a day. Tie this in with the trauma and sleepless nights, along with the denial — no one likes the thought that they may be towing a bedbug infestation home with them — and you’ve got the makings of a modern-day epidemic.

 

4. Bedbugs Were Once Airborne Creatures

A bedbug nymph feeds on a human host. Credit: CDC/Harvard University

A bedbug nymph feeds on a human host. Credit: CDC/Harvard University

It’s a very strange (and frightening) evolutionary fact, but bedbugs once flew. Cimex lectularius — the common bedbug — probably first met up with modern nomadic humans seeking shelter in caves about 45,000 years ago, toward the end of the last major ice age. Flight is an expensive adaptive trait in terms of energy expenditure, and unlike other blood-sucking insects such as mosquitoes, bedbugs opted to let human activity do the transportation for them, namely by hitching a ride on our clothing and luggage. Modern bedbugs still possess the vestiges of wings, or wing pads, on their body, but thankfully they can’t fly. Bedbugs will feed on bats as well as domesticated animals, though they tend to prefer human blood. This strategy has been effective, as bedbugs have gone wherever humans have; in 2016, a pest control team was sent to a remote oil rig in the North Sea to combat a bedbug infestation.

 

3. Bedbugs Cannot Spread Infectious Diseases … Or Can They?

Bedbug bites can be painful. © Dr. James Heilman

Bedbug bites can be quite irritating. © Dr. James Heilman

While most bedbug bites leave swollen red welts that generally heal in a week or so, these can leave nasty scars. The bites can also result in a secondary infection. Some people can suffer an allergic reaction to the bedbug’s saliva. While bedbugs have not been proven to transmit disease, research in recent years has raised troubling possibilities. One study at a Vancouver hospital found bedbugs carrying the antibiotic-resistant superbug MRSA. Researchers noted that since the bedbug pierces human skin during feeding, it could theoretically transmit this bacteria. A 2014 study by University of Pennsylvania researchers found that bedbugs can transmit the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi to mice. That parasite causes Chagas disease, which kills some 50,000 people each year in undeveloped countries.

A paper in the medical journal Clinical Infectious Diseases notes that, “Bedbugs are suspected of transmitting infectious agents, but no report has yet demonstrated that they are infectious disease vectors.” Bottom line: More research is needed before we know if bedbugs spread disease. Scientists recently sequenced the genome of the bedbug, and with infestations on the rise, expect these creatures to be a growing subject of research.

 

2. Bedbugs are Becoming Immune to Current Treatments

Credit: Dr. Gary D. Alpert/Harvard University

Bedbugs have shown resistance to pesticides. Credit: Dr. Gary D. Alpert/Harvard University

Are modern methods to beat the pests serving only to breed superbugs? As with any insect or bacteria, the evolutionary battle continues, as bedbugs become immune to current treatments. Any natural resistance becomes beneficial, and the remaining bedbugs demonstrate this defense by leaving more immune offspring. Even their paper-thin bodies are a survival strategy, allowing them to squeeze into tiny cracks, behind wallpaper and in other hiding spots. One University of Kentucky team identified 14 active genes — mostly in the exoskeleton of the common bedbug, which comes in contact with pesticide —involved with pesticide resistance. One researcher told Scientific American the large array of resistance genes was “horrifying.” Neonicotinoids are the latest insecticide developed for use on bedbugs, and it has been on the market since the early 1990s.

 

1. What Can You Do to Beat Bedbugs?

A sign of the times in the lodging industry. © Grenade

A sign of the times in the lodging industry. © Grenade via Flickr

How can you tell if a potential hotel room is infested? One website, www.bedbugregistry.com, logs reports of bedbug incidents; obviously, bedbugs can be present in a hotel not on the registry, and just because a hotel has been reported, that doesn’t indicate an ongoing problem. Some websites recommend international travelers seal their luggage in plastic bags and place them in the hotel tub on arrival, although this seems pretty impractical. A better solution: don’t store your luggage on the floor or a bed, but instead use the luggage rack. A quick inspection of a potential room along and behind headboards, under mattresses and along carpet seams may reveal the presence of bedbugs. A sweet-musty smell might also give them away, though at this point, expect a massive infestation. And finally, if you’re unlucky enough to spend a night being an unwitting meal to the tiny pests, complain about it to the hotel staff on checkout. Your complaint might be met with indifference, but enough complaints may just get the establishment on the wagon in the war against bedbugs.

It’s also important to take steps to avoid bringing bedbugs back home with you. Carefully check your luggage and clothing when leaving the hotel. The pest control service Orkin recommends placing all of your clothes in the dryer, on the highest setting, immediately upon returning from a trip. It also recommends storing your luggage away from sleeping areas, such as in a storeroom or the garage. And be sure to thoroughly inspect any second-hand furniture before bringing it home.

Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.