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Bed bugs have a long history of feeding on us

This photo provided by Virginia Tech Department of Entomology shows mother and child bed bugs. The tiny reddish-brown insects, last seen in great numbers prior to World War II, have been on the rebound in recent years, infesting college dormitories, hospital wings, homeless shelters and swanky hotels.
This photo provided by Virginia Tech Department of Entomology shows mother and child bed bugs. The tiny reddish-brown insects, last seen in great numbers prior to World War II, have been on the rebound in recent years, infesting college dormitories, hospital wings, homeless shelters and swanky hotels. AP File

Until the end of the Second World War, bed bugs were a scourge in every nation on Earth, rich or poor. They didn’t bother to discriminate. It was your blood they were after and your wealth or status didn’t matter. Estimates were that half of the homes in North America were infested; 75 percent in Europe.

With the development of safe and effective insecticides, bed bugs were, for all intents and purposes, eradicated from North America, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

But, beginning in the mid-1990s, they reestablished themselves here and elsewhere and have increased their numbers almost exponentially.

There are a number of possible explanations for these increases. Greater travel to far-flung places where the parasite was common. Changes in how we control other pests such as cockroaches. Lack of awareness by people who had no past experience with bed bugs. All of these have contributed to their spread.

These days, bed bugs are turning up in all sorts of places. As would be expected, they can be found in highly populated areas such as hotels, apartments and military barracks. But, recently, they have begun showing up in department stores, schools and movie theaters. In the United Kingdom, the Public Health Service has estimated that over 200 bed bugs exist in the typical subway car.

Bed bugs are active at night and it isn’t just beds that attract them. Your couch or chair can also be a home for the parasites. They will also squeeze into various cracks and crevices such as the spaces between a baseboard and a wall.

These small brown bugs feed on our blood and can consume three times their own weight in a single feeding. They don’t fly (they originally were parasites of bats); so they have to stick close to their food (us).

Their bite is relatively painless. But it does leave a red weal that can be confused with a rash or a mosquito bite. Until recently, this was the extent of the reactions you could expect from bed bug bites. However, a recent article in Austral Entomology reported that repeated exposure to bites of the common bed bug can cause systemic reactions in some people.

In one case, anaphylaxis occurred and the young man involved (a grad student who was assigned to “feed” the bed bugs in the laboratory) had to be taken to an emergency room.

If you suspect that you’ve got a bed bug problem, they leave clues. Begin by looking for dark spots on chairs, couches and mattresses. These stains are congealed blood excreted by the bugs. In cases of very heavy infestations, a distinct odor can be detected. It has been described in various ways, but the most accurate is a scent close to coriander (the herb gets its name from the Attic Greek word “koris” which means “to smell like a bed bug”).

If you find signs of bed bug infestations, there’s little you can do yourself. There are products out there that you can purchase over the counter that claim to control these parasites. And, they might work if you can reach the bugs. But, in this instance, I strongly advise you to contact a professional. Bed bugs can be extremely difficult to control and it will take a well-trained pest control specialist to get rid of them.

Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535.

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