Before 2000, bedbug infestation would have been considered an almost nonexistent problem in clean, well-maintained homes and hotels throughout the West. But at the turn of the millennium, bedbug infestation exploded into the worldwide scourge it is today. The reasons are still being studied, but several factors are known to have contributed generously to the spread of this plague. Once bedbugs are in your home, they're notoriously difficult -- and expensive -- to get rid of. The first and best line of defense is to prevent the little vampires from getting through the door in the first place.
Cimex lectularius are hardy parasites -- once they have sneaked into your home, they can wait patiently for months for the chance to have a blood feast at your expense. Bedbugs are about the size of apple seeds; if they haven't eaten for a while, they'll look flattened and almost translucent. After drinking blood -- their only food -- they expand in size and turn purplish-red. Their preferred hiding places are close to where people sleep, sit or rest for long periods, such a sleeping. At night, they can scoot out, spend two to five minutes gorging on blood, then scuttle back to their hiding places, which tend to be in mattress seams and even in the hollow space of a traditional box spring.
Resistance to Insecticides
Before World War II, bedbugs used to be relatively common in the United States, but improved hygiene and the advent of such chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides as DDT seemed almost to have eliminated the problem. Today, entomologists concur that insecticides contributed to the bedbug boom but don't agree on how. Some maintain that post-DDT insecticides simply don't work as well, but Coby Schal of North Carolina State University disagrees. By the time DDT and its ilk were banned in the 1970s, he says, bedbugs had already developed resistance to them. Since pyrethroids, the main class of pesticides used against bedbugs today, work in much the same way, the pests already are or are rapidly becoming resistant to them, too.
The Sydney summer Olympic Games of 2000 have been accused of being ground zero of the present bedbug epidemic, enabling the bloodsuckers to hitch rides all over the world inside the luggage of competing athletes. How much truth there is to that hypothesis remains to be seen; but today, travel is certainly the main way bedbugs hop from one geographical location to another. Even when you stay in clean, reputable hotels in North America and Europe, you can't let down your guard. Always be vigilant for telltale signs of infestation, especially around the bed's headboard and near the luggage stand. The best way to find bedbugs is using a high-lumen flashlight, aimed directly into crevices and seams of textile furnishings If you wake up with a bug bite you didn't have when you went to sleep, be suspicious. The wrists are common targets of bedbugs.
In an era of environmental responsibility, many people contribute to a greener world by recycling items that still have life left in them. But where used furniture is concerned, bedbugs make recycling risky. Entomologists at the University of Minnesota say that scavenging furniture left outdoors by persons unknown is always a bad idea. If you frequent thrift shops or buy secondhand, closely inspect furniture for signs of bedbug infestation; if you have any doubt, pass. Entomologist Toby Fountain of the University of Sheffield, who is using DNA fingerprinting techniques to research the origins of the bedbug epidemic, warns that hundreds, even thousands, of bedbugs can live in the crevices between sofa cushions. Severe infestation, unchecked, results in the bugs living out in the open, on walls and wood and whatever else.
- University of Minnesota Extension: Prevention and Control of Bedbugs
- Bed-Bugs: Learn How to Get Rid of Bed Bugs
- Scientific American: Top 10 Myths About Bedbugs
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Parasites – Bed Bugs
- University of Minnesota Extension: Traveler Q & A: Preventing Bed Bugs from Hitchhiking to Your Home
- Dateline: What You Need to Know About Bed Bugs
- Michigan Department of Natural Resources: DDT and Other Chlorinated Hydrocarbon Pesticides
- BBC Nature News: Bed Bugs Boom Tracked Using DNA Fingerprinting
- Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images