1. They plagued the Neanderthals. Bedbugs have been a problem for humans since prehistory, and it is speculated that they originated from caves that our ancestors shared with bats. They were widespread in the United States but seemed to disappear during the early 1940s when DDT was used indoors for treatment. There were no records of bedbugs in North America before the early colonists. During the last 10 years there has been a major resurgence. The biggest factor is their high level of resistance to pesticides used for indoor pest control.
2. You won’t like their relatives, either. Bedbugs are a family of true bugs (Cimicidae) and are related to stink bugs, assassin bugs and other insects in the order Hemiptera. There are 15 species of these wingless, blood-feeding parasites in North America, with a majority associated with specific species of birds or bats. There are two species that feed and breed on humans—the human bedbug Cimex lectularis and the tropical bedbug Cimex hemipterus. Biologically, bedbugs can be thought of as indoor mosquitoes without the disease issues.
3. They travel because we do. Widespread travel has allowed bedbugs to “hitchhike” and become reestablished throughout the world. Bedbugs first started to appear in motels, hotels and youth hostels. Infestations then appeared in multifamily dwellings. Now we hear about infestations in subway benches, hospitals, movie theaters, libraries and retail stores. Bedbugs must be brought into homes by people. The two most common sources are infested items such as used furniture, or they are brought into a home on baggage that has become infested.
4. And now for the good news. Bedbugs are the only blood-feeding insect that has not been associated with any human diseases. More than 30 percent of people bitten do not show reactions to the bites. Bites often look like mosquito bites or hives and are clustered in areas on the arms, neck or back. They can be very itchy, but there can be a delayed reaction of 12 to 24 hours or more before you see a reaction.
5. You’ll still want to get rid of them. Bedbug control requires experience and it is strongly suggested that you seek professional help. Early treatment before populations become high is important. Bedbugs can be killed by heating them above ca. 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Putting clothes into a drier for 15 minutes under medium heat will kill bedbugs. Cold is effective, but requires hours of exposure around 0 degrees. Drying dusts have been used in void spaces to desiccate these insects. Pesticides often require multiple and very thorough treatments to be successful. Treatments are very expensive, which leads to people delaying starting them.
Phillip Pellitteri is a distinguished faculty associate in the CALS Department of Entomology. He runs the Insect Diagnostic Lab, which was established to identify insects and insect-damaged plant material from around the state and recommend controls to both county extension offices and commercial concerns. He also teaches in the Master Gardener program.