Bed Bugs and their Biology

Bed bugs are one of the pest insects that most people have heard of, at least in passing. The average person, however, knows very little about the biology of bed bugs unless they have had direct experience with these critters. The scientific name of bed bugs is Climex lectularius Linneaus and once you know what to look for, they are fairly straightforward to identify.

Basic Biology
Bed bugs are part of the insect family Cimicidae. This insect family all feeds on blood, which it requires for development and reproduction. The family includes a range of insects that feed on animals, bats, and birds. Of the family, bed bugs have adapted the most to life with humans.

Appearance of Bed Bugs
When adult bed bugs have not eaten, they tend to be rusty brown to mahogany in color. After eating a meal of blood, they will be more of a red-brown in color. When they hatch, the baby bed bugs or nymphs are almost colorless. They become brown during the maturation process. Bed bugs tend to have broad oval shapes and be flat when unfed. After feeding, they become more elongated and swollen. If you get close enough to look, you will notice six legs. In terms of size, nymphs are usually 1.3 mm to 4- or 5-mm. Adult bed buts can reach up to around a quarter inch in length. Nymphs do not have the wing buds that adult bed bugs have, but they are otherwise very similar to adults yet on a smaller scale.

Life Cycle of Bed Bugs
The life cycle of bed bugs, unfortunately, makes it very easy for an infestation to occur and get out of hand quickly. Females tend to lay between one and five eggs every day, averaging around 540 eggs throughout their lifetime. Most of these eggs get laid on rough surfaces or in cracks. Eggs are very small, similar in size to a speck of dust. They are incredibly hard to spot without the assistance of magnification, and this is even harder on light surfaces due to their white color. The freshly laid eggs are sticky. The eggs tend to hatch within between 4 and 12 days, at which point they become first instar nymphs. There are then five different nymphal stages before the adult stage.

The nymphs of bed bugs can take around 21 days to reach full adulthood. Other sources indicate the full cycle from egg to an adult takes between one and a half and two months in ideal conditions. The developmental period can take longer if there is not enough access to blood meals or the temperatures are too cool. During this process, they will pass through five different developmental stages. Each stage of development includes a molt, with each molt requiring a blood meal. The typical adult bed bug lives for slightly less than a year.

Mating of Bed Bugs
Mating of bed bugs does not occur on the host. It includes something referred to as traumatic insemination. During this process, the male penetrates the abdominal wall of the female using external genitalia. He inseminates the female in her body cavity.

Eating Habits of Bed Bugs
Bed bugs usually feed during the night, choosing to do so on bare skin exposed while the host sleeps. Despite this typical action, bed bugs are opportunistic and the carbon dioxide that their hosts emit attracts them. This means that it is not unheard of for a bed bug to have its blood meal during daylight hours. That is particularly common in areas that are heavily infested. For bed bugs, humans are the preferred source of blood. They will, however, also feed on any other host that is warm-blooded. During the actual feeding process, bed bugs need about five to ten minutes, during which time they will engorge and fill with blood. The feeding occurs when the bed bugs insert two beak-like feeding tubes that are hollow right into their host. One tube will inject bed bug saliva. This saliva contains anesthetics so the feeding area is numb. The other tube is responsible for drawing blood.

Following feeding, bed bugs will find a nice, secluded place, where they hide for between five and ten days on average. They use this time to digest the meal as well as mate then lay eggs. Once bed bugs reach adulthood, they can live several months between blood meals, although they frequently prefer to go a shorter time between them. There have even been reports of bed bugs surviving over a year between feedings. It is also very interesting to note that most other pests that feed on blood will not all feed on blood; just certain life stages or sexes will. With bed bugs, however, both males and females feed, as do the various life stages of bed bugs.

Favorite Locations Based on Biology
Because of their small size, nocturnal nature, and tendency to hide between feedings, it is very common for people to be unaware they have bed bugs until they have already been there for weeks or months. Bed bugs spend most of their time in their hiding spaces. They then emerge at night to feed on the host while they sleep. Bed bugs will live in the crevices and cracks in headboards, box springs, mattresses, and bed frames. They will also disperse and hide in areas convenient to their hosts. These can include between and under floorboards, under decorative moldings, under carpeting, in and under various furniture, inside wall voids, behind picture frames, and in similar locations. Because of the small size of bed bugs, nearly any crack will be large enough to accommodate this insect. It is also important to note that bed bugs do not have nests. They do, however, typically congregate in their regular hiding spots. You can identify those locations with shed skins from maturing nymphs, the actual bugs, and reddish or rusty smears from engorged then crushed bugs.

Movement of Bed Bugs
Despite having wing buds in the adult stages, bed bugs do not fly. They also do not have the ability to jump, such as their cousins the fleas will. Instead, they crawl rapidly and can do so over a range of surfaces, including ceilings, walls, and floors.

Why Bed Bugs Are Considered Pests
Most people are at least aware of bed bugs from the saying “good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.” This statement actually provides a good summary of the main issue that causes bed bugs to be considered pests: their bites. While this is the main problematic behavior of bed bugs, there are other reasons that they are worrisome as well, some more serious than others.

Why Bed Bugs Bite
Just knowing that bed bugs bite is not necessarily enough information if you want to better understand these insects. You should also take a few minutes to understand why they bite. Bed bugs are blood-feeding insects, which means that they feed on blood to survive. Immature bed bugs need to feed before they can molt and transition to the next phase of their life cycles. Then, adult bed bugs need to bite you to feed. While they have shown a preference for feeding on humans, they will also get blood from biting other warm-blooded animals.

The Bites from Bed Bugs
You are unlikely to notice the bed bugs biting while they are actually feeding on you for a few important reasons. First, they typically feed at night when the hosts (in this case, humans) are asleep, a useful strategy to avoid detection. Furthermore, bed bugs actually inject an anesthetic into the host before they begin feeding, which numbs the area that they will puncture. This means that most people do not even notice bed bug bites until they appear on their skin. You may not be fully aware of what the bites are at first, but they will typically appear as itchy red bumps on the skin.

Infections Are Possible but Rare
In rare cases, it is possible for a bed bug bite to turn into an infection. This will typically happen if the bed bug bites someone and that person then scratches the location. The scratching allows for the introduction of other pathogens, including germs, into the wound. Because of the rarity, you likely do not have to worry about a bed bug infection. You can still reduce the risk of one by avoiding scratching the bites and monitoring them for infection.

Allergic Reactions Are Possible
Depending on the individual, it is also possible for a person to experience an allergic reaction to the bed bugs bite. This reaction will be very similar to what someone who is allergic to bees would experience when stung. The severity of the allergic reaction will vary by individual, but you should always seek medical attention if you have allergies to bed bugs are suspect you were bitten. Similarly, get emergency medical attention any time you display signs of an allergic reaction, even if you are unaware of bed bug bites or an allergy to them.

They May Spread Certain Diseases and Pathogens
The one good thing about bed bugs is that despite biting people, they have not been linked to the spread of any diseases, according to the CDC. The closest they come to this is the previously-mentioned infections that arise due to scratching. Despite the information from the CDC, other sources have referred to some tests showing that the bed bugs may spread Chagas disease and that they can carry over 40 pathogens in their gut, which can be dangerous. The key is that the spread of these diseases and pathogens still has not been documented.

Bed Bugs Can Lead to Insomnia
Due to the fact that bed bugs are nocturnal insects, those who deal with them may suffer from insomnia. The bites are not necessarily painful, but they may still be irritating. Since the bites are itchy, it is common for those with bites to wake up at random times to scratch the itch. To make it worse, those who suffer from insomnia due to bed bug bites will have to deal with the potential side effects of insomnia. This can include loss of appetite, depression, difficulty focusing, anxiety, irritability, and in extreme cases, psychosis.

Social Stigma of Bed Bugs
In addition to all of the physical reasons that bed bugs are considered pests, they also come with a heavy social stigma that can lead to other issues, from depression to difficulty with relationships. It is common for people to no longer want to visit your home since they do not want to risk getting bed bugs. You may also feel like you cannot go out of your home without risking accidentally spreading the bed bugs. Unfortunately, bed bugs commonly attach to clothing, making it easy for them to spread. As such, the concerns leading the social stigma are fairly valid, even if the stigma itself is harmful.

Certain Groups Have a Higher Risk
While the average adult has a very minimal risk of anything other than irritation and social stigma from bed bugs and their bites, that is not the case for all groups. Kids have a higher risk of allergic reactions. The elderly also have increased risks of worsening of existing issues, such as sleep disorders and anxiety, from bed bugs. It should also go without saying that those who are bedridden have a higher risk of consequences from bed bugs, simply due to the increased chances of exposure.

They Are Everywhere
To further add to the reasons that bed bugs are pests, consider that they can be found nearly everywhere. You can find them nearly everywhere across the planet, including North, South, and Central America, as well as Africa, Europe, and Asia. They can affect anyone and any space, with instances of them being found in five-star resorts and hotels. To make it worse, just keeping your space clean is not enough to deter bed bugs; cleanliness does not play a role.

They Are Hard to Eliminate
On top of all the previously mentioned issues, bed bugs could be considered pests simply for the difficulty associated with removing them. It requires a concentrated effort and scouring the entire space. This difficulty with getting rid of bed bugs only makes dealing with the other issues even more stressful.

Methods for Controlling Bed Bugs
If you are dealing with bed bugs, then you certainly need to have a plan in action to get rid of them. Leaving bed bugs alone can lead to the problem getting out of hand as these insects are experts at hiding and can multiply fairly quickly. The average person has a reasonable risk of missing a few bed bugs when they try to control the infestation themselves. As such, it is always the smartest idea to hire a professional to take care of the pests for you. That does not, however, mean that you should not be familiar with the most common methods of controlling bed bugs.

Recognize the Infestation
The very first thing you need to do before you can work to control bed bugs is to recognize that they have taken over your space. One common indication of bed bugs is noticing itchiness and perhaps some mild redness in areas where those symptoms did not appear before you went to sleep. If this lines up with you getting some new furniture, bed bugs are likely. You may also notice blood stains on the pillowcases or sheets or dark rusty spots from bed bug excrement on the mattresses, walls, or sheets. You might spot fecal spots, shed skins, or egg shells. Or you may notice a musty and offensive smell from the scent glands of the bugs. If you think you may have bed bugs, then take all the bedding off your bed so you can inspect it carefully for the above signs. Also, examine the wood frame and nearby areas on furniture, focusing on the dark corners.

Combine Chemicals with a Thorough Cleaning
For the best results when controlling bed bugs, you will need to combine the professional application of chemicals with some deep cleaning. Clean your clothing, linens, other bedding, and curtains in hot water before drying them using the highest setting on your dryer. Do the same with stuffed animals if possible. If you cannot clean the stuffed animals and for other items that cannot go through the wash, including shoes, just put them in the dryer for 30 minutes on high. At the same time, remove clutter by your bed as this can create bed bug hiding spots. Take a stiff brush and use it to scrub the seams of your mattresses. This will loosen up and remove eggs and bed bugs. After this, vacuum the area around and including your bed. As soon as you finish vacuuming, put the used vacuum bag within a plastic bag and then put it in your outdoor garbage.

After the treatment and thorough cleaning, encase the box springs and mattresses in covers that are zippered and tightly woven. This will prevent bed bugs from leaving or going in. Keep the cover on for a minimum of a year since bed bugs can live this long between feeding. For the best results, you should also examine the molding and baseboards for any cracks that could be hiding bed bugs. Seal and caulk any spots that you find.

Chemical Treatments
In nearly every case, you will need to apply chemical treatments to fully eliminate the bed bug problem. This is a bit more complicated than using chemical treatments for insects outside since bed bugs tend to be in your bedroom. As such, you cannot use harsh chemicals since you will be in the same room as them for at least eight hours a day. Because of the need to choose bed bug chemical treatments with care, it is best to hire a professional. They will already know which treatments are safe to use in bedrooms and be able to provide other suggestions as well. Best of all, they will know the best way to apply the treatment so it reaches every nook and cranny in the room. To make the use of chemical treatments for bed bugs even more complicated, there are some reports that certain bed bugs are beginning to show resistance to certain insecticides. This leads to extra care when selecting the right chemicals to treat bed bugs.

Using Sprays to Kill Bed Bugs
Many of the products professionals use to kill bed bugs will include sprays or dusts, and you can find some similar products yourself. In the case of sprays, it needs to be applied underneath and around the bed and the baseboards. Take the drawers out of your furniture then spray inside the cabinetry as well as the sides and bottoms of the drawers, but not the insides. You should also spray door frames, doors, inside closets, around windows, seams of furniture, molding around the room, and behind the bed frame. Do not spray anywhere that people will be sitting or laying on, with the exception of products that indicate it is safe to do so. Sprays can include aerosols or liquids that are mixed.

Using Dusts to Kill Bed Bugs
In the case of dusts that kill bed bugs, these are typically applied with specific tools like hand bellow dusters. These will help the dust reach all nooks and crannies in the space. Alternatively, you can use a small makeup brush or paintbrush. Dust in similar areas to where you would use sprays. Dust should also be applied to buttons and seams of mattresses.

Frequency of Treatments
It is common to require several treatments to thoroughly eliminate the bed bug problem. This is because the critters come out for feeding every several weeks. Some experts suggest three treatments in total, each ten days apart, but the specific suggestion of your professional may vary slightly. You may also be able to do a single chemical treatment then monitor the situation and schedule a follow-up treatment if necessary.

Keep Checking for Bed Bugs
Even after you complete the chemical and other treatments for controlling bed bugs, make it a point to look for signs of the critters at least every few days. It is very hard to effectively eliminate all the bed bugs. If you spot one, then either your treatment missed some adult bed bugs or some eggs were missed and they have since hatched. There are even products available that are specifically designed to monitor for bed bugs, helping you catch any new problems as soon as possible. Your pest control professional can likely suggest some good solutions of this variety.

DIY Tips for How to Get Rid of Bed Bugs
To fully treat a bed bug infestation, you will likely need to use some chemical solutions, preferably applied by professionals. In the meantime, however, you can try a few techniques to minimize the infestation, prevent the bed bugs from spreading, and maybe even fully eliminate them.

Wash Infested Items
Anything that has been infested and can go in the washing machine should. This includes your bed linens, comforters, and clothing. You should wash the items in hot water that is at least 120 degrees Fahrenheit. If you cannot wash them, you can try putting them in a hot dryer for several minutes instead.

Reduce Clutter
Bed bugs are notorious for their hiding abilities so do whatever you can to reduce clutter in the room. This means removing personal items like electronics, stuff animals, books, electronics, and more. If these items can go in the washing machine, place them there on high temperatures. Otherwise, you should put them in sealed plastic bags if there is a chance bed bugs have gotten inside. This will prevent the insects from escaping and spreading.

Take Apart Furniture (within Reason)
Since bed bugs are great at hiding, you will need to check everywhere for them and apply some sort of insecticide. This includes dismantling your bed frame whenever possible as this is a prime location for bed bugs to hide. You should also take the drawers out of your dressers and desks for inspection and spraying. Remember not to spray the inside of drawers as you do not want to accidentally put your skin in contact with insecticides later on.

Go back to the Home Pest Control home page or email us for more info about Bed Bugs and their Biology