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By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

Don't Let the Bed Bugs Bite

By Jeff Danner Posted August 12, 2012 at 6:46 pm

Good night, sleep tight,
Don’t let the bedbugs bite.
And if they do
Then take your shoe
And knock ‘em ‘til
They’re black and blue!

Old English Nursery Rhyme (~1860) – Author Unknown
 

Among the list of things that give us the creeps, bed bugs are near the top.  If you think learning about bed bugs will keep you awake at night, stop reading now . . .  
 
Bed bugs are light brown to brown insects which grow to be approximately ¼ of an inch long.   Although not exclusively nocturnal, they tend to hide in dark crevices during the day and feed at night.  They are attracted to heat and carbon dioxide and they feed on blood, making a warm, exhaling, sleeping human quite an appealing buffet.  A bed bug feeds by inserting a straw-like proboscis into your skin and sucking out blood for about five to ten minutes.  The feeding process is not particularly noticeable such that most people sleep right through it.  Their bites cause rashes and allergic reactions as well as quite a bit of psychological angst.  Fortunately, unlike other insects which feed on our blood like mosquitoes or ticks, bed bugs do not spread disease from person to person. 
 
People often remark on the resilience of the cockroach, but the bed bug deserves some accolades in this category as well.  While a bed bug generally likes to feed once every 5-10 days, it can survive up to six months without feeding.  The bed bug has impressive temperature tolerance.  It can survive for 10 days at 14 oF and around 15 minutes at 115 oF.  Bed bugs are also adept at developing resistance to pesticides.  To sum it up, it takes quite an effort to starve, freeze, roast, or poison a bed bug.
 
Our relationship with bed bugs is long-standing.  Bed bugs evolved to feed on bats and developed a taste for humans when our ancestors started sharing caves with the bats.  You can track the geographic spread of bed bugs through literature references.  They plagued the Egyptian pharaohs in 1500 BC, bothered the Greeks in 400 BC, moved on to Germany in the 11th century, then France in the 13th century, and, like the Romans, Vikings, Saxons, and Normans before them, invaded Britain in the 17th century.
 
By the middle of the 19th century bed bugs in Britain had become enough of a nuisance to inspire the famous nursery rhyme above. (By the way, the “sleep tight” part of the rhyme refers to the use of rope netting as a mattress support rather than the box springs we use today.  New or “tight” ropes provided better support for an improved sleeping experience.)  For a while, the cold British winters kept bed bug numbers somewhat in check.  The introduction of central heating in British homes in the early 20th century led to a tremendous increase in the bed bug population.  A study by British health agencies in 1933 concluded that 100% of British households had bed bugs. The desperate Brits tried just about anything and everything to rid themselves of bed bugs.  They cleaned intensively, discarded infested bedding, smoked their houses, and even applied arsenic and cyanide, but the bed bugs survived.
 
Then in 1940, science provided a miracle, or so it seemed, with the pesticide DDT.  Just a single application of DDT was normally sufficient to eradicate a bed bug infestation.  The wide spread use of DDT in the developed world largely eliminated bed bugs by 1950.  In the 1960’s, however, the detrimental effects of DDT on wildlife, particularly birds like the American eagle, became known and it was no longer generally used in the developed world.
 
The elimination of DDT set the stage for a bed bug comeback.  Bed bugs can only travel short distances on their own, but are adept at hitching a ride on you or in your suitcase, giving bet bugs the chance to fly the friendly skies from continent to continent.  By the late 1990’s bed bugs started to make their presence known in the U.S., particularly in hotels.  (In case you are wondering, yes we do have reports of bed bugs here in Chapelboro.  Reliable sources indicate that they are Duke fans.) 
 
So the battle with the bed bug has been taken up again.  Even if we wanted to go that route, DDT wouldn’t help this time as today’s bed bugs are the descendents of those who survived the earlier DDT onslaught and are thus DDT resistant.  Since their resurgence here in the U.S., an impressive array of pesticides has been deployed against them.  None of these new pesticides have been as effective as DDT was in the 1940’s and the bed bugs are already developing resistance to them.
 
So like the Brits in the 19th century, we are getting creative in trying to fight back.  Finding a natural predator for the bed bug has been explored.  It turns out that cockroaches like to eat bed bugs, but unleashing a hoard of cockroaches into your house to clear it of bed bugs is, to put it lightly, not likely to be a popular solution.  The most effective technique at present is to heat the affected rooms to 122 oF or higher for several hours.  You can hire a specialized company to come do this, but it’s expensive and is quite a hassle.
 
Scientists are working to develop more effective and elegant techniques to eliminate bed bugs.  One of the most promising has to do with their sex lives.  Bed bugs reproduce through a process called traumatic insemination in which the male pierces the female’s abdomen to inject sperm.  (Romantic, eh?)  Communication among bed bugs, including the amorous kind, is mediated by chemical signals.  Scientists observing bed bugs noticed that sometimes males traumatically inseminate other males, causing the death of the recipient. Scientists in Sweden are experimenting with synthetic pheromones to promote the incidence of male-on-male sexual interactions to reduce or eliminate bed bug populations.  Even if this technique proves to be successful it will be some time until it becomes generally available for use.
 
OK, so now that you know more that you may have ever wanted to know about bed bugs, how can you help to prevent an infestation in your home?  The best defense it to not let them in.  Check on-line hotel registries before making reservations, but bear in mind that you can also pick up bed bugs from airplanes, movie theaters, couches and other upholstered furniture, not to mention summer camp.  If you think you have stayed somewhere with bed bugs leave your suitcase to bake in the car on a hot sunny day for a few hours when you get home, then wash and dry your clothing at the hottest possible settings.  If you think you may have bed bugs in your home, call a licensed exterminator immediately.  There are also dog-sniffing services to help determine if you have bed bugs, but you would need to employ other techniques to eradicate them.
 
OK, sleep tight and . . .
 
Have a comment or question? Send me an e-mail to commonscience@chapelboro.com.

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