Bed bugs

2015 June 6

So, on April 22, 2015, I got an email from one of my students asking if she could have a couple of days extension on her final class assignment, because (and I quote):

I discovered today that my apartment has bed bugs and so I have to move all in one night to my friends house. I swear to you that this is the truth and I am willing to provide any evidence. I just need to move right now because the bites are getting really bad.

Now, I did not actually doubt her for even for a second[1], but this looked like a golden opportunity to get pictures of an insect that I not only hadn’t yet seen, but that I really, really hope we never find in our own house. So, I told her she could have the time extension, told her about this blog, and asked if she could maybe catch one for me to photograph and post. And the next morning, she appeared at my office with a ziploc bag with about a half-dozen bedbugs in it.

So then I double-bagged them with an additional ziploc bag[2] just to make sure that there would be no escapees, and took them home. And when I walked in the door, I said, “Hey, guess what I’ve got here?” And Sam and Rosie both come running over saying, “What? What?”

And I pull out the bag, hold it so they can see it, and say “Bedbugs!”


You never heard such screaming[3]. Anyway, while this was going on, Sandy gave me a stern look that pretty much said that if these things escaped alive and infested the house, I’d be doomed. So, rather than opening the bag right away, I popped them in the freezer for an hour first to make sure they were dead[4].

Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) are true bugs in the order Hemiptera, all of which have piercing-sucking mouthparts.

This order also includes things like stink bugs and aphids[5]. Bed bugs are related to other predatory and blood-sucking bugs, like assassin bugs and the nearly-identical bat bugs. In fact, they are so similar to bat bugs (which will also bite humans, but do not thrive on human blood [6]) that they are believed to have originated in the Middle East when some of our remote ancestors (who can actually be legitimately referred to as “cavemen”) were living in caves that also were occupied by bats, and some of the bat bugs jumped hosts.

Anyway, bed bugs have now been carried pretty much everywhere that humans live. For a while, they were practically wiped out in North America by the use of pesticides like DDT, but since then they have developed resistance to most pesticides, and for this and a number of other reasons they’ve had a considerable resurgence in recent years.

And, this resurgence now obviously includes Houghton. The apartment building that these came from is one of the ones downtown, where the buildings are in direct contact with each other, so it would not surprise me even a little if they were all through that area. Apartments further out might be free of them, but it only takes one person accidentally carrying them in with their luggage to start an infestation. In fact, now I’m wondering about the University dormitories. Even though the dorms are usually unoccupied for part of the summer, bedbugs can go at least 20 days without feeding, and up to 400 days under the right conditions, so there’s not much chance of starving them out in any reasonable amount of time.

Luckily, nobody has yet shown that they carry diseases. They just leave itchy bites, which is bad enough.

They are reportedly easy to pick up while traveling, too. A fair number of hotels (even sometimes expensive hotels) have bed bug infestations, and the bed bugs are more than happy to come home with you. In general, it is a good idea to inspect your hotel room for bed bugs first thing, so that if you find any you can get out before they find their way into your luggage. The recommended inspection routine is:

1. Set down your luggage well away from the bed.
2. Lift up the mattress to check between the mattress and box spring.
3. Bed bugs like to hide in crevices and are pretty mobile, so check crevices in the bedside table, the edges of drawers, under the lamp, in the structure of the bed, behind the wall molding, and under the edges of electrical outlet and switch plates. How far you carry this depends on how paranoid you are. If you find any, pop them into a plastic bag and take them to the front desk to provide evidence for your subsequent demand for a refund and assistance in getting a room in a different hotel.
4. Even after you are reasonably satisfied with your room, it is a good idea to put dirty laundry in a plastic bag, because bedbugs are attracted to your scent on your used clothing.

And, if you are careful with your luggage, you can make sure that even if some do hitch a ride, they won’t survive the experience.[7] Wash all the clothing (even clothing you didn’t wear) and vacuum out your luggage upon getting home, and you should be fine. Some people recommend wiping off your shoes with a wet cloth as well, but this seems a bit excessive to me.

If you find bed bugs, there are a couple of central locations for reporting them. The Bed Bug Reports page for Houghton is here. There is also the Bed Bug Registry, and Bed Bug Planet which seems to be more intended for hotels, but links to reports from both of the preceding two sites. Hm. I see that there’s a couple of reports for certain hotels in Houghton and Hancock from 2012, but nothing else. Probably because most people with bedbugs to report haven’t heard that these sites exist.

And to wrap up: just on a lark, I decided to see what would turn up if I did a search on “bed bug song”. And I found this calypso song:

And this Iron Maiden parody:

And several dozen variations of the second verse of this:

And this somewhat disturbingly animated song:

And it goes on and on and on (mostly with amateur pieces and parodies that are kind of painful to watch/listen to).

[1] I teach several classes in mineral processing and extractive metallurgy, and by this point she’d taken all of them, so I knew her well enough to know that she wasn’t the type to try to come up with excuses to get an extension. Besides, who invents a bedbug infestation as an excuse?

[2] I’ve always got ziploc bags around. I mostly put rocks in them.

[3] I think they were mainly screaming for effect, though. I understand that it is fun to run around the house screaming in mock terror when you’re a little girl. Afterwards, they were both interested enough in seeing the bedbugs up close.

[4] Freezing is pretty much my go-to method for killing insects when the need arises. It is convenient, pretty fast, involves no dangerous chemicals, and usually doesn’t do any real cosmetic damage to the insect. And while a lot of insects can survive freezing temperatures, I have yet to find one that can survive unexpected freezing that they haven’t had a chance to prepare for. They need to pump themselves full of antifreeze and ice crystal inhibitors first, which takes time. Time that they did not have! Mwahahahaha!

Incidentally, I checked the literature to see how well bedbugs tolerate freezing, and found that while 1 hour at -16 Celsius will evidently kill close to 100% of them if you catch them off-guard with a sudden freeze, you need to go to something in excess of 80 hours if they are “cold-hardened” by being brought to near freezing for a while before the final “hard freeze”. So if you are going to freeze them, then it is best to do it quickly.

[5] Sandy says that this means that bed bugs are basically aphids for humans.

[6] Blood-feeding insects tend to have oddly specific tastes. It seems like every category of animal has its own specific species of fleas, lice, and/or bedbug-like insects. These parasites will only reluctantly transfer to a different species, and don’t thrive when they do. And yet, we also have other non-insect blood feeders, like ticks and leeches, which seem happy getting blood from just about anything. And insects that go after blood as a supplement while mostly using other food sources, like mosquitos and other biting flies, also aren’t nearly as exclusive in their choice of victims. I don’t know why this is. Do different animals really have blood with such different nutritional qualities? Or are the immune cells in blood attacking the innards of the insects that drink it, and the insects are only able to evolve countermeasures to one particular species’ immune cells? Or maybe it’s just that there is that much variation in the microhabitat of hair/feathers/scales that they have to make fine adaptations to what there is to hang onto to avoid falling off or getting groomed away?

[7] I travel a few times a year in connection with work, and while I haven’t spotted any bedbugs in a hotel yet, I am aware of the possibility, so I keep checking. Given the nature of our climate, I’m usually traveling while it is still below freezing outside. So, when I come back from the airport, I just throw my luggage into the back of my pickup, and let it freeze while I drive home. It isn’t a guarantee of killing any little hitch-hikers that might have been picked up, but every bit helps.

4 Responses
  1. June 8, 2015

    Finally, an insect profile that is described by your website name!

    Aphids for humans…nice. Now if only there were a ladybug parallel…

  2. June 8, 2015

    Well, now that you mention it, I don’t really see why lady beetles would turn up their noses at bed bugs. Maybe keeping a community of lady beetles in the house would actually keep the bed bugs suppressed! One would just have to keep them provided with water and some supplemental food source to keep them from starving once the bed bug population gets too low.

    For that matter, this site claims that the following predators will all eat bed bugs:

    – The Masked Hunter, Reduvius personatus (I already knew about this one, but while they will eat bed bugs they evidently aren’t really effective at keeping the numbers down)
    – All species of household cockroaches (so which do you prefer, roaches or bedbugs?)
    – Ants (same objection as cockroaches)
    – Spiders in the genus Thanatus (as well as other free-roaming hunting spiders that like to go into crevices)
    – A lot of the dust mite species will mob bed bugs given half a chance
    – and House Centipedes (which will not only eat the bed bugs, but also all of the other things listed above)

  3. June 9, 2015

    Thanks for those suggestions, though you’re really trading one pest that bites for one that crunches if you happen to lie down on it.

  4. June 12, 2015

    OK, Tim. You just got yourself classified with Brian Krebs as being Too Scary to Read after Dark. Now I’m going to have nightmares about bedbugs compromising my credit cards.

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