ARTHROPOD MUSEUM NOTES
Number 49; July 30, 2007; Jeffrey K. Barnes
Genus and species: Cimex lectularius Linnaeus
Until recently, few living Americans – including entomologists – had any experience with bed bugs. Although they have been associated with humans for thousands of years, the pests had been kept under control by synthetic insecticides since the last world war. However, within the past decade, there has been an alarming resurgence of bed bugs in North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia. This has been attributed to increased use of localized baits and reduced use of insecticide sprays for ant and cockroach control, which used to have the added benefit of controlling bed bugs. Furthermore, bed bugs have a reputation as good hitchhikers, moving around the world on our modern transportation system, stowed away on people and in their belongings. Because of the constant flux of people at hotels and motels, these establishments are major venues for the inadvertent transmission of bed bugs from one person to another.
Adults are wingless, flat, reddish brown, and about 1/5 inch long. Males have lance-shaped genitalia which they use to pierce the female's body wall and inject semen directly into her body cavity, despite the presence of a functional female genital tract. The bugs hide in crevices, in folds in bedding, and in other tight spaces. They move rapidly when disturbed. At night they feed on the blood of mammals and birds using their sharp beak to painlessly pierce the host's skin. They inject saliva containing an anticoagulant. The saliva causes the skin to become irritated, and itchy welts often develop at the site of the injection. Tarry spots in their retreats are remains of earlier blood meals. Dark or rusty spots of excrement on bedding and walls are telltale signs of infestation. Adults can live for several months without feeding.
Bed bugs also are common pests in poultry houses in Arkansas and elsewhere, and populations can be very large. They suck the blood of fowl at night. Hens may leave their nests, and they can become anemic from the loss of blood. Poultry house workers are sometimes attacked as well, and they may inadvertently carry the bugs to homes and other buildings, thus fueling the resurgence of bugs that we are presently seeing.
Bed bugs are not known to carry human diseases, but infestations can cause stress, nightmares, and insomnia. In the years before World War II, a bed bug bite was just another annoyance, but in recent decades tolerance has vanished. Travelers who believe they were bitten while staying at a hotel or motel are likely to sue. In one recent 2007 Arkansas case, a woman sued a Siloam Springs motel for pain and mental anguish, embarrassment, and humiliation, medical bills, and expenses, claiming she was infested by hundreds of bed bugs during a stay there. She claimed to suffer recurring nightmares of bugs sucking her blood. As I write this paragraph, there are rumors that a similar case is in litigation in Little Rock.
Nonchemical methods currently used to control bed bugs include thorough inspections, vacuuming, steaming, isolation and cleaning of infested fabrics, thermal treatment (dry heat or freezing), and use of mattress covers. Several effective insecticides are on the market, but most require the services of a licensed exterminator.