Goodnight, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-111038695432175.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘The bedbug feeds on blood but is not known to transmit disease organisms (microphotographed 20 times actual size).’);

One does not hear that once-common saying much anymore, but reports from various agencies indicate that this long time nemesis of mankind is still around and always looking for its next meal—human blood. If, to your horror, you should awaken some morning and see reddish brown spots on the sheets, there is a good chance you were visited by bedbugs during the night. While the bedbug sucks your blood, it almost invariably defecates (adding insult to injury), and the spots represent partially digested blood that has passed through the insect’s body. Another indication of a significant infestation is an obnoxiously sweet odor caused by secretions from glands in the bug’s body.

Bedbugs are members of the insect order Hemiptera, sometimes called the true bugs. All true bugs have piercing and sucking mouthparts, and almost all of them have two sets of functional wings. Bedbugs, however, differ in that they are wingless. There is an old song I remember from my childhood that says in part, “…The bedbug hasn’t any wings, but he gets there just the same…..” The obnoxious creature seems to be able to always find a way of getting in bed with us.

Unlike most other members of this insect order, the bedbug is flattened from top to bottom. It is reddish brown in color and about a quarter of an inch in length. They will almost always feed to repletion when they find a blood donor, and a single meal will be sufficient for a considerable time. In one experiment conducted by the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Insects Affecting Man and Animals Section, bedbugs were observed to live for slightly more than a year after an initial feeding.

When conditions are optimal, bedbugs can reproduce rapidly, and large populations of them can infest a home, motel, flop house, military barracks, or similar place where a steady supply of humans to feed upon is available. They prefer to hide during the day in or around a bedstead. The nooks and crannies of the bed as well as seams in the mattress are preferred hiding spots.

If bedbugs are detected, the first line of defense against them is hygiene. All bedding should be washed thoroughly in hot water and put in the dryer for a considerable period. Mattresses and bed springs should be vacuumed frequently. If these procedures are unsuccessful, a pest control expert who is knowledgeable of the habits of the bedbug should be engaged to apply an appropriate insecticide.

When the broad spectrum insecticide DDT became available to our military during World War II, it was noted that it was highly effective against these pestiferous insects. When a 5 percent DDT in deodorized kerosene solution was sprayed in the proper places, the kerosene would evaporate, leaving a covering of DDT crystals that would effectively kill bedbugs for six months. DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbon, broad spectrum insecticides, however, have been banned for use in the United States for more than 30 years. The pest control technologist must now choose the proper insecticide to kill bedbugs in the manner that the physician chooses the proper antibiotic to kill infectious agents within a patient’s body. Insecticides have become much more refined since the days of DDT and are designed to target specific species, such as mosquitoes, termites, roaches, or bedbugs.

As the bedbug is a bloodsucker, medical entomologists have tried for years to incriminate it in the transmission of disease. To date, however, it has never been proven that bedbugs transmit any agent causing human disease. It should be noted, however, that a distant relative of the true bedbug, the so-called big bed bug, Mexican bedbug, or el bicho de la cama, transmits the serious human malady called South American trypanosomiasis or la enfermedad de Chagas.

That bedbugs are very ingenious beasties is illustrated by a story told to me years ago by a World War I veteran. It seems his barracks at Camp Bowie, Texas, was infested with bedbugs, and, despite all efforts to eliminate them, the men were still being bitten almost every night. Even the legs of the cots were placed in cans containing kerosene, but that did not help with the problem. Then, one night a soldier was lying on his back before sleeping and saw “the ceiling moving.” A troop of bedbugs was crawling along the ceiling of the barracks and then dropping onto the cots.

With bedbugs being that enterprising, I am sure they will continue to occasionally plague us for a long time to come.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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