The Common Bedbug (Cimex Lectularius) is a small, flat insect that grows to about 4 or 5 millimetres and is shaped like an apple seed. It is brown-coloured but turns reddish after feeding. It has piercing sucking mouth parts and feeds on human blood.
As the name implies, the favourite habitat of this insect is our bed. Countries such as the United States, Canada, and several other European countries which previously had a low incidence of bed bugs have seen an increase of 500% within the past few years. This population explosion has been primarily attributed to an increase in international travel and Malta has not been spared.
Bed bugs hitch-hike in our belongings. They stow away in the joints and layers of our luggage, overnight bags, clothes, handbags, purses and wallets. As we travel around the globe, we unwittingly take them on board from one place and drop them off at another, thus helping them to continue spreading, multiplying, and infesting new locations. Then we take them back home with us.
Bedbugs are found mostly in places where people sleep, such as hotels, hospitals, nursing homes, school dormitories, and cruise ships. Other places where people spend a significant amount of time are also at risk. Buses, trains, cinemas and theatres are all havens for bed bugs, particularly if these places use plush furnishings. Bed bugs have also been found in offices and gyms. One reason for their success is that they are very resilient and multiply prolifically.
Under the right conditions, a single female bed bug can lay around 500 eggs in 300 days and her eggs can hatch in as little as 6 days. They like to feed every 5 to 10 days, but can survive up to 1 year without food. Although bed bugs do not fly, they move very quickly and are experts at finding good places to hide.
Their small flat body is about the width of a bank card, so this means that they can hide in the narrowest of cracks and crevices. During the day, they converge in large groups and hide in the seams of mattresses, headboards, bedframes, divan beds, carpets, couches, sofas, armchairs, wardrobes, suitcases, clothing, books, picture frames and anywhere that clutter accumulates. During the night, they venture out to feed on your blood as you sleep.
Bed bug bites are usually painless so most people don’t even realise that they have been bitten until the bite marks start to show and turn into itchy swellings. Their targeted areas are usually the face, hands, legs, and any other exposed area of the skin. The marks are so similar to those of the mosquito or flea that people often fail to realise that they have been bitten by bed bugs.
When they bite, the bugs first inject an anesthetic and anticoagulant into our body: the anesthetic prevents us from feeling the bite and waking, and the anticoagulant prevents our blood from clotting as our body attempts to naturally repair the skin rupture. They then proceed to suck on the bleeding wound for about 3 to 10 minutes until they are fully engorged. They then sneak off unnoticed. The trouble starts with the bed bug’s saliva which seeps into the tiny wound where they have bitten.
Many victims of bed bugs are allergic to the substances contained in their saliva, and although bed bugs are not known to transmit disease, they have been known to cause adverse health effects ranging from the physical to the psychological. Their bite marks are often extremely itchy and some people can suffer allergic reactions ranging from secondary skin infections such as ecthyma, impetigo, and lymphangitis, to the more severe anaphylaxis. Psychological problems can range from insomnia and anxiety to severe mental distress.
Finding bed bugs in your home or hotel room does not mean that the place is dirty. Since they are attracted to the scent of the carbon dioxide that we exhale we are as likely to find them in pristinely clean homes and hotels as in filthy ones. Whether you’re a traveller, hotel manager, or a concerned homeowner, it’s not difficult to determine if you have an infestation of bed bugs. Bite marks on the face and body are generally a good clue; however bite marks can take anywhere up to 14 days to develop, so regularly inspecting likely bed bug sites is your best tactic.
Signs to look out for include the discarded crusty shells of bed bugs that accumulate when they molt. Another good sign is the small bloodstains on your bed linen but perhaps the most obvious telltale sign is the rust-coloured stain (about the size of a pinhead) that their blood-filled excrement leaves on mattresses and bed linen.
If you suspect that you have bed bugs, there are a few measures that you can take to reduce their numbers (see box). But when it comes to an infestation, home remedies tend to be largely ineffective and very short-term.
Pesticides are available over the counter, but bear in mind that using pesticides might still not solve the problem because these bugs are so adept at hiding in places that are difficult to access, that administering pesticides yourself tends to address only small localised areas of infestation. Moreover, the Common Bed Bug has become resistant to many pesticides and some users tend to overdose in an attempt to eradicate the infestation; this further promotes pesticide resistance in the bed bug.
So if you want a truly effective and long-term solution, you need to call in your professional pest controller and arrange for an inspection. An expert pest controller will correctly identify your source of infestation and apply a comprehensive knowledge of the life cycle of the bed bug, its interaction with the infested environment and its inhabitants before recommending the pest control method best suited to the situation.
What can you do
- In case of a bed bug infestation, first spray a strong crawling insect killer directly onto the bugs and then use a stiff brush to loosen dead bed bugs and dirt from the seams of your mattress. After you vacuum thoroughly, immediately transfer your vacuum cleaner bag in a garbage bag and take out.
- Place all your bed linen in your dryer and set the heat to 60 degrees Celsius for 1 hour – if your bed linen can take it. This high temperature will kill bed bugs as well as their eggs.
- Also place stuffed toys, shoes, and other non-washable items in the dryer on a high setting to kill any bed bugs that might be hiding there.
- First spray with insecticide and then plaster over cracks in your masonry, particularly in your bedroom or other likely bed bug habitats.
- Check secondhand sofas, beds and furniture for signs of infestation before taking them home.
- When travelling, don’t put your luggage or bags on the bed or the floor (especially if it is carpeted). Before lying down, check your bed and headboard for signs of bed bug excrement. Upon returning home check your luggage for signs of bed bugs before stowing away.