Bedbugs: How they hide and bite

by Sandee LaMotte, CNN

Updated 10:34 AM ET, Wed April 26, 2017
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Everybody knows "don't let the bedbugs bite." But why do we call them bedbugs? Cimex lectularius -- small, flattened insects that feed solely on mammalian and avian blood -- will bite you on a couch, a chair or even a window seat if they are hungry enough.

They do prefer to feed at night, though, so unless you sleep on your sofa, your bed's the thing.
Courtesy Dr. Gale E. Ridge/Connecticut Coalition Against Bed Bugs
Adult bedbugs are 5 millimeters long, comparable to the size of an eraser on a No. 2 pencil. Oval, flattened bedbugs have no usable wings and cannot fly to you to suck your blood. Adult bedbugs can go long periods of time without feeding, typically living for six to 12 months. Courtesy Blaine Mathison/CDC
This is a baby bedbug, also known as a nymph. It's only 1 millimeter at this age, a smaller, paler version of its parent. It can still suck your blood, though, turning reddish-brown in color as it feeds. It takes five to eight weeks for a baby to grow into an adult; it will molt during each of its five stages of development. Courtesy Blaine Mathison/CDC
Bedbugs are "timid, crack-living insects who are terrified of open space," said Gale Ridge, assistant scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and founder of the Connecticut Coalition Against Bed Bugs.

She says bedbugs are "driven to get into tight spaces" and so choose dark, close places to live, such as under mattresses and box springs or in the cracks on bed frames, until they come out to feed.
Courtesy Dr. Gale E. Ridge/Connecticut Coalition Against Bed Bugs
This is a digitally colorized electron micrograph scan of the underside of a bed bug. The purple spike is the insect's skin piercing-sucking mouth it uses to devour its meal. The prickly hairs on the body aren't hairs at all but sensory structures known as setae. Courtesy Janice Haney Carr/CDC
This micrograph shows a few of the six jointed legs of a bedbug.

Scientists believe that the purple and green structures are the scent gland, responsible for a cloyingly sweet, musky odor the bug emits, one way to identify an infestation.
Courtesy Janice Haney Carr/CDC
It may be hard to believe, but bedbug bites are painless. They insert an anesthetic along with an anticoagulant to enhance blood flow when they bite you. It will be hours -- sometimes days -- before you begin to itch, if you do at all. Dr. Gale E. Ridge/Connecticut Coalition Against Bed Bugs
"Every single person will have a different reaction to a bug bite," Ridge said. "From absolutely nothing to itchy, red, swelling welts, depending on that person's allergic response to the bug's bite."

Because the bites aren't distinctive, it's important to catch a bug or find signs of a bedbug infestation before you decide how to treat your home. "Never self-treat," Ridge said. "Always use a professional to inspect and treat."
Dr. Gale E. Ridge/Connecticut Coalition Against Bed Bugs
Besides the bugs themselves, telltale signs of an infestation include reddish-brown excrement, along with left-over skeletons from molting, and tiny pearl-white eggs.
Many things can be mistaken for bedbugs, such as lint, carpet beetles, ticks, fleas and lice, so it's important to get samples and take them to an expert for identification.
Courtesy Dr. Gale E. Ridge/Connecticut Coalition Against Bed Bugs
This nightstand shows a massive infestation of bedbugs. "The white spots are excreted urea from unfed insects while the black spots are from insects that have fed," Ridge said.

Although this case is obviously extreme, bedbugs can attack anyone, from the richest to the poorest. "Bedbugs do not select people based on cleanliness, race or socioeconomic status," Ridge said.

The world's best hitchhikers, bedbugs arrive in our homes via suitcases, backpacks and shoes, so finding their presence should not be "an indication of dirtiness, nor should it be considered shameful," Ridge stressed.
Courtesy Dr. Gale E. Ridge/Connecticut Coalition Against Bed Bugs
Bedbugs have pestered us for centuries. These begbug fossils were recently recovered from Paisley Caves, Oregon, the site of the oldest dated archaeological human remains in North America, and are approximately 9,400 years old.

Bedbugs nearly vanished in the United States during the 1940s and '50s due to improved hygiene and the use of the pesticide DDT but are on the rise again due to global travel and a increasing resistance to common pesticides.
courtesy Martin Adams/Paleoinsect Research