Be careful what you bring home in your suitcase. These days, you might unpack a tiny vampire. Bed bugs are back! And they feed on human blood.
Bed bugs have been with us for many thousands of years, since humans lived in caves. By the early 1940s, they were mostly eradicated from the developed world, thanks to strong pesticides that also killed ants and cockroaches. But today, fewer pesticides are in use. And people travel more.
And so bed bugs have returned. They have invaded houses, hotels, nursing homes, dorm rooms, and even offices and movie theaters.
They are tough. They can survive a wide range of temperatures. They don’t mind if it’s hot, or dry. If it gets too cold, they can go into a state of semi-hibernation. They can survive a year without eating. And thousands of bed bugs can infest a single bedroom.
These insect parasites like couches, cushions and especially beds. They hide in tiny crevices in mattress seams, or behind electric sockets. Bed bugs are active mainly at night, when they can feed on you without your noticing. They sense your breath as you sleep. They use heat sensors on their antennas to you’re your exposed skin – an ankle or an arm. Then they stab their long beaks into your skin and suck out your blood. Bed bugs become engorged with their blood meal.
If you find yourself with itchy red bumps, welts or a rash, bed bugs could be the reason. How can you know for sure? The first thing is … look for the bugs. They are small – about as big as an apple seed. They’re flat and oval-shaped – usually reddish-brown or sometimes a lighter straw color. They have visible antennas and cone-like eyes.
Also, look for the shed skins from the insects on your sheets – or stains on your sheets. To eradicate bed bugs from your home, you need an exterminator.
The best way not to get bed bugs? Learn to recognize the signs. The bugs themselves. The stained sheets. In a place that’s seriously infested with bed bugs, you might even notice a sweet, musty smell in a room – emitted by the insects’ scent glands. They’re said to smell like rotten raspberries.
If you see any signs of bed bugs, close your suitcase … and check out!
For more help and to solve specific problems with these bugs, go to a library or the Internet for more ideas on how to get rid of bed bugs in your house – and help stay free of the bugs when you travel.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.