Once a pest of the past, bedbugs now infest every state in the U.S.. Cimex lectularius—small, flattened insects that feed solely on mammalian and avian blood—have been living with humans since ancient times. Abundant in the U.S. prior to World War II, bedbugs all but vanished during the 1940s and ’50s thanks to improvements in hygiene and the use of pesticides. In the past 10 years, however, the pests have staged a comeback worldwide—an outbreak after the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney was a harbinger of things to come.
This revival may be the worst yet, experts say, due to densely populated urban areas, global travel and increasing pesticide resistance—something to consider as the summer travel season gets underway.
Spreading rapidly with the bedbugs is a mass of misinformation about their biology and behavior. Straight from the experts, here are the facts behind some of the most notorious myths about the diminutive bloodsuckers.
“By every metric that we use, it’s getting worse and worse,” says Coby Schal, an entomologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Health authorities and pest control operators are regularly flooded with calls, and the epidemic may not have yet peaked. And because bedbugs are indoor pests, there are no high or low seasons throughout the year, he adds, only continual bombardment. “It’s just the beginning of the problem in the U.S.,” Schal says.
Bedbugs only bite at night-
Although bedbugs are generally nocturnal, they’re like humans—if they’re hungry, they’ll get up and get something to eat. “If you go away to visit a friend for a week and you come back and sit down on the couch, even though it’s daytime the bedbugs will come looking for you,” Schal says. Keeping a light on, then, unfortunately does not keep these tiny vampires away.
Bedbugs prefer cities –
“Bedbugs are terribly nondiscriminatory,” Schal says. Bedbugs can be found anywhere from ritzy high-rises to homeless shelters. The prevalence of the bugs in low-income housing is therefore not a result of the insect’s preference, but of dense populations and the lack of money to pay for proper elimination strategies. “Any location is vulnerable,” Kells says. “But some people are going to have a harder time getting control of them because it is such an expensive treatment.”
We should bring back DDT –
When the controversial pesticide DDT was banned in 1972, most bed bugs were already resistant to it, Schal says, and today’s populations are even more widely resistant thanks to the use of a new class of pesticides. Pyrethroids, the main class of pesticides used against bedbugs today, targets sodium channels in bedbug cells, just like DDT. Consequently, as bedbugs develop resistance to pyrethroids, they also become cross-resistant to DDT.
No matter what you believe about the bed bug, a professional should be called at the first sight of one to avoid a possible infestation.