Cimex lectularius is the insect species commonly known as bedbugs. Bedbugs were relatively common in the United States until World War II. The populations dipped in the U.S. after that time, but there’s been an uptick in the past few decades, possibly due to less-effective insecticides and an increase in international travel. (1)
Bedbugs don’t fly or jump like other insects do. They crawl, moving from their hiding places in tiny crevices to feed on people as they sleep.
“They want to be as unnoticed as possible, which is why they retreat to the deepest, darkest crevices in your home, your apartment, or your hotel,” says Eric Braun, a board-certified entomologist and technical services manager for the national pest control company Rentokil. “If they’re observed or spotted, they don’t have any means to escape quickly with the exception of crawling back to the cracks and crevices where they came from.”
Bedbugs feed on blood, and they prefer humans, though they’ll resort to pets and rodents if necessary. (2) They’re incredibly resilient. They can go months (or even a year or more at cool temperatures) without feeding, which makes them difficult to get rid of. Usually, however, they need to feed every 5 to 10 days. The bugs will usually feed for about 3 to 10 minutes and then retreat back to their hiding place.
Bedbugs Are Small, Oval, and Reddish-Brown in Color
Bedbugs are reddish-brown insects that are small in size, but not too small to see with the naked eye. They’re usually about 3⁄16-inches long and have six legs. They have an oval, flat shape that makes it easy for them to hide in crevices and cracks. Their color changes after they feed, and they turn more of a mahogany red, says Jerry Lazarus, the owner of Braman Termite & Pest Elimination in New England.
Bedbugs lay tiny white eggs, which are hard to see without magnification, Lazarus says. They tend to lay one or two per day. The eggs are sticky and can easily remain attached to different surfaces. They hatch in about one week, and when they do, nymphs emerge. These nymphs are straw-colored and about the same shape as adults, though smaller. They will shed their skin about five times before they become adults. They prefer room temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees F, and under these conditions, it can take just one month for them to fully mature.
Bedbugs Spread by Hitchhiking on Luggage and Clothing
Bedbugs spread by hitchhiking. “If you travel, bedbugs may hitch a ride in your luggage or get on your clothing if you visit an infested area,” Lazarus says. You might pick them up in other people’s homes, on public transportation, and in movie theaters. Or they can get into your house via secondhand furniture.
Other insects, like cockroaches, are an indication of poor living conditions. But that’s not the case with bedbugs, and having bedbugs doesn’t mean you or your space is not clean. “Bedbugs can lurk in the cleanest of homes, the highest-quality hotels, as well as the transportation you take to get there and back — including planes, trains, and automobiles,” Lazarus says.
Bites Are the Telltale Sign You Have Bedbugs (but Not the Only One)
Most people won’t realize they have bedbugs until they see a bite. The biting usually happens when a person is sleeping, oftentimes an hour or so before dawn. It’s painless, so the person being bitten likely won’t feel anything at all. “They call them bedbugs because they want to be around you when you’re sleeping, and they take the opportunity of you being unaware of them to feed on you,” Braun says.
After bedbugs feed, they tend to hightail it back to the crevices where they’ve been hiding, so unless you’re looking for them, you probably won’t spot the bugs roaming around your room. For most people, the first sign of a bedbug issue will be waking up with itchy bites that weren’t there the night before. But not everyone reacts to bedbug bites the same way, and some people either won’t have any reaction whatsoever or their reaction might not appear until weeks after the feeding.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that not all bites look the same. Some might look like mosquito bites, while others can be big welts that don’t go away for weeks. Sometimes you’ll notice a line of bites, while other times it could be just one single bite.
Bedbugs are not known to spread disease, and in most cases their bites are harmless, other than being extremely itchy. In some cases, the bites can cause an allergic reaction that requires medical attention.
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The bites can show up anywhere the bedbugs can access while you’re sleeping — your back, neck, face, arms, or legs are all possibilities. (That’s a key difference between bedbug bites and flea bites, which tend to show up only around the lower legs and ankles.)
To confirm you have a bedbug problem, you (or an expert you hire) will need to try to locate where the bedbugs are. You might notice skins that the nymphs have shed, which are usually translucent or light in color, Lazarus says. Other signs include brown or red fecal spots on your mattress or sheets. Usually these dark spots indicate where a group of bugs is hiding together.
Bedbugs may also have an odor, which Lazarus describes as sickly sweet, like the smell of rotting raspberries. Braun says it’d have to be a pretty serious infestation for most people to smell it, though. Some canines have been specially trained to detect bedbugs, similar to how dogs can be trained to sniff out drugs or bombs, Braun notes.
It’s difficult to confirm the presence of bedbugs based on bites alone, because they can easily be mistaken for bites from fleas or mosquitoes. (3) But knowing about the tendencies of bedbugs gives you an idea of what to be on the lookout for so you can confidently identify them.