Bed Bugs


(This column was first published in the March 28, 2004 issue of The Buffalo Sunday News.)


"Sleep tight. Don't let the bed bugs bite."


That old saying is taking on new meaning. In Colonial times widespread but then thought to be eradicated from this country, bed bugs are staging a comeback. If you're unlucky, you may share your sleeping quarters with one soon.


Reports of problems with bed bugs to the national pest control company Orkin increased 300 percent between 2000 and 2001 and 70 percent in each of the following two years.


Their return has been especially tough on hotels. Kansas State University entomologist Ludek Zurek found that among the new cases reported to him in 2002, about one-third came from hotels and motels, a quarter from apartment houses and dormitories, the rest from single-family homes and other settings. Moreover, he adds, "They've had an incredible impact on high-end hotels."


In December, for example, two visitors of the Helmsley Park Lane Hotel in New York City claim that they were badly bitten and have sued the hotel. They also allege that the bugs infested their luggage and were carried home with them to create further problems there.


But bed bug increase is a world-wide phenomenon. The number reported to insect researcher Ian Burgess in the United Kingdom has quadrupled each year for the past five years. And they have become a serious problem in Sydney, Australia.


Just what are these nasty bugs?


Adult bed bugs are pencil eraser-sized, flightless true bugs, between 1/4 and 3/8 inch long. Their brown bodies are flattened ovals with their head protruding from one end. They become increasingly red and swollen as they suck blood.


And sucking blood is what they live for.


Bed bugs feed at night, mostly on humans but also on other animals including birds and bats. As in the case of mosquitoes, it has been established that they are attracted to us by the carbon dioxide we exhale. Their needle-thin tubular mouthpart that pierces our skin is so fine that its pricking usually goes unnoticed. However, as they feed they inject a blood thinner that, especially for people with allergies, raises itchy red welts often in linear groups of three. Insensitive jokers sometimes refer to these sores as "breakfast, lunch and dinner." On the other hand, some victims have no reactions at all.


Unlike mosquitoes bed bugs do not spread diseases to humans. That fact offers little comfort to those whose bodies are covered with ugly blemishes that cry out for scratching. Various palliatives have been suggested, among them cleansing the bite area with soap and water, applying calamine lotion or a weak solution of meat tenderizer or holding ice cubes against the bites.


Once the bugs have gorged themselves they can go without feeding for many weeks. They retire to dark crevices where they are difficult to find.


Unfortunately, bed bugs are also prolific breeders. A single female will lay about 200 eggs over her lifetime. The minute white eggs are cemented to rough surfaces and near-colorless nymphs, tiny replicas of their mother, emerge in one to two weeks. Over a further ten weeks these nymphs pass through five molts until they finally become adults.


Inspectors easily identify bed bug infestations. They produce a peculiar pungent odor. Often leaking blood also discolors bed sheets and dark dots of feces may be seen on walls.


To rid an area of the bugs, two applications of insecticides are recommended, the second to eliminate newly emerging nymphs. This is another of those cases when the services of a professional exterminator is warranted.


Although they have occurred here recently, bed bugs continue to be rare in western New York.


The welcome mat is definitely NOT out.-- Gerry Rising