In my work I travel quite a bit and stay in hotels all across the South. My biggest fear, however, is not being away from home or sleeping in the dark: it’s taking home bed bugs. Bed bugs have not been a problem for quite some time, but in recent years populations have exploded. So what are bed bugs? Bed bugs are in the family Cimicidae, about 4-5 millimeters long, reddish-brown as adults, and clear to light yellow as nymphs. When unfed they are very flat, making it easy for them to hide in the smallest of places. Bed bugs typically travel at night in search of a combination of warmth and the delicious smell of carbon dioxide. Once the bed bug finds its dinner, it grabs on and pulls out its stylet (its mouthpart) and begins to probe around until finding a good blood vessel to tap into. If undisturbed, it will feed for about 5 minutes, or until it is full, and then wander off. If you were to swat at one of these little blood feeders while sleeping, it would just find another place to feed a short distance away, eventually leaving a series of three sequential puncture wounds. Dermatologists often refer to this as “breakfast, lunch and dinner.” (Steward, 2011).
“Among all the night enemies which often perturb our sweet quiet sleep, there is none more cruel than bed bugs.”
-Andrea Mattioli, 1557
Bed bugs have been around for a long time and were a way of life in the United States before World War II. Bed bugs have actually been around for 3,500 years, and there is evidence of them dating back to the time of the Pharaohs of Egypt. We have all heard the saying “Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.” That saying comes from a time when bed frames were made with ropes to keep the mattresses up, and to keep them up, people would often have to tighten the ropes. The bed bug tag was appended later to add a bit of humor, but bed bugs are no laughing matter. Since bed bugs started reappearing in the 1990s, their populations have surged.
Where are these bed bugs coming from? They started to reappear in what are known as “gateway cities.” These cities include New York, Chicago, Toronto, and San Francisco. These large cities are popular destinations for both business and travel, and so bed bugs have come along unknowingly. Bed bugs travel to and fro on both large and small scales. They travel across oceans, across continents, from city to city, and even from house to house. People often don’t realize how easy it is to be able to accidently transport a hitch-hiking bed bug. This is not only how bed bugs spread, but also how bed bug issues keep recurring. It is possible that although you may have had your home, hotel or apartment treated, you could have had a bed bug in your bag or on your clothes and then upon coming home again you have reintroduced the problem. In the case of hotels, many unwitting travelers introduce bed bugs time after time.
Although a nuisance, bed bugs have been incorporated into various forms of popular culture. They have been referenced in poetry, figurative art, theatre, literature, music, television and even in everyday language. Bed bugs have been used in two very common poems, including a rhyme by a famous anonymous American poet:
“The Junebug has the wings of gauze, the lightning bug the flame,
The bedbug has no wings at all, but gets there just the same,
The Junebug leaves the last of June, the lightning bug in May,
The bedbug takes his bonnet off and says, ‘I’ve come to stay.’”
Bed bugs have also been featured in no less than 89 musical numbers. There was a famous musical recording from 1927 called “Mean Old Bed Bug Blues” by Walter E. Lewis that went on to be recorded by numerous artists. The song’s lyrics detail the desire of a bed bug to bite its victim. These are just a few of the many ways that bed bugs have been used in popular culture (Doggett, Miller and Lee, 2018).
Bed bugs are small, sneaky, infamous, and hard to get rid of, but, rest assured, they do not carry any diseases. However, as the rhyme says, bed bugs do indeed bite. Although reactions appear in 30-90% of individuals that are bitten, reactions will vary. Reactions may differ in terms of redness, size, and shape, if they appear at all. Individuals can exhibit immediate or delayed reactions, and symptoms can vary from several hours to days or even weeks. Even without the threat of disease, it is vital to take care of these six-legged foes. So next time you travel, be sure to check your hotel room before setting aside your belongings in, and, more importantly, “Sleep tight, and don’t let the bed bugs bite.”
-Kristen Stevens, BCE
Doggett, S.L., Miller, D.M., and Lee, C. 2018. Advances in Biology and Management of Modern Bed Bugs. Oxford, UK.
Stewart, A. 2011. Wicked Bugs. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill, North Carolina.