January 2016
Homeplace & Community

Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite!

  Bed bugs are about a quarter-inch long and half that wide and reddish brown.

How many of you were sent to bed or have sent your kids to bed with the little ditty, "Good night, sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite"? I heard that all my life and have said the same to my kids never giving a second thought to the possibility that a bed bug may indeed be lurking in our bed. I grew up and have lived most of my life during a time when this pest was all but totally absent from the United States. Unfortunately, now once again we may need to remember the advice of our grandparents to "sleep tight" to avoid being bitten by bed bugs. Our parents and grandparents likely remember the days prior to World War II and the scourge of bed bugs. My mother said it was a nightly ritual to search for and smash as many of these pesky bugs as you could find when she was growing up in the 1930s and ’40s.

Why prior to WWII? Well, after WWII the miracle chemical known as DDT was widely used for the control of bed bugs and dozens of other pests of man and plants. Bed bugs were almost totally eradicated in the United States during the years prior to the elimination of this and other widely used chemicals. The banning of DDT and other chemicals is not likely the sole or even primary reason for the rise in current bed bug problems but was certainly the reason for the original decline of the problem. Bed bugs became resistant to DDT over time and they have become resistant to other chemicals used over the years.

The resurgence of the problem is likely due to several factors other than the demise of DDT. Other reasons include travel to areas where the problem is greater such as Asia, Africa, Mexico, Central and South Americas, and parts of Europe. This fact, plus the immigration of people from areas infested, are very likely reasons for the problem we now see in the United States. Another contributing factor is the reduced use of residual insecticides previously used to control roaches, ants and other household pests. The advent of bait controls for these pests has reduced the need for the harsher chemicals previously used in homes for these other pests.

You may be wondering how you can avoid these undesirable hitchhikers from a trip because you may in fact unknowingly bring them back in your luggage or clothing. One way to avoid this happening is to inspect your hotel room for these small creatures and don’t stay in an infested hotel room. Don’t assume the critters are only in the cheap hotels. Bed bugs have been found in the nicest hotels, especially in the areas of the world mentioned earlier but more and more here in the United States. First, look for rusty spots on the mattress cover, the bed frame and especially behind the headboard. Try sliding the headboard off, completely remove it and check that area well because it is a great hiding place seldom disturbed in hotels. Also, look at the bedside furniture carefully for these same rusty spots or for the bed bug itself. The insect is about a quarter-inch long and half that wide and reddish brown.

Prevention is the best way to control this pest because, once it has infested your home, it can be extremely difficult to eliminate. If you suspect you were exposed to them on a trip, you should launder clothes in very hot water and dry on the hottest dryer heat setting. Alternatively, you could place clothes in a freezer for several days. If your house becomes infested, you should consult with a pest control company immediately.

Bed bugs seem to bring out a primal fear because they feed on humans by sucking their blood. However, they are not known to transmit any human diseases but the bite, although not painful, can be irritating or may even cause an unpleasant allergic reaction on the skin. If you notice a small oval lump or welt the morning after sleeping in a hotel, you may want to do a more thorough inspection if possible. Mosquito or flea bites may be mistaken for bed bug bites. Mosquitoes may bite anywhere skin is exposed, but fleas generally bite near your ankles. Bed bugs, on the other hand, will bite on areas exposed during sleep time such as arms, legs, face, neck or shoulders. Vampires also like the neck area so look to see if there is one or two puncture wounds (just kidding). Lastly, "sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite" is still good advice.

For more information visit the Alabama Cooperative Extension System website at www.aces.edu and search by the key words bed bugs. Another very good resource can be found at www.bedbugs.umn.edu/.

Tony A. Glover is a County Extension Coordinator in Cullman County.