Bed Bugs: Perfect Parasite for the Perfect Host


October 26, 2015

Photo: ©

You can’t guarantee new bed bugs won’t enter a home or office building, but you can teach people steps to minimize the likelihood of it occurring. Photo: ©

Our learning curve managing bed bugs continues to rise as we learn from our mistakes and depend on the research institutes to discover more information we can find useful to combat these blood-sucking creatures. This means you have to learn to reinvent yourself when determining protocol for their control. I know one company that changed and retooled protocol 17 times in just a few years.

One of the first patents to control bed bugs, No. 132,080, is dated Oct. 8, 1872. It called for an improvement of a compound — comprised of seven parts hogs’ lard and one part each of common lime, alcohol and tincture of logwood — to destroy the pest.

We’ve come a long way from porcine-based concoctions, but we still have a way to go. Once we perfect the control program, the insect will modify its genetic behavior, and we’ll look for better ways yet again.

Why is the bed bug the perfect parasite for the perfect host? Look at its profile, and you’ll understand:

While feeding, they inject an anti-itch compound so they can take their time feeding while you sleep.

They feed while you sleep, and if you decide to sleep during the day, they’ll alter their feeding pattern to feed at that time.

Bed bugs aren’t host specific. They readily feed on chickens and other birds. They also feed on pot-bellied pigs and other mammalian pets humans keep.

Bed bugs select humans as a preferred host, so they’re not feeding on an endangered species.

Humans are increasingly congregating in densely populated urban areas, allowing bed bug populations to explode.

To ensure a second ground-zero bed bug dispenser point (the first being multihousing units), people have created organic chicken farms, where chickens aren’t exposed to antibiotics. Once bed bugs enter the premises, they reproduce uncontrolled, and millions develop. The chickens, when no longer productive for egg laying, are shipped in cages, along with bed bugs, to other vulnerable locations.

Bed bugs have no wings and depend on humans and birds to carry them to new feeding grounds. But it’s not a problem because birds migrate, and humans travel globally. Even within one large apartment complex, bed bugs can climb onto people in one apartment and spread to several more within a day.

Bed bugs readily adjust where they hide based on the pattern of humans in their feeding range. These insects don’t randomly move about nightly to find a host; rather, they hone in on injured or sickly individuals within a herd. If a person’s resting pattern is to sit on a couch and watch TV, that’s where bed bugs harbor. If a person changes the sheets on a mattress daily, bed bugs move to the box spring. Think of them as Sneaky Petes lurking nearby where you don’t readily look. It’s also a weakness in their behavior. We can find them in the same locations through inspection.

These parasites can endure long periods without eating. If an apartment is unoccupied for several months, you can bet the returning occupant will be attacked the first night. This is an easy adjustment for the bed bug to make to survive, because their ancestors probably fed on migrating birds in caves and had to wait months for the birds to return to start feeding again.

Older literature talks about the female bed bug depositing 20 eggs a day and between 200 and 500 eggs in its lifetime. New data about pyrethroid-resistant colonies show egg production is much less, as low as two eggs a day and 113 eggs in a lifetime. Why? The insects had to modify their genetics to resist pyrethroids. They had to give up something (perhaps egg production) to do this.

Two conditions guarantee you can’t eliminate these pests: clutter and lack of cooperation. Humans, who can easily provide these conditions, are the perfect host.

Bed bugs can survive in sub-zero temperatures for weeks and below-freezing temperatures for months. I witnessed this as a technician servicing accounts in upstate New York. These parasites could survive in unheated buildings for the entire winter. It’s interesting they exhibit a seasonal variation in terms of bed bug jobs for pest management professionals (PMPs). In the Northern United States, the hot, humid months are peak times for new business. By contrast, bed bug jobs seem to increase in Florida when the snowbirds arrive during the colder months. Adjust your advertising accordingly.

We have a lot of technology that allows us to use genetic markers and determine from what area of the world bed bugs originate, which helps prove one female bed bug could be the source of the spread throughout a 100-plus unit apartment complex. But it also stresses the need for early detection and training of people to be able to make that determination. The labor, inconvenience and cost to solve a bed bug problem can be can be tremendous to the human victims.

Looking ahead
Bed bugs aren’t going to disappear by themselves; expect them to persist for a long time. Part of your job is to ensure they don’t reinfest and spread, which is where a proactive monitoring and communication program is critical. You can’t guarantee new bed bugs won’t enter a home or office building, but you can teach people steps to minimize the likelihood of it occurring. Let them know they’re looking for trouble if they pick up furniture off the street or in a secondhand store. If necessary, treat such items with a heat chamber (or at least a hair dryer and thick plastic bag) before it comes into the home.

For various reasons, the chances of finding a silver bullet for bed bug control isn’t likely. Although we never underestimate the power of the insect, I also hold out a ray of hope we’ll come up with something. Give me a mediocre product and a great technician over a great product and a mediocre technician any day. With hard work, pride, knowledge and persistence, we’ll win the battle.

Learn from Others’ Mistakes
The following are a few reasons some jobs have failed. After several revisits, technicians were able to determine why. You can be sure they no longer make these mistakes:

Bed bugs were hiding behind a baseboard where there was carpeting. The carpet was lifted, but the baseboards weren’t loosened or removed.

Bed bugs were carried into homes on people’s clothes, a wheelchair or in one case, in an artificial leg. Once the job was finished, one person unknowingly carried them back into the house again in his leg.

Bed bugs weren’t there to begin with. The technician never verified this before selling and doing a complete job. If you can’t find bed bugs, use monitors to verify their presence before treating. This includes times when a bed bug dog alerts, but no bugs are detected.

The technicians were burned out because they were asked to treat bed bug accounts in addition to their regular routes.

An excess amount of clutter and furniture made it impossible to move and treat every necessary area. The conventional approach wasn’t applicable in this case. Heat might have been the way to go, supplemented with appropriate dusts in wall voids, mattress covers, etc.

Travel Tips
The following are bed bug avoidance tips you can print for people planning to travel:

Pack your clothes in resealable, zipper-storage plastic bags. This way, if you place it in a drawer where you’re lodging, it can’t become infested.

Carry a permissible bed bug repellent approved for treating luggage, and use it before storing luggage.

When you check into a room, ask the person at the front desk whether any bed bugs were reported in the hotel the past year. If yes, don’t check into the room(s) where they infested or the rooms above, below and adjacent to that area.

Carry a portable hair dryer, an extension cord and a strong flashlight. Before entering a room, place the suitcase in the hallway. Take out the hair dryer and extension cord. Plug it in near the headboard. Blow hot air around the perimeter of the headboard and corners of the box spring and mattress. Aim heat into the top drawer of the nightstand. If you can lift the headboard off the wall, that’s better, but it’s not always possible. This spot-check is to determine whether any bed bugs are present. It’s not to control bed bugs, it’s simply for detection to protect you. If any exist, pull out of the room, and check in elsewhere.

When you return home, place your clothes in the dryer, and run it on the hot cycle for at least 30 minutes for a 7.7-lb. load. Some companies offer a service in which clients pay a fee to drop off suitcases and clothes at their facility, where they heat or fumigate all items once a week.

Contact Dr. Austin Frishman, a PMP Hall of Famer, at

Leave A Comment

  1. Dear Sir, I am writing regarding your article “Why bed bugs are the perfect host”, in particular the following line:

    “While feeding, they inject an anti-itch compound so they can take their time feeding while you sleep.”

    I suspect that this is one of the greatest myths perpetuated in the bed bug world. As far as I am aware, (at present) there is no evidence that bed bug saliva contains any anaesthetic property.

    A study by Francishetti and colleagues from 2010 (J.Proteom.Res. 9:3820-31) identified 46 different protein components in the saliva of the common bed bug, Cimex lectularius. Many of these proteins are involved in overcoming host haemostatis (i.e. stops the blood clotting while feeding), however no anaesthetic was, or has ever been, identified in the common bed bug saliva. The saliva of the tropical bed bug, Cimex hemipterus, has been studied even less. This species contains a small amount of haemproteins and reduced anticlotting properties compared with Cimex lectularius, although total protein contents are similar between species (Araujo et al. 2009. JIP, 55:1151-7).

    Thus why do we not feel the bite? Simply, I suspect, that the stylets of the insects are so fine.

    For more discussion on this, see my recent article Doggett et al. 2012. Bed bugs: Clinical relevance and control options. Clinical Microbiological Reviews, 25(1): 164-192.

    Here is a direct link to the paper

    Stephen Doggett, Director Medical Entomology, Westmead Hospital, Australia &
    Principal author of the Code of Practice for the Control of Bed Bugs in Australia.