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Bed bugs are small, brownish, flattened insects that feed solely on the blood of animals. The common bed bug, Cimex lectularius, is the species most adapted to living with humans. It has done so since ancient times.
Adult bed bugs are about 3/16 of an inch long and reddish-brown, with oval flattened bodies. They are sometimes mistaken for ticks or cockroaches. The immature nymphs resemble the adults, but are smaller and lighter in color. Bed bugs do not fly, but can move rapidly over floors, wall ceilings, and other surfaces. Female bed bugs lay their eggs in secluded areas, depositing up to five a day and 500 during lifetime. The eggs are tiny, whitish, and hard to see on most surfaces without magnification. When first laid, the eggs are sticky, causing them to adhere to substrates. Newly hatched nymphs are straw colored and no bigger than a pinhead. As they grow, they molt five times before reaching maturity. A blood meal is needed between each successive molt. Under favorable conditions, the bugs can complete development in as little as a month, producing three or more generations per year. Cooler temperatures or limited access to blood extends the development time. Bed bugs are resilient. Nymphs can survive months without feeding and the adults for more than a year. Infestations, therefore, are unlikely to diminish by leaving premises unoccupied. Although bed bugs prefer feeding on humans, it will also bite other warm-blooded animals, including dogs, cats, birds and rodents.
Bed bugs are active mainly at night. During the day, they prefer to hide close to where people sleep. Their flattened bodies enable them to fit into tiny crevices – especially those associated with mattresses, box springs, bed frames and headboards. Bed bugs do not have nests like ants or bees but do tend to congregate in habitual hiding places. Characteristically, these areas are marked by dark spotting and staining, which is the dried excrement of the bugs. Also present will be eggs and eggshells, molted skins of maturing nymphs and the bugs themselves. Another telltale, though less frequent sign is rusty or reddish blood smears on bed sheets or mattresses from crushing an engorged bed bug. Heavy infestations may have a “buggy” smell, but the odor is seldom apparent and should not be relied upon for detection.
Bed bugs prefer to hide close to where the feed. However, if necessary, the will crawl several feet to obtain a blood meal. Initial infestations tend to be around beds, but the bugs eventually may become scattered throughout the bedroom, occupying any crevice or protected location. The also may spread to adjacent rooms or apartments.
How Infestations Begin
It often seems that bed bugs arise out of nowhere. The bugs are efficient hitchhikers and are usually transported in or on luggage, clothing, beds, furniture, and other items. This is a particular problem for hotels, motels and apartments, where turnover of occupants is constant. Bed bugs are small, cryptic and agile, escaping detection after crawling into suitcases, boxes and belongings. The eggs are especially tiny and are usually overlooked. Acquiring secondhand beds, couches and furniture is another way that the bugs are transported into previously non-infested dwellings. Bed bugs also can be carried in or on a person’s clothing or shoes, resulting in an infestation.
Once bed bugs are introduced, they often spread throughout a building. The bugs can travel from room to room or floor to floor either by crawling or via a person. Unlike cockroaches that feed on filth, the level of cleanliness has little to do with most bed bug infestations. Pristine homes, hotels and apartments have plenty of hiding places and abundance of warm-blooded hosts. Thus they are almost always vulnerable to infestations as are places of squalor.