Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite!!

We’ve all heard that old saying from our parents while tucking us in at night. As a child I thought it was just some silly little rhyme about weird fictional creatures that may bite me in my sleep. Imagine my surprise when I found out that bedbugs really do exist! This silly little rhyme has taken on new meaning to people now, especially since reports of bedbug infestations have been surfacing recently in local, national and even world news. I was recently interviewed by a reporter in conjunction with a story she did on a bedbug infestation in a local apartment complex. I was then interviewed by a local radio station. Since the subject seems to be piquing the interest of Houstonians, and terrifying some of them, I wanted to shed some light on it for you!

Nymphal bedbug
Creative Commons License photo credit: liz.novack

Simply known as bedbugs, insects belonging to the family Cimicidae are small parasites that feed on the blood of mammals and birds. They are related to other insects such as stink bugs, cicadas, and assassin bugs in the order Hemiptera. All of these insects feed using a piercing and sucking mouthpart known as a “beak.” Many of these insects are well-known plant pests which use their beak to penetrate the tissues of plants. Others are predators, and a few suck blood. The common bedbug Cimex lectularius is found worldwide in temperate climates. They are small, about 1/8-1/4 of an inch long, oval to round in shape, flattened laterally unless engorged, and rusty brown in color. A female bedbug can lay around 300 eggs in her lifetime and the eggs take only about a week to hatch, depending on the temperature. Bedbugs prefer to feed on humans because we are very abundant, and well, an easy target! They are also known to feed on rats, mice, rabbits, and chickens. Bedbugs may be small, but they are very tough! They can withstand some temperature extremes and they can live for up to 15 months without food!

Bedbugs used to be quite a problem until about the 1940’s when they were nearly eradicated from heavy pesticide use, including DDT, which they are now resistant to. Their numbers have been slowly rebounding since about the mid 1990’s. This can be blamed on several factors including increased world travel, their growing resistance to many kinds of pesticides and their ability to go unnoticed.  Because of their size and shape, bedbugs can slip into and hide in nearly any sized crack or crevice, making them very difficult to spot during the day. At night, they come out to feed. They find their host by detecting body heat and carbon dioxide emissions, much like mosquitoes do. Once on the host, they penetrate the skin with their beak and inject an anesthetic to make sure they go unnoticed. They then take a small blood meal and withdraw their mouthparts. If they are not disturbed they will move to the side and do this again.

Bedbugs are not a medically significant pest because they don’t spread any type of disease; they are really just a nuisance. They are most common in buildings or complexes in which people come and go often and rooms or residences are close together – such as hotels, cruise ships, jails, hospitals, public housing, apartment buildings, etc. In hotels and other travel destinations, bedbugs can hitchhike on articles of clothing and baggage. In apartment buildings, they can travel easily between units. If an infested apartment becomes vacant, the bugs will seek a new host by traveling to an adjoining apartment. Bedbugs usually end up in residences such as houses because they are transferred unknowingly from one of these other types of places. Now, don’t get all upset and scared thinking if you’ve traveled or visited friends you could definitely have bedbugs. The best way to deal with any kind of pest insects is: Don’t be paranoid! Be preventative and be prepared! Here are some answers to questions you may have about bedbugs:

How do I know if I have bedbugs?

Leaf-footed bug, relative of a bedbug
Creative Commons License photo credit: procristination

This can be a bit tricky, but certainly not impossible! Be aware of your surroundings and what’s going on with your body. You should always inspect your body for insect bites and investigate things that may be making you itch and why. Take your lifestyle and activities into account to rule out other pests. Do you spend a lot of time outside or do you have pets? Don’t mistake mosquito and flea bites for bedbug bites. If you find yourself going to bed unscathed and waking up with itching or irritation, it may be something to look into. Due to the way they feed, bedbugs will sometimes leave 2 or more bites in a row next to each other, but not always. If you see bites like this, it is a telltale sign. Since bedbugs, don’t cause symptoms in everyone, there are other signs to watch for. Inspect your sheets for tiny blood smears and molts (shed skins). For this reason, it is helpful to have white or light colored sheets. Inspect your bedroom, mattress, and even your couch for small crawling bugs. If you find something bring it in to show us, or send a picture. We are ALWAYS happy to help the public by identifying insects!

What should I do if I have bedbugs?

Run For Your Lives
Creative Commons License photo credit: JMazzolaa

First, it is important to get a positive identification. Show the bug(s) to a competent Entomologist. Most pest control operators should know how to identify one, but again, we are a sure thing! If you do have bedbugs, DO NOT try to treat them yourself! Washing your sheets with hot water or even throwing your mattress out will not fix the problem! Bedbugs will more than likely be hiding in other places. Call a reputable pest control company to treat the problem. Scientists are constantly developing new pesticides to combat them and some companies can do hot steam treatments which will eliminate all stages of the bugs. They cannot take heat above about 115 degrees F. These services may be expensive, but they will work.

What can I do to prevent getting bedbugs?
Again, don’t be paranoid! That won’t do you any good and it will just stress you out. You can be preventative by doing certain common sense things that will help protect you against most pest insects. Make sure your house is in good repair, seal up cracks, fill holes, etc. Most pest insects especially bedbugs can come in through and hide in tiny spaces. Keep your house clean and clutter free. Have a squeaky clean disinfected home is good to keep the cockroaches away, but not necessarily bedbugs. All they need is a host, you or your family! However, by eliminating clutter around your home, you’re eliminating harborage and hiding places. This will make it a less attractive environment for them and if they’re there, they will be much easier to treat. Be well prepared and make smart choices when traveling.  If you’re staying in a hotel, do your research. You can find out a lot of information about hotels online. The same thing goes for moving into an apartment. Look for well maintained complexes and do your research!

So what if now I’m totally grossed out and scared of getting bedbugs??
Like I said, bedbugs are nothing to be afraid of. I know something about little creatures coming out at night to feed on us in our sleep is the stuff of nightmares for some, but consider things like lice or mosquitoes that feed on us regardless of when we’re awake or asleep and can transmit harmful pathogens. At any given moment there are trillions, actually an unimaginable number of microorganisms, including bugs, living and feeding on us. As creepy as it may seem, it’s totally natural. If you follow the advice in this blog, you should lead a relatively bedbug free life, and if there’s anything else we can do to put your mind at ease, answer questions, identify critters, we’ll be happy to! Until next time, don’t let the bedbugs bite!

Poisoning Pesky Pests

 © Photo credit: Gerald Yuvallos

April showers bring flowers – and mosquitoes!!!  The one good thing about our prolonged dry spell is that we have had almost no mosquitoes for months…but that is about to change.  Truly, mosquitoes are some of the most pestilential insects on this earth – not only is their bite unpleasant, but some species have the capacity to transmit diseases.  People will do almost anything to get rid of them.  And pest control companies prey on this urge, and will sell you just about anything. 

The device the pest companies are pushing these days – the “mosquito misting system” – costs several thousand dollars to install, but it does actually kill mosquitoes.  These systems use a series of nozzles, usually placed around the periphery of the homeowner’s yard, which emit a fine mist at intervals (many have programmable timers).  The mist, which contains water mixed with a pyrethroid insecticide, kills mosquitoes on contact.  Pyrethroids are widely used, generalist insecticides touted as “safe” for humans and pets such as dogs and cats, because they are derived from plants (learn more about these “safe” chemicals by clicking here.)

  © Photo credit: Foxypar4

Some pest control companies boast right up front that these misting systems also kill “spiders, ticks, fleas, wasps, gnats, and roaches” as well as mosquitoes.  Of course, they don’t mention that along with these “undesirables,” the mist also destroys butterflies, honeybees, ladybugs, praying mantids (and some of us consider spiders to be beneficial), etc., and is toxic to fish and amphibians.  In other words, although the chemicals used in these systems may be relatively safe for humans (but check out this link for some sobering information)  I wouldn’t want my child or dog or cat to be directly exposed to them.  Yes, pyrethroids are derived from plants, but they are generalist poisons that are bad news for many creatures.  And just because something comes from a plant doesn’t mean it is safe – would you want to be sprayed with extracts of oleander, foxglove, or poison ivy???

We frequently receive calls from butterfly gardeners around town who worry when their neighbors install one of these systems that it will impact their gardening efforts.  We don’t have good news for them – yes, it will.  Gardening for butterflies with one of these systems next door (since the mist can drift, and flying insects don’t stay put) is like putting out bird food if you have an outdoor cat.  You are luring butterflies and other beneficials to their death. 

The companies installing these systems will assure you that since you can use the spray just at night, day-flying insects will not be affected.  But think about it:  first, many beneficial insects are active at night, and many larval insects (e.g., butterfly caterpillars) are not able to fly away from areas that are sprayed.  Furthermore, plants or other objects near the spray nozzles build up a residue of the poison that is certainly not good for anything eating them or living in or on them.

 Mosquito Misting System

You may be surprised to learn that scientists working on mosquito control do not like these home misting systems any better than I do.  A couple of years ago, while doing research on mosquitoes and careers in entomology for the new insect wing, I talked at length to Dr. Rudy Bueno, head of the Harris County Mosquito Control Division (part of Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services, ).  I was impressed (and frankly surprised) by the conservative nature of their spraying programs.  For Dr. Bueno’s crew, spraying is a last resort, done in specific areas where their field workers have identified large populations of mosquitoes that may vector diseases such as West Nile virus (not all mosquitoes transmit disease), and where they cannot use other treatment methods such as getting rid of the standing water or treating with mosquito dunks.  They only spray when an outbreak cannot be controlled with more benign methods, and – here’s the rub – the sprays they use contain the same chemicals as the home mosquito misting systems.  Dr. Bueno’s concern is that through constant exposure to these chemicals that mosquitoes get through the home systems helps mosquitoes to evolve resistance to the chemicals – making the county’s spraying efforts much less effective, and meaning that more potent and dangerous chemicals may have to be used to control outbreaks.

 © Photo credit: akeg

I asked Dr. Bueno what he would recommend to the homeowner concerned about mosquitoes.  Their mantra in HCPHES is “reduce the source” – in other words, eliminate as much as possible any place around your home where mosquitoes might breed.  Some mosquitoes can breed in less than a tablespoon of water, or even in wet leaves, and can complete their life cycle in less than a week.  Most homeowners are fairly careless about leaving potential breeding spots on their property.  Clogged gutters, plant saucers, bird baths, dog or cat water bowls, and many other containers that hold water are all potential breeding sites.  So clean out those gutters and change the water regularly in bird baths and drinking bowls, and turn wheelbarrows or pots or buckets upside down so they don’t hold water.  Put mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis, a small native fish species that eats mosquito larvae) into any outdoor ponds.  In areas of standing water that can’t be drained you can use “mosquito dunks” – floating “donuts” that release a bacterium (Bacillus thuringensis israelensis,) that infects only mosquitoes.  One of the main places mosquitoes breed in Houston is in clogged storm sewers, so be sure not to put leaves or other debris into these sewers.  Of course, if you live next to a salt marsh or other area with shallow standing water, you may still be plagued by mosquitoes from time to time.  But there is a lot we as homeowners and good citizens can do to reduce the number of mosquito breeding areas right in our own neighborhoods.  Click here for more information on mosquito prevention

In my opinion, these home misting systems should be outlawed!  Yet to date they are almost completely unregulated, and people are so eager to rid their surroundings of mosquitoes that they don’t think about the consequences of the widespread use of these poisons.  Please do your research, and some thinking, before you spend any money on mosquito control.  One thing you can do is check out information in the lower level of the Butterfly Center – a computer kiosk rates a variety of potential mosquito control methods.  You’ll learn that in addition to “reducing the source,” using repellent with 33% DEET (more is overkill) and/or wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants when outdoors in mosquito-infested areas are the best ways to prevent bites.  And in your backyard, a simple fan can keep mosquitoes away during outdoor activities, and in fact is as at least as effective, and much safer, than any of the candles or coils on the market.

I hope one day the Environmental Protection Agency will ban the use of home mosquito misting systems and other supposedly “benign” poisons that may make our lives more comfortable but that on closer examination have deleterious effects.  It would be nice if pest control companies would voluntarily stop installing these systems, but as long as the public demands (and shells out money for) them, why should they?  In the meantime, I’ll be trying to educate as many people as I can – and I hope you will too.  Butterflies, honeybees, ladybugs, frogs, fish, and many other wonderful creatures would join in the chorus, if only they could!