There’s a reason why the old adage goes: “Sleep tight; don’t let the bed bugs bite!” That’s because, as the name suggests, a bed bug’s natural habitat is in…well...beds. But why?
Per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), bed bugs are drawn to warm areas, blood, and carbon dioxide. A bed with a human sleeping in it is home sweet home. Contrary to popular belief, even the most spotless homes can have infestations. Here, one can learn about these creatures and the roles they play in nature.
Bed Bugs Struggle to Survive Outside
Imagine going to a jungle and flipping over a few leaves. One may find beetles, ticks, and other six-legged creepy crawlers. Chances are, one won’t find bed bugs. That’s because, as noted, these creatures need:
- Carbon dioxide. Where there’s carbon dioxide, there’s blood. When someone sleeps, carbon dioxide builds up around their upper back and neck––exactly where bed bugs like to feast.
- Blood. Bed bugs have a single proboscis from which they draw blood from humans. They don’t have mandibles or jaws––and they can’t feed on skin cells when times are tough. Without a constant blood supply, bed bugs die.
- Warmth. There’s a reason why cold places (like Antarctica) are nearly devoid of insects; bugs need warmth to remain active. If it gets too cold, they become immobile.
While a bed bug may find a warm spot to call its own outside, it’ll struggle to find a steady supply of carbon dioxide and blood to survive.
What if a Bed Bug Goes Outside?
A bed bug will do everything possible to stay indoors. If one finds itself outside, it will do everything possible to get back indoors. This may include:
- Hitchhiking on articles of clothing
- Entering the home through holes in the baseboards
- Riding in an animal’s fur
- Burrowing inside cushions
Why Are Bed Bugs Human Specific?
Insects are incredible creatures. Some can jump, fly, slither, and camouflage. Bed bugs are not so fortunate. They can scuttle, and that’s pretty much it. Unlike fleas, they can’t hop from spot to spot amongst a forest of fur. It’s much easier for them to navigate a human’s smooth skin rather than wade through a dense brush of hair.
Bed Bugs Are Parasites
PBS notes that bed bugs have existed for 100 million years––predating humans. Yet, without humans and beds, how did these critters exist? Michael Siva-Jothy, an entomologist at the University of Sheffield, says that bed bugs are parasitic animals that need a host. In the absence of humans, a bug can try to find another host, but it’ll likely starve or reach the end of its lifespan before doing so.
Scientists used to think that, before humans, bats were the original bed bug host. However, recent research shows that bed bugs predated bats by at least 20 million years! So, the jury’s still out on how bed bugs evolved and survived without warm, toasty beds.
What Other Bugs Need Beds and Blood?
Bed bugs aren’t the only insects that need human roommates. Other parasitic insects that need blood to survive include:
- Fleas. Many people think that fleas are only specific to dogs. That’s not true! Although fleas live on dogs, they can do “carry out” by biting a human, then returning to their furry home.
- Lice. Fun fact: like bed bugs, lice are obligate parasites, meaning they need a human host to survive (okay, maybe this isn’t a fun fact).
The adult carpet beetle gets an honorary mention. While it doesn’t feed on human blood, its larvae feed on fabrics. It cannot live in the wild, as they need certain fibers to survive.
How Do Bed Bugs Infest Homes?
Go on Reddit right now and type in r/bedbugs. Within seconds of scrolling, one will see countless posts lamenting bed bug infestations and how difficult they are to get rid of. But how do bed bugs infest homes?
Despite not being able to jump or fly, bed bugs are amazing hitchhikers. According to New York State, they can:
- Hide in the stitching of luggage, handbags, and backpacks
- Travel between rooms of hotels and apartment buildings
- Be introduced when purchasing used furniture or clothing
Bed bugs generally live in groups, ranging from four to 200. So, if a homeowner sees just one bed bug, they should assume there’s even more lurking beneath the comforter.
How Can a Homeowner Get Rid of Bed Bugs?
Getting rid of bed bugs is no easy feat. One can’t spray Raid and call it a day. They must partake in integrated pest management (IPM). This multi-pronged approach involves:
- Using extreme temperatures. Per the EPA, a pest control company may recommend taking the home’s bedspreads, curtains, and other fabrics, then putting them in the dryer. Bed bugs cannot survive temperatures higher than 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Removing certain items. Depending on the extent of the infestation, one may consider removing contaminated items. If there are thousands of bed bugs living in a single mattress, it’s more cost-effective to replace it.
- Spraying pesticides. There are over 300 EPA-approved pesticides that can kill bed bugs. Before applying a product, however, the EPA suggests consulting a trained professional. Spraying too much pesticide (or the wrong type) could endanger residents’ health.
Do Bed Bugs Have Any Benefits?
Oh, boy. This is a tough one. The general consensus among humans is that a bug that feasts on blood and requires IPM is not beneficial to the environment. However, humans have a way of looking at things on the macro level. They seldom think about the needs and relationships of creatures at the micro level. It really is an entirely different world beneath humanity’s feet.
One may say: “Well, that’s a nice sentiment. So do bed bugs have benefits or not?”
Scientists aren’t 100 percent sure, but some insist that bed bugs make tasty meals for spiders. Contrary to bed bugs, most spiders are not parasitic and offer free pest control in exchange for making webs undisturbed. For more information on bed bugs and their roles in nature, check out this video from National Geographic.