Bedbugs have made a comeback in recent weeks, making the leap from idle threat to full-on infestation in many parts of the northern United States. This is, it goes without saying, disgusting and worrisome news, especially for people (like me) who never even thought about bedbugs as being real pests. For anyone living in or near one of the potentially infected areas, or for anyone just looking to nuke these critters once and for all, here's what you need to know.
What They Are and What They Do
1. They're blood-drinkers: Bedbugs are part of the Cimicidae family of insects that feed on the blood of warm-blooded animals. Bedbugs tend to prefer human blood, which is what makes them such a dangerous creature and elevates the risk to humans when epidemics break out.
2. They hide everywhere: The insects get the name "bedbug" because they like to live in beds or near sleeping areas, but that's just the beginning. They also like to hide in wall cracks, behind electrical outlets, beneath wallpaper, under base boards and picture frames, and in the creases of mattresses. Pretty much any small, hidden space you can think of is someplace that bedbugs would be found.
3. They are tougher than you think: Bedbugs can go a year without feeding if necessary, though they like to feed every few days or so. They can survive in temperatures between 14 and 113 degrees Fahrenheit.
4. The blood they drink stays in their system for a long time: Scientists have shown that DNA from human blood that bedbugs have ingested can be successfully recovered and tested up to 90 days later, which some have posited can make the insects useful from a forensic perspective to determine who they'd fed on recently. Science!
5. Females can lay more than 300 eggs during their lifetime: The lifespan of a bedbug can vary based on climate and feeding habits -- they usually live between 10 and 12 months -- but it's not uncommon for a female to lay between 300 and 500 (!) eggs in her lifetime. That's an insane amount of offspring. The eggs, which are only 0.04 inches long, hatch in about two weeks.
6. They can swell to three times their normal size after feeding: Bedbugs are usually tiny and brown, only about 0.2 inches long, and flat. But after they feed, they take on a reddish color and can swell drastically. They also smell terrible thanks to an oily chemical their bodies produce. Nothing about them is even a little bit nice.
7. They love old furniture: Never pick up curbside furniture. Ever. Bedbugs love hiding out in used furniture like couches, especially if they've been a dirty home or been exposed to nature for too long. Even when buying secondhand items from reputable stores, give things a close inspection to make sure what you're getting is clean.
8. They like your breath, not your body: The easy assumption is that bedbugs are attracted to humans primarily for their warmth and body heat. However, this is actually the secondary draw for the insects. What really pulls them in is the carbon dioxide you exhale with every breath, which lets them know there's a potential victim nearby. Once they find you, they inject you with two tubes: one that administers anesthetics and anti-coagulants (keeping the wound area numb and the blood flowing freely), and one that drinks up your blood.
9. Their widespread presence is a mystery: The recent outbreaks that have everyone worried? No one knows just what caused it, how many bugs there are, or when/if it will ever die off completely. That is the least reassuring news you could hope to hear when dealing with bloodsucking parasites.
How to Get Rid of Them
10. The best defense is a good offense: Bedbugs are notorious for hitchhiking into clean buildings in luggage, clothes, and furniture. One of the best ways to prevent them from taking hold in your home is to clean it regularly, especially the areas in and around your bed. Vacuum often, keep the linens freshly laundered, and check the area regularly.
11. Wash garments in hot water: You can't treat the clothes and bedding that have come into contact with bedbugs with pesticides, so you'll need to wash them in hot water -- a minimum of 120 degrees Fahrenheit -- to kill the bugs and germs. You can also place clothing and other items in the dryer (on a rack if necessary) and run it on high heat for 20 minutes, a process you can do on its own or after washing the clothes in the hot water.
12. Bag and "bake" your other items: Sometimes bedbug infestation spreads to items that can't be put in a washer and dryer, like certain toys, household items, etc. If this happens, your best bet is to put the items in a plastic garbage bag and leave them outside in a sunny place, or in a closed vehicle, for several days. The goal is to get the temperature inside the bag to 120 Fahrenheit, so try and monitor with a thermometer if at all possible. Tip: the fewer items per sack, the harder it will be for the bugs to find a cool place to hide. It's also possible to kill the critters by freezing them, but since this needs to be maintained over several days, it's a lot harder to find places in the country to do this.
13. Be prepared to get a new bed: If your mattress is torn or damaged in any way, it's possible for bedbugs to get deep inside to lay eggs, making total extraction a near impossibility. There are also, understandably, some pretty strict guidelines about how beds can be treated with pesticides, so many professional exterminators often counsel bedbug victims to get a new bed. There are plastic wraps you can buy to encase the mattress and box spring, suffocating the bugs not unlike the trash bag method, though that obviously won't prevent new bugs from climbing onto the mattress and biting you.
14. Build a trap to see if you've got a problem: Although this device won't perform a proper extermination, it can let you know if you've got bedbugs. All you need to build the detector is a jug and some dry ice pellets. Leave the spout open to let carbon dioxide out and see if any bedbugs get drawn in. Set the jug in a large plastic dish and dust the sides with talcum powder to keep any bugs that show up from escaping. If you get any, use the above extermination procedures and call your bug guy.
15. Get some fossil soil: A great natural way to fight the bugs is to get some diatomaceous earth. It's a naturally occuring rock that comes in a powder form designed to be sprinkled around problem or infested areas. The soil includes small algae fossils with jagged edges that will cut and kill insects but which remains safe and non-toxic to other mammals and humans. Sprinkle it around your bed so that bedbugs have to crawl across it to get at you. It's not a total killer -- you really will need the help of a pro -- but it will do a lot of damage to your bedbug population.