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Without wings, bed bugs get there just the same
On Six Legs
By Tom Turpin

An old insect ditty goes: “The Junebug has a gaudy wing, the firefly a flame. The bed bug has no wing at all, but he gets there just the same!” I’m not so sure that the wing of the Junebug is gaudy, but, certainly, most fireflies have a flame. And bed bugs do manage to travel, even if they are aerodynamically challenged.

Unlike a lot of insects with the name “ bug,” the bed bug is a bug! Lots of insects are commonly called bugs. But scientifically, not all insects are bugs. For instance, lightning bugs are really beetles.

The same is true of Junebugs. The Oriental cockroach is sometimes called a waterbug, even though it is not a true bug.

Insects such as boxelder bugs, stink bugs, squash bugs and bed bugs are classified in the insect order Hemiptera. These insects are the true bugs of the insect world. Most true bugs have wings that are half leathery and half membraneous. This is the basis for the order name, which literally means half wing. But a few insects in this order, including the bed bug, don’t have any wings at all.

Bed bugs are infamous for feeding on human blood. This is partially the basis for the old saying, “Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite!” This bedtime wish relates to the notion of acquiring a good night’s sleep. The sleep tight part relates to old beds that had ropes to hold the mattresses. Such beds provide the best sleep when the ropes are tight enough to provide firm support to the sleeper.

Bed bugs feed at night. Unlike some other biting insects, the bite of the bed bug does not cause immediate pain. Consequently, most people who suffer bed bug bites will sleep right through the process. By morning, the bites will begin to itch, and the discomfort can last up to a week. Even though the bite might not disturb a sleeper, the very thought of providing blood for bed bugs can make insomniacs out of some of the heartiest of sleepers.

Rope beds and bed bug bites are both uncommon today in the United States. However, reports of bed bug infestations have increased in recent years. Why that is the case is unclear.

One suggestion is that the insecticides that were once used to deal with bed bug infestations are no longer available. Another factor that no doubt plays a role is increased travel from parts of the world where bed bugs are common.

How do bed bugs travel? They hoof it, that’s how. And they are fast runners. Bed bugs hide in secluded places during the day.

At night, they emerge and walk around in search of a meal. That meal can be any warm-blooded animal. Humans fill the bill nicely but so do dogs, cats, bats and rats. Birds will also do.

Both juvenile and adult bed bugs take blood meals. There are five juvenile stages, and a blood meal is needed to molt to the next stage. Adults can live from 6 to 12 months. After mating the female lays 2-3 eggs per day. Bed bug eggs are attached to rough surfaces in the daytime hiding places of the adult.

As a general rule, bed bugs are most common in areas of high-density human populations. But these insects are also accomplished travelers. Since bed bugs like to hide in cracks and crevices, it is natural for them to get into boxes and suitcases that are left setting overnight in bed bug-infested rooms. This means that travelers from bed bug infested homes or hotel rooms can be guilty of transporting these insects to the next stopping place.

So bed bugs from Bombay or Sidney can end up in a hotel room in New York or Los Angeles as quickly as a traveler can move between those locations. Once the infestation gets started, the population can continue to grow with a different human to feed on almost every night.

Bed bugs don’t need wings to generate a lot of frequent-flyer miles. All they need is a suitcase left overnight in an infested room.

Published in the January 4, 2006 issue of Farm World.