The truth about bed bugs

Bed bug nymphs are smaller than an appleseed.

Forget the economy, forget major league baseball playoffs, forget fall elections, if you want to have a conversation that everyone is interested in, bring up the subject of bed bugs.  These tiny blood-sucking parasites have finally reached celebrity status.  If you don’t believe me, check out the Google Trends data below.  Google Trends is a relatively new tool that allows you to see how many people are Googling a given subject on the Internet over time. Starting in 2004 with relatively little interest, the number of online searches for the term “bed bug” has skyrocketed in the past year.

So why all the fuss about bed bugs?  Prior to the year 2000 only 25% of U.S. pest management professionals had ever encountered this pest.  As of this year, 95% of professionals polled have encountered bed bugs in their daily business.  The upswing in the U.S. bed bug population is likely due to a combination of factors, but the two most commonly mentioned are increased international travel and resistance among bed bug populations to many of the most commonly used insecticides.

Public interest in bed bugs as measured by the number of Google searchs on bed bugs. Data from Google Trends:

While concerns about bed bugs are justified (when traveling, I now bring a flashlight check my hotel room before unloading my stuff or hitting the bed), some of the information and fear goes a little overboard.  Take a recent email making the rounds:

“We have friends here in our community and one of their sons is an entomologist (insect expert), and has been telling them that there is an epidemic of bed bugs now occurring in America.  Recently I have heard on the news that several stores in NYC have had to close due to bed bug problems, as well as a complete mall in New Jersey.

“He says that since much of our clothing, sheets, towels, etc. now comes from companies outside  of America, (sad but true), even the most expensive stores sell foreign clothing from China, Indonesia, etc.  The bed bugs are coming in on the clothing as these countries do not consider them a problem.  He recommends that if you buy any new clothing, even underwear and socks, sheets, towels, etc. that you bring them into the house and put them in your clothes dryer for at least 20 minutes.  The heat will kill them and their eggs.  DO NOT PURCHASE CLOTHES AND HANG THEM IN THE CLOSET FIRST.  It does not matter what the price range is of the clothing, or if the outfit comes from the most expensive store known in the U.S.  They still get shipments from these countries and the bugs can come in a box of scarves or anything else for that matter.  That is the reason why so many stores, many of them clothing stores have had to shut down in NYC and other places.   All you need is to bring one item into the house that has bugs or eggs and you will go to hell and back trying to get rid of them.  He travels all over the country as an advisor to many of these stores, as prevention and after they have the problem.

“Send this information on to those on your e-mail list so that this good prevention information gets around quickly.”

Whenever I receive an email that tells me to pass on the information to friends, my “hoax sensing antennae” immediately perk up. I checked with, the urban myth-debunking site, and sure enough this email was listed and analyzed. I agree with the Snopes analysis that this email contains a mixture of truth and falsehood.  The truth, as I’ve already said,  is that there is a growing epidemic of bed bugs–and they can be hard to eradicate if they establish in your home.  On the other hand, the chance of getting bed bugs from packages of new clothing is extremely remote.  I’ve never heard of this happening, and would be surprized to hear about a confirmed case of bed bugs traveling in this way.  So don’t stop shopping for clothes; the economy is bad enough as it is.

On the other hand, as bed bugs increase we will hear about them showing up in many places and being carried about in novel ways.  Recently, a Texas school district reported a bed bug coming in on a student’s clothing.  Even Howard Stern’s radio broadcasting studios got hit a couple of weeks ago.  Nevertheless this is no time for panic.

Bed bugs are most likely here to stay–and will probably get worse in Texas, at least until someone comes up with more effective insecticides.  Instead of fretting about bed bugs in your WalMart cart, take a few minutes to learn more about these pesky critters.  And take a few sensible steps to avoid picking them up in obvious places.  To start, check out the bed bug factsheets on the Insects in the City site.  The U.S. EPA has also developed an extensive web site with lots of factual information.  And if you do end up with bed bugs in your home or apartment, don’t panic.  Instead, call a professional.  Bed bugs can be controlled and eliminated with a combination of non-chemical and chemical measures; but it takes someone with knowledge and experience to do it.

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