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Bed Bug Biology

Bed bugs are a pest that has been following us around for thousands of years. Almost everyone has heard the bedtime rhyme “good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite” while growing up. For much of our history, these insects have been invading our homes and beds causing bites, irritation and poor sleep. Heavy use of insecticides like DDT helped to practically eradicate the bug prior to the 1940’s and 50’s but the high toxicity posed a risk to humans as well.

Scientists have spent their careers studying bed bugs and their cousins to help us understand what their life cycle is like, how to identify them and how to kill bed bugs. Major U.S. universities such as North Carolina State University, Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, University of California and the University of Florida IFAS Extension aggregate information and/or fund studies concerning this pest to help in the dissemination of knowledge. Knowing and understanding their biology is a strong step toward further prevention and eradication of this increasingly common pest.

 Bed bugs do not have a larval state in their life cycle like many insects do. Instead, the bed bug goes through five immature stages, called Nymphs, after hatching from an egg and before reaching adulthood. Throughout their life they shed, or molt, their skins in order to grow. This shed outer shell is a clear, empty exoskeleton that looks like the bug itself. Before shedding, the bed bug must take a blood meal.

Their eggs are very tiny and often hard to notice and identify. Each one is about the size of the head of a pin and pearl white in color. If they are older than 5 days then there will be more obvious eyespots visible. Female bed bugs need a blood meal in order to continue laying eggs but on average can lay between 5-20 eggs from a single meal. It will take 6-9 days for all of the eggs to hatch. Due to the large amount of eggs a fertile female can lay with regular blood meals, the bed bug population is capable of doubling every 16 days.

In the immature nymph stages, the bed bug looks like a smaller, translucent yellow-white version of the adult. Early nymph stages are hard to notice due to their incredibly tiny size and color. If a nymph has recently fed then it is easy to see their rounder and redder bodies. If able to take a meal soon after hatching or shedding, nymphs are capable of molting again to the next stage in about a week’s time. Each successive stage is slightly larger and darker. Given the optimal circumstances, it can take only 37 days to go from egg to adult.

Adult bed bugs are about 1/4” in size, flat, reddish-brown and oval in shape. After feeding, their bodies will take on a torpedo like shape. With regular feedings and optimal temperature, adult bed bugs can live for nearly a year. Predominantly bed bugs will feed at night often between midnight and 5:00 am when most people would be sleeping. Studies have shown that bed bugs are attracted to CO2 emissions and body heat. Once a host is found, the bed bug will settle on a location and feed for about 5-10 minutes before returning to the safety of a crevice where it will digest for 3-7 days.

After feeding, adults will seek to mate. Bed bugs do this through “traumatic insemination.” Male bed bugs literally stab the side of the females and release sperm into a specialized body cavity. Even if only mated with once, a single fertilized female can continue laying eggs with regular blood meals until the sperm runs out. This means that a female bed bug can practically start an infestation on her own if mated with once prior to invading your home. With regular meals, the female will continue to lay eggs and can then mate with her own offspring once they have reached adulthood.

Recent studies have shown that well-fed bed bugs living in optimal room temperature will live between 99-300 days in laboratories. These studies have also shown that starvation does have a negative impact on bed bugs but it is dehydration from lack of feeding that cause the most damage. Starved bed bugs at optimal temperature will die within 70 days. Part of the reason that bed bugs hide in small cracks, crevices and tight areas is so that they can maintain favorable temperature and humidity so they can survive through starvation periods and stave off dehydration.

Informational guides on bed bugs, such as those found through the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, continue to highlight why prevention is just as important, if not more important, than eradication. Their ability to create an infestation with one fertile female, the ability to double population in little over two weeks, their fairly long lifespan and the shear amount of eggs they can lay are all reasons why preventing a single bug from showing up is integral to protecting your home and family. Once an infestation has started there is more work to be done but they can be killed. Regular use of prevention methods will keep you from facing the horror of large infestations.
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