Bed bugs bite their sleeping hosts at night. Bed bug bites are painless at first but soon a red, swollen area develops that resembles a really bad mosquito bite. Unlike mosquitoes, bed bugs don't transmit any diseases but the bites can result in both itchy lesions and secondary skin infections.
In recent years bed bugs have started popping up in places where they had not been seen in decades. People staying at otherwise clean, well-managed hotels and motels are reporting bed bug bites. What's going on here?
A little bed bug history
Bed bugs and people have been together for a long time. A closely related species called the bat bug feeds on bats in caves and it is possible the bed bug adapted to our early ancestors when we used caves as shelter. Bed bugs have been our nearly constant bedtime companion ever since. After all, the admonishment to children on their way to bed of "don't let the bed bugs bite!" speaks to just how common bed bugs were at one time.
All this cavorting with bed bugs changed following World War II with the widespread use of synthetic pesticides like DDT and chlorpyrifos. These compounds were so effective and long lasting that many household pests, including bed bugs, virtually disappeared. Motel/hotel rooms were routinely sprayed or fumigated for cockroaches, bed bugs and other pests that might disturb guests.
Unfortunately these same chlorinated pesticides are also toxic to us, and environmentally damaging as well. They can be especially hazardous to children. Because of this, many of the most effective and long-lasting pesticides have now been banned or severely restricted and can no longer be used.
This is good news for our old friend the bed bug. Since rooms are no longer treated with highly persistent pesticides the door is open for bed bugs to move back in. All motel and hotel managers need to be vigilant and be prepared to act quickly when bed bugs are reported. Bed bugs are manageable with the lower toxicity materials available today but too often the problem is ignored because of the potential for bad publicity.
Can I check my room for bed bugs?
Bed bugs leave two distinctive "calling cards" that you can learn to detect. Bed bugs hide during the day in the folds of mattresses, around the bed in furnishings (bedside tables, picture frames, etc.), in loose wall coverings, etc. Check these areas as best you can for bed bugs and bed bug droppings when you first move into the room. Droppings are dark specks of fecal material that accumulate wherever bed bugs hide. Any evidence of bed bugs should be reported immediately to the front desk and you should ask for a new room. Don't get carried away with this inspection. Most rooms don't harbor bed bugs but a quick look around won't hurt.
The second calling card left by bed bugs is a distinctive room odor produced by the bugs themselves. The odor is sometimes described as "sickly sweet" or even that of fresh raspberry. The odor will probably only be detectable in a heavily infested room. Any sweet odor should be investigated.
Are there alternatives to toxic pesticides for bed bug control?
Rooms and bedding can be safely treated for bed bugs. It requires regular inspection and cleaning of mattresses, and furnishings around the bed, plus treatment of these areas with appropriate insecticides when necessary. New, low toxicity plant oil insecticides and inert dusts have replaced chlorinated pesticides for these applications. See this article for more details about bed bugs and their control.