Thursday, April 16, 2009

New York City Bed Bugs - Bites in the Big Apple

Why are bed bugs returning to our big cities?

Human bed bugs, Cimex lectularius, are almost unique among ectoparasitic insects in that they specialize in feeding on human blood, and only on human blood (click here if you're not sure what bed bugs look like). While there are plenty of insects and other arthropods that feed on the blood of animals such as birds, reptiles (snakes and lizards), and mammals (hairy creatures that give birth to live young and have mammary glands) most will happily feed on a variety of different animals as well. For example, certain mosquitoes may select a bird for one meal then a human for the next meal, and so on. This, by the way, is how West Nile virus gets passed between birds and humans. The human bed bug, on the other hand, feeds only on us.

Human bed bugs, along with body lice, have always been closely associated with their favorite meal ticket, people. Both insects are even the subject of children's nursery rhymes and common vernacular, for example "cooties!" and "don't let the bed bugs bite!". Since our earliest history bed bugs have visited us at night and body lice have shared our clothing.

It has only been during the last 60 years or so, since the end of World War II, that these insects have been relatively scarce. In fact, if you were born after 1945 you may have never encountered bed bugs or body lice at all. This was certainly not the case for earlier generations who are/were well acquainted with these little blood suckers.

Body lice are now controlled mainly by regular washing of clothes in modern societies but in displaced populations insecticides are still used. What really changed after 1945 was the introduction of synthetic pesticides like DDT during World War II that dramatically reduced the incidence of both insects. In the years following the War bed bugs and body lice all but disappeared.

During the 1960's, however, we learned that insecticides came with a price. If used indiscriminately synthetic pesticides can damage the environment and even our own health. Because of this, since the 1980's there have been restrictions placed on where and when synthetic pesticides can be used, and the greatest restrictions have come to any use indoors. By the 1990's the synthetic pesticides were mostly banned, at least in the US, for use indoors which has opened the gate, so to speak, for the re-emergence of bed bugs.

So this is why the bed bugs are back - safer indoor spaces with less pesticide residue are also "safer" for our old pal the bed bug. Fortunately we now know how to manage bed bugs without toxic pesticides. For details we've posted a series of articles about bed bugs at our 'Bugs site starting with bed bug identification and bite symptoms with links to control information. Sleep tight.