Bed bugs have now reached epidemic status in the US. Almost everyone’s heard of the little critters – we’re told not to “let the bed bugs bite” as children. The unfortunate truth is that many of us will become personally acquainted with them at some point in our lives.
There are so many “interesting facts about bed bugs” that aren’t true. These factoids are frequently reposted on blogs, and spread as word-of-mouth, by people who don’t know any better. The trouble is that reading and believing erroneous information can make it harder to identify a bed bug problem.
Today, we’re going to share some bed bug myths with you. For each one, we’ll uncover the truth and explore where the misconception may have come from.
Table of Contents:
1) Can Bed Bugs Jump Like Fleas?
Although bed bugs are parasites and drink blood to survive, they can’t jump like fleas. In fact, fleas and bed bugs aren’t even closely related. Bed bugs are part of the insect order Hemiptera, and fleas belong to Siphonaptera. Fleas have very long, strong legs which are capable of propelling them over 100 times their body length, according to Veterinary Parasitology. Bed bugs have comparatively small legs that aren’t capable of jumping at all.
So, why do some people think that bed bugs can jump? It may be because bed bugs seem to get around (and spread) so quickly. They can move from one apartment to another with ease, and travel across rooms searching for a host. However, they do this purely by crawling. Bed bugs move at about the same speed as ants and can crawl for long distances without tiring.
2) Can Bed Bugs Fly?
Bed bugs, as we’ve mentioned, belong to the order Hemiptera – also called “true bugs.” This order comprises around 50,000 to 80,000 species of insect, according to the Natural History Museum. Many of these (such as stink bugs) have wings and can fly. Fortunately for us, bed bugs do not share this ability. They do have small, vestigial wing pads, but these are non-functional. They’re merely an evolutionary remnant from a long-ago time.
Some people may assume bed bugs fly because of how suddenly they appear to show up in your home. However, you most definitely didn’t get bed bugs from leaving the bedroom window open. Bed bugs can crawl into suitcases, bags, and clothes, which is how people inadvertently transport them from one place to another.
3) Can Bed Bugs Live on Your Body or in Your Hair?
Bed bugs are parasites and live on human blood. They rest while you’re active, and feed on you when you’re sitting or lying still. However, bed bugs do not live on the human body. When they’re not feeding, bed bugs seek shelter in cracks and crevices around the home. They only find their way back to you when they’re hungry again.
It’s not silly to wonder if bed bugs can live on your body, or in your hair. After all, many other parasites do. Fortunately, though, it’s not in their nature. While they can hitch rides from one place to another on your clothing, they don’t stick around for long. The body is too warm and unstable an environment for bed bugs. If you have bugs living on your skin or in your hair, it’s most probably lice, fleas or ticks.
4) Can Bed Bugs Live on Cats and Dogs?
As bed bugs drink human blood, it’s only reasonable to wonder whether they can also bite your pets. Perhaps unsurprisingly, bed bugs can feed on dogs, cats, rodents and even birds. However, animals aren’t their first choice. Bed bugs prefer human blood, and will only bite pets when they can’t find a human host.
But can they live on dogs and cats? Fortunately, no. As we discussed above, bed bugs prefer to hide out of sight most of the time. They only approach a host human (or animal) when it’s time to feed. Furthermore, bed bugs don’t get along in cat and dog fur. They lack the specialized claws that fleas and lice have, which allow them to manoeuver through hair. While it’s theoretically possible for a bed bug to hitch a ride with a cat or dog, it’s very unlikely.
5) Can Bed Bugs Spread Diseases?
Other bloodsucking parasites have been known to spread diseases to the people that they bite. Probably the most famous example is mosquitos spreading deadly malaria. Therefore, it’s not unreasonable to assume that bed bugs may spread diseases, too.
Luckily, it seems that we don’t have anything to worry about. According to a systematic review in the Archives of Dermatological Research, bed bugs do carry disease pathogens (microorganisms). However, they are incapable of transferring these diseases to humans. Not a single study to date has demonstrated that bed bugs can transmit diseases to people. It’s not clear why, though some scientists believe that bed bugs may somehow be able to “neutralize” disease pathogens within their bodies. Whatever the reason, we’re in the clear.
6) Can Bed Bugs Bite Through Clothing?
Fortunately, bed bugs can’t chew through clothing: they don’t have the mouth parts for it. Bed bugs have a tiny beak and a straw-like proboscis for sucking up blood. Their mouthparts are designed only to penetrate human skin. According to the journal Insects, they can pierce very thin mesh fabric, such as tulle. However, they don’t have the ability to bite through anything thicker than that (such as cotton pajamas).
So, where does this myth come from? It may be because some people still find bed bug bites on areas of skin covered by their clothing. This is because bed bugs are very small – only around the thickness of a quarter. They can easily crawl through small openings in your pajamas (such as the leg and arm holes, or buttonholes) to get to you.
7) Do Bed Bugs Only Live in Beds?
It’s easy to understand where this myth comes from. You only need to consider the name of the insect we’re talking about. Bed bugs are infamous for living in mattresses, box springs, and bed frames. It’s their number one favorite place to be.
However, beds are not the only habitat that a bed bug can survive in. Bed bugs can live almost anywhere in the home. This can include:
- Bedside cabinets and other furniture
- Carpets and rugs
- Behind baseboards and in cracks in the wall
- In closets and cupboards
- Even inside electrical outlets and switches.
Bed bugs can live anywhere within crawling distance of your bed. As long as they’re able to get to you to feed, they aren’t picky about where to live. They may even be hiding inside your couch, ready to bite you once you sit down for a rest.
8) Can You Get Rid of Bed Bugs by Throwing Out Your Mattress?
Considering the myth we’ve just addressed, many people believe it’s simple to rid yourself of a bug infestation. Bed bugs live in beds, so if you throw out your mattress, the problem will be solved. Right?
Wrong. If bed bugs only live in beds, then throwing away your mattress may work. However, if you’ve ever tried this, you’ll know it doesn’t do much good. If you’ve got bed bugs, they’re almost certainly living in various other places as well as your mattress. While throwing out your bed may dispose of a large number of bugs and eggs, it won’t completely eradicate your infestation. Sooner or later, the eggs in the carpet, dresser and electrical outlets (for example) will hatch. The new bugs will invade your brand-new mattress, and the infestation will grow once more.
9) Do Bed Bugs Only Live in Big Cities?
If you imagine a bed bug’s ideal habitat, you’d likely think of a motel in a big city. It’s easy to imagine why bed bugs would thrive in cities: population density. The more people that live within a smaller area, the easier it is for bed bugs to find hosts.
It is true that bed bugs do flourish in urban environments. According to Clinical Microbiology Reviews, bed bugs are most populous in large cities such as Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. However, that is not to say that bed bugs can only be found in large cities. Bed bugs have been reported in all 50 states, and in most countries worldwide, according to Clinics in Dermatology. Anywhere that humans live, bed bugs can live too. So, while you’re more likely to get bed bugs if you live in (or visit) a large city, you aren’t immune to them if you don’t.
10) Are Bed Bugs a Sign of Poor Hygiene?
If a hotel or home is infested with bed bugs, what would you assume about its cleanliness? Most people tend to imagine a bed bug-infested environment must be dirty or unhygienic. It’s one of the most popular bed bug myths and isn’t true.
Bed bugs are not attracted to dirt, grime or filth: they are attracted to blood. According to the above study in Insects, bed bugs look for carbon dioxide and other chemical signals to lead them to humans. They don’t care whether a home is filthy or spick-and-span, or whether your hotel is budget or luxury. Anywhere that people are, bed bugs will follow.
That being said, keeping your home clean and tidy makes it easier to spot the signs of an infestation (and deal with it more easily). Clutter and mess provide more places for bed bugs to hide.
11) Are Bed Bugs Too Small to See with the Naked Eye?
For some reason, many people assume that bed bugs are microscopic. It may be because some parasites – such as certain species of mite – are indeed small. Mites such as scabies are less than 1mm in length and easily overlooked.
Bed bugs are, however, much bigger. Their eggs (and freshly-hatched nymphs) are tiny, but adult bed bugs are 5-7mm. They can reach the size of an apple seed when fully engorged with blood. Adult bugs are also quite dark in color, appearing as reddish-brown. If a bed bug is crawling on you, you may not be able to feel it, but you’ll see it.
If you can’t see any bed bugs in your bed during the day, it’s not because they’re too small to see. It’s because they’re hiding in cracks and crevices, only coming out while you’re asleep.
12) Do Bed Bugs Hibernate in Winter?
Bed bugs are not as prominent in the colder months as they are in summer. According to the Journal of Medical Entomology, bed bug reports reach their peak in August and are at their lowest in February. Bed bugs certainly seem to travel more in warmer weather, and this has led people to believe that bed bugs “hibernate” during the winter.
Some insects (like ladybugs) go into a hibernation-like state called diapause in winter. However, bed bugs don’t appear to. Bed bugs prefer warmer weather and will travel around less in the winter, according to the above study. But that doesn’t mean they’re lying dormant. Bed bugs do still feed throughout the winter, and they can still be brought from one house to another. It’s just less likely than in the summer.
13) Do Bed Bugs Die Easily in Cold Temperatures?
While we’re on the subject of temperature, there’s another myth to tackle. Some people believe that bed bugs die easily when exposed to the cold. This has led to some people leaving infested mattresses or items of furniture outside over the winter, in the hopes that the cold air will kill the bugs.
However, unless you live in an extremely cold location, this is unlikely to have any effect. Bed bugs can tolerate the cold very well. According to a study in Medical and Veterinary Entomology, bed bugs only die when directly exposed to temperatures of -16 degrees Celsius (3.2 Fahrenheit) for at least an hour. Most US winters are significantly warmer than this, and if a bed bug can hide (for example, in the mattress), this will offer it some protection. However, bed bugs do die easily when exposed to high temperatures. Placing infested items in the wash at 140 degrees Fahrenheit should do the job.
14) Do Bed Bugs Only Come Out in the Dark?
Most bed bugs take their opportunity to bite at night. This has led to the understandable misconception that bed bugs only come out in the dark. Some people believe that leaving the light on is a good way to deter bed bugs from coming out of hiding.
Unfortunately, this seems to be nothing but a myth. There’s no evidence that bed bugs are attracted to darkness, or repelled by light. Bed bugs are purely attracted to carbon dioxide and other chemical signals given off by humans. The reason that bed bugs usually bite at night is simple: during the day, we move around. It’s much easier for bed bugs to attach themselves to us when we’re lying still at night. Bed bugs can and do bite during the day when it’s light if their host is sitting or lying down.
15) If a Bed Bug Bites You, Will You Wake Up with a Bite Mark?
Bed bug bites are often quite noticeable. For most people, they show up as a small red bump, which is itchy and irritating. This has led to many people believing that if you’re bitten by a bed bug, you’ll always know it. In the morning, you’ll wake up with the telltale marks on your skin.
However, this isn’t true for everyone. According to a study in Medical and Veterinary Entomology, not everybody reacts to bed bug bites in the same way. Approximately 20% of the population – 2 in every 10 people – will not react to being bitten at all. So, it’s possible that if bed bugs are biting you, you may not even know it. Not only that, but bite reactions may take days or weeks to appear. You may not even notice you’ve been bitten until weeks afterward.
16) Does It Hurt When a Bed Bug Bites You?
It’s not surprising that some people think bed bugs cause pain when they bite. Bites from other small critters – such as horseflies, and some spiders – can undoubtedly hurt, so why shouldn’t bed bug bites?
Bed bugs use a special mechanism to stop their bites from causing pain. According to the above study in Clinical Infectious Diseases, bed bug saliva contains an anesthetic. This results in the bite being completely painless.
Bed bug bites can start to hurt days or weeks later if you develop an allergic reaction to the bite. However, everyone reacts in different ways to bed bug bites. Some people may only notice a small, itchy spot, whereas others develop painful red welts.
17) Do Bed Bug Bite Marks Always Appear in Threes?
One of the most common bed bug myths is that their bite marks always occur in threes. The pattern is commonly referred to as “breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
This is not true. Bed bugs don’t have three blood meals at a time. According to research in Medical and Veterinary Entomology, bed bugs have one meal every 2.5 days on average.
There are only two reasons why a bed bug might bite more than once:
- It wasn’t able to find a suitable capillary to drink from the first time, or
- It was disturbed during its feed (for example, if you roll over) and had to start again.
Bed bug bites can occur on their own, in clusters, or in lines. You may only have one single bite from one bug, or many bites if you have a larger infestation. While bite marks do sometimes appear in groups of three, it’s not by any means the standard.
18) Does Insect Repellent Work on Bed Bugs?
Insect repellent spray is an excellent tool for keeping away mosquitos, chiggers, and ticks. For this reason, many people assume that it’s also effective on bed bugs. But is it?
A study published in the Journal of Economic Entomology looked into the repellency of certain chemicals against bed bugs. They found that Picaridin and Permethrin (common ingredients in commercial insect repellents) have “little repellency against bed bugs.” However, they did find that DEET (the most commonly used repellent) did have some effect. A concentration of 10% repelled more than 94% of bed bugs for 9 hours.
Bear in mind, though, that using DEET won’t put them off forever. Eventually, they will get hungry enough to bite you despite the repellent spray. And, of course, DEET will not kill bed bugs.
19) Are Pesticides the Best Way to Get Rid of Bed Bugs?
Pesticides (or insecticides) are a great way to get rid of invasive bugs that may take up residence inside your home. And there are, of course, various chemical and natural insecticides designed to kill bed bugs. So, many people assume that pesticides are a surefire way to deal with an infestation.
However, contact killers (substances that only kill bed bugs by direct interaction) are not able to get rid of bed bugs on their own. Bed bugs (and eggs) can easily hide in tiny cracks and inside walls. Furthermore, bed bugs are quickly becoming resistant to the most popular pesticides, according to the Journal of Medical Entomology. Therefore, pesticides are best used in conjunction with other methods (such as heat treatment).
20) Are Bed Bug Infestations Rare?
To finish with, let’s look at one of the most dangerous bed bug myths of all: bed bugs are rare. According to Current Research in Entomology, bed bugs were indeed quite rare in the US between 1940 and 1980. However, that has all changed recently. The bed bug population has been increasing rapidly since 2004. They are now considered an “epidemic” in the United States.
As we’ve previously discussed, bed bugs can affect anyone, anywhere, at any time. They can infest your home via a neighboring apartment, be delivered by a visiting friend or picked up at a hotel. And once they’ve established themselves, they’re extremely hard to get rid of.
Knowing your enemy forms a large part of the battle with these persistent little critters. With the help of persistence, diligence and perhaps a pest control expert, you’ll soon be well on your way to getting rid of your bed bugs.
1 thought on “20 Surprising Myths about Bed Bugs That You Need to Know”
I appreciate this article! It was thorough and also well-researched! Thank you
I’ve dealt with bed bugs for around 3 years (on and off). After the initial exposure, I would only see 2 in the span of that 3 years! 1.5 years apart! Their ninja factor is to be envied amongst the insect world.
I think it’s realistic to reason that while an infestation is incubating, seeing them in the light may be very unlikely. True, they may be drawn to certain times for obvious reasons (night! warmth/breath!), and it’s also true that light isn’t necessarily a hard-stop for them. However in my experience I don’t think it should be expected that they are easily visible just because they aren’t ‘technically’ averse to the light.