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October 12, 2016

Infrequently Asked Questions: Why have bed bugs seen such a resurgence?

Infrequently Asked Questions Science
Infrequently Asked Questions: Bed Bugs PhillyVoice

We were going to run a stock image of a bed bug but you know what? They're gross. Google it if you gotta. Instead, let's enjoy this plush bed bug from

While Philadelphia is blessed to constantly land on “Best of” lists for restaurants and biking and all that, it also consistently finds itself on one other not-so-desirable list: Worst cities for bed bug infestations.

But it’s not just us. Bed bugs are everywhere. So hot right now.

To better understand why the U.S. as a whole seems so plagued by bed bugs these past few years — most of us can remember a time when they’d disappeared — we reached out to Greg Cowper, curatorial assistant in the Drexel University Academy of Natural Sciences‘ entomology department, for an explanation.

Do you know where bed bugs originate from?

The first recorded evidence of insects is about 400 million years ago; dinosaurs about 230 million years ago; and, humans, about two million years ago. Bed-bug-like insects parasitized bats that lived in caves, and when our human ancestors began inhabiting these same caves, these parasites moved to humans as their hosts. As civilizations spread, so did bed bugs. The ancient Greeks and Romans wrote about bed bugs. By the late 1500s, they were known from England, and the European colonists brought them to the New World by the 1700s.

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Why’d they get the name ‘bed bug’? It’s almost deceivingly cutesy, considering they’re parasites.

The scientific name of the common bed bug is Cimex lectularius: ’cimex’ means bug, ‘lectulus’ means couch or bed. Although bed bugs feed at opportunistic times throughout the day, they are primarily nocturnal. Being active at night corresponds to when we are inactive; when we are sleeping. Bed bugs can be found in other living areas of our homes, but they primarily live in our bedrooms between the mattress and the box springs of our beds, behind the headboard, in night tables and behind pictures where they wait to prey on sleeping victims at night. Thus, ‘bed bug.’

When were they most actively seen in the United States?

By the 20th century, bed bugs were well established in the U.S. affecting all stratum of society. In lower-income areas, they were considered Public Enemy No. 1, but some surveys showed at least one-third of residences in some cities were infested.

What’s with the resurgence in recent years? I seem to recall there being huge media hype over it circa 2010, but then it all sort of tapered off and turned from panic to the new normal. And it’s a scary new normal. Are they sticking around?

By the mid-20th-century, bed bugs were all but gone from the developed world. The resurgence began in the 1990s and continues to the present. DDT had been very effective in controlling insect pests including bed bugs but was banned in 1972 for environmental, ecological and health and safety concerns. In addition to the loss of this pesticide, globalization, cheap airfare to anywhere in the world, urbanization and population density have all contributed to the resurgence of bed bugs.

So is there a particular region you’re more likely to find them in, or they’re pretty much everywhere now?

Bed bugs reside worldwide and their resurgence has been documented in most world centers.

Has there been any progress toward creating an insecticide that better exterminates them? And how can people keep them out?

I’m not familiar with the current research on insecticides. The professionals I come in contact with advocate mechanical remedies such as cleaning up clutter, vacuuming, running suspect clothes through the dryer at high heat, sealing mattresses and bed springs in plastic enclosures, treating infested room spaces with heat above the threshold that bed bug eggs, nymphs and adults can survive (about 120 degrees Fahrenheit), taking care in purchasing secondhand furniture and vigilance when traveling. For example, checking mattresses, sheets, behind headboards, etc., in your hotel room. You can even store your suitcase in the bathtub where bed bugs can’t climb.

What are some best practices to keep them out? And does having a pet help or hinder your bed bug situation?

Pets are, of course, warm-blooded. And warm-blooded animals are what bed bugs prey on, so dogs and cats could, therefore, be at risk. Bed bugs don’t have the structural adaptations to cling to fur — or human hair, for that matter. They can be transported in one’s clothes but they don’t stay on our bodies. They feed for a few minutes and then move away to their hide spaces. Bed bugs can’t fly either.