Do these two words automatically make your body itch? Yep, even if you have never dealt with a bed bug yourself, you are probably quite familiar with the insect’s unpleasant features. What are bed bugs? Where did they originally come from? Are they constantly evolving?
As they say “always know your enemy”. And that’s exactly how you are going to feel after you read this article. Like you know everything about the history of bed bugs.
What are bed bugs? Bed bugs are insects that have a flattened body with a brownish color and can be around 3/16’’ long. These creatures suck on the blood of warm-blooded animals. Even though the insects prefer human blood, they can easily end up on other mammals (like cats or dogs, for example).
The most common bed bug is Cimex lecturlarius. The creatures can be mistaken for cockroaches, beetles, and ticks while they crawl over various surfaces. However, unlike a lot of other insects, bed bugs do not jump or fly.
The female bed bugs can lay hundreds of eggs during their lifetime. It will take only a week for the bed bug egg to hatch. ‘Baby’ bed bugs are called ‘nymphs’. These ones would need around a month to mature. During the time, the bed bugs will shed their skin about 5 times.
Of course, the creatures would need to eat in order to grow (and survive) but unfortunately, bed bugs can live up to a year in cold places without blood! Even if the building is warm, bed bugs can still survive for more than 2 months without sucking on someone.
Bed bugs prefer to live close to a place where they can get food. That’s exactly why the bed is the perfect home for these creatures. Their flattened bodies help the bugs get under mattresses, bed frames, and so on.
The insects prefer to hide during the day and be active at night.
Bed bugs do not form nests or anything like that but they like to stick together. That’s why you can easily find areas with dark stains and marks (the excrements) full of eggs, shed skins, and the actual insects.
Even though the bugs are tiny and you can’t really spot their eggs without magnification, you will be able to find the infested area according to the characteristics mentioned above.
Some say that there will be a special smell, in case the bed is infested. That is not necessarily true. In the most severe cases, there might be a strange odor present, but in all the other situations the chances are high that there won’t be any smell at all.
The Origins of Bed Bugs (These Insects Walked the Earth Together with Dinosaurs!)
Surprisingly, we don’t know a lot about bed bugs. Even though these creatures have been around for millions of years (!), we still fail to understand a lot of things about them. The origin of bed bugs is one of the mysteries.
Warren Booth from the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, USA, discovered that there are two lineages of bed bugs in Europe. With the help of genetics, the man found out that the lineages are so different that they can soon become different species!
A Brief Historical Moment
In the 1950s, we managed to get rid of bed bugs (well, at least most of them). That happened thanks to an extremely effective pesticide campaign. Several decades later, the bed bugs came back but this time the majority (90%) of these insects had a certain mutation that helps them deal with the insecticides that were used to get rid of them.
Knowing the origins of bed bugs won’t necessarily help us kill the creatures that infest our homes but with the help of science, we will at least have an idea of what to expect from these species in the future.
The answer could have lied in bats. It was assumed that bats were the first hosts of the exact bed bugs that later started attacking humans. But if that is true, why do we have two lineages (bat and human) of bed bugs today?
The team of Warren Booth studied bed bugs across Europe. They managed to find out that there are certain insects that prefer only bats and others like to suck blood from humans. Even though some bats lived in churches, for example, there was still no gene flow between the two bed bug lineages.
In fact, the two insects are so different that the offspring of those (when bred in laboratories) would become less fertile. Moreover, the bat lineage shows much more genetic diversity than the human bed bugs…
Well, it looks like we know quite a lot of facts about bed bugs already but the latest research show that it’s not exactly true…
A team of international scientists has proven that bed bugs…are much older than bats. Bed bugs evolved about 50 million years earlier than the creatures that we have thought were their first hosts but in order to survive, bed bugs need to suck on blood. So, who might have been the host of these creatures millions and millions of years ago?
Even though it looks like the bed bugs have been around since the dinosaurs walked our planet, the chances that these bugs sucked on the blood of dinosaurs are very low. Bed bugs prefer to find a host that has a home (just like humans with their beds or birds with nests, for example). Dinosaurs led a completely different lifestyle.
The History of Bed Bugs
Now we know for sure that wherever there were humans, there were bed bugs. The species might have originated from the caves in the Middle East. Those were inhabited by people and bats. However, as it has been proven that bed bugs are much older than people, the chances are that these insects originated from a completely different place.
The actual name of the species Cimex lecturlarius means ‘bug’ and ‘bed’ or ‘coach’. From that, we know that these creatures were already present in ancient Rome.
Scientists have managed to find fossilized bed bugs that date back further than 3.500 years. These insects weren’t new to our planet at that time. However, that is the earliest ‘proof’ of the bed bug’s existence that scientists have managed to discover (for now).
During that time, bed bugs were used…for various rituals. Some humans believed that these insects could be used in a potion to cure various diseases, while others cured snakebites. The bloodsucking properties of these insects were used right until the 18th century. Before that, Guettard even proposed to use the bugs to treat…hysteria.
Of course, with the growth of civilization (and population) the bugs would also multiply. There is evidence that by 100 A.D. bed bugs made it to the biggest cities in Italy; 600 A.D. – China; the 1200s – Germany and so on. Even Aristotle once mentioned bed bugs in one of his works.
Bed bugs always loved comfortable castles and poor people’s huts equally. The bed bugs were brought to America by early colonists. It looks like the Indian villages did not suffer from these bugs before the colonists came. In the early 1700s, there were severe infestations in the English colonies and Canada.
The sailing ships were full of bed bugs. The insects would attack the poor sailors when they tried to sleep at night. People started using arsenic, boiling water, and sulfur to get rid of the bed bugs. There is evidence that bed bugs have been present in Europe since the 11th century. They say that the insects could have been brought to England after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Various supplies were brought from abroad to rebuild the city.
Of course, there were always plenty of bugs on ships, in hotels, and on railroads. Experienced travelers would always move their beds from the walls and even immerse their legs in vessels with oil.
How Were Bed Bugs Treated Throughout History?
The insects don’t really care whether they live in the household of a rich or a poor person. Everyone has a bed and everyone has a fire of some sort to keep himself warm (and that’s pretty much everything that the bed bugs need).
However, in the middle of the 1800s, things changed a bit. The poorest parts of the cities were overcrowded and bed bugs became the most important public enemy. In the wealthiest households, bed bugs slowly started to disappear. The secret method that the rich would use is not a pesticide of some sort. It was…housekeeping.
The rich would emphasize the importance of cleaning. Of course, they simply wanted the house to look good but this method helped a lot with bed bugs as well. The maids were able to detect the infestations during the early stages (eggs and nymphs, for example). So, the housekeepers would get rid of the bed bugs before they could do any harm. Continuous cleaning, thorough examination, and extreme cleaning – that certainly is and always will be the best (and safest) remedy.
However, throughout the history of mankind, a lot of other methods of treatment were created. Fortunately, the majority will never be used again, as they are just as bad for humans as they are for bugs.
In the 1950s, for example, bed bugs actually…disappeared. Well, at least in the developed countries. All that, thanks to the introduction of DDT. This chemical was created in order to help people eliminate the populations of different bugs. You would have to spray (or dust) the thing all over the bed and the bed bugs would not come close to the place for a whole year.
Those insects that didn’t die from the chemical, would die of starvation. In 1972, it was no longer allowed to use DDT as a pesticide. It was bad for the insects but it could also potentially cause cancer in humans. Moreover, researchers thought that DDT could also harm wildlife (especially, birds).
No one knows for sure, whether bed bugs disappeared thanks to DDT or not. Some think that the situation changed once a vacuum cleaner appeared in practically every household, while others assume that bed bugs follow ‘living cycles’ and during the 1950s their time had simply come to an end.
Unfortunately, not that long ago, bed bugs returned to most of our homes. Even developed countries suffer. And the truth is that the number of infestations is increasing every single day. The chances are high that you will find plenty of bed bugs in hotels, hostels, prisons and shelters.
We now know that bed bugs can mutate and evolve. They became resistant to DDT and can do the same trick with practically every pesticide. What we certainly should do, is learn from our own mistakes. That means keeping our houses extremely clean, thoroughly checking the places where you need to stay (like hotels, for example), and treating the infestation as soon as possible, if you spot one. Make sure that the new clothes and furniture that you bring home are not infested (especially, if those are secondhand).
Are Bed Bugs an Exceptional Representation of…Evolution?
An international team of scientists worked for 15 years in order to find more answers to our questions about bed bugs.
The researchers confess that it’s relatively hard to study the creatures in their natural habitat. After all, no one wants his or her home to be turned into a laboratory. If you spot bed bugs, you want to get rid of them as soon as possible, right?
So, the scientists had to cooperate with exterminators. The latter would preserve some insects in alcohol and then ship the bed bugs to the laboratories. After that, the scientists focused on the DNA of the creatures to find the answers.
There were a few things that the team discovered that are pretty shocking.
For example, a new species of bed bugs emerge about every half a million years. Yep, the chances are high that a new species won’t conquer humans during your lifetime. But the growing number of people on our planet will become the perfect ‘feasting table’ for all sorts of bloodsucking creatures.
We already know that bed bugs can change hosts. But it doesn’t mean that once the species decides to switch its attention to bats, for example, it won’t be able to come back to humans, at one point. Bed bugs might not specialize in the new host when they decide to jump to it. Some prefer to maintain the ability to jump back to their old host (and that is a very smart evolutionary move).
We are certain that the bed bugs that suck human blood today are much older than people. That means that, initially, these pets had another host and then chose to jump to humans, at one point in history.
It is extremely important to study the evolution of bed bugs. Firstly, if we know the past, we can predict what to expect from these creatures. This knowledge will help scientists come up with better pesticides.
Secondly, the more we know about bed bugs, the more we find out about other insects. Soon, we will be able to understand how different insects became carriers of dangerous diseases, as well as how these pests evolved and started using different hosts.
Of course, the main aim of these studies is to help mankind prevent some diseases from being transmitted from insects to humans and to help us effectively control the number of insects our planet carries.
Will mankind win this battle? We will soon find out.
List of Sources
Booth W, Balvín O, Vargo E, Vilímová J, Schal C., Host Association Drives Genetic Divergence in the Bed Bug, Cimex Lectularius, University of Tulsa
Diseases & Conditions – Bedbugs, Mayo Clinic
EPA. (May 2010). Controlling Bed Bugs. Pesticides: Controlling Pests. (26 April 2017)