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In the 5th century BC, in Greece, writers lamented the issues of dealing with the nighttime predation of blood-sucking insects, introduced following early invasions of the Persian army. Bed bugs are also recorded in ancient Egypt, and in the early Roman Republic, where writers described them as “sofa bugs” and advocating burning any infested articles.
Other, varied solutions for dealing with bed bugs ranged from seemingly sensible, to what might strike us in the modern day as incredible. Some ancient writers believed that bed bugs could be tamed, as with other, much larger animals. Fungi, various plant-based oils, and even concoctions made from insect parts were all applied to the problem, with varying (but generally little) success.
The use of essential oils from plants which demonstrably resisted insect predation, such as mint and clove, were the most successful methods of fighting bed bugs in ancient times. Unfortunately, these and many other traditional folk remedies were largely forgotten about with the development of modern pesticides.
Bed bugs, unlike ticks, are actually insects. Specifically, they are parasitic insects belonging to the Cimicid family. They feed exclusively on blood, being one of many species within the Cimicid family to do so. The common bed bug’s scientific classification is Cimex Lectularius, and it is distinctive from other species within its family due to its preference for human blood.
Many Cimex Lectularius are incapable of deriving all of their nutrition from other forms of blood, having adapted quite thoroughly to feeding off of humans, much as their precursors fed off of the bats with which we shared our caves (or who shared their caves with us) thousands of years ago.
After evolving to feed on humans, some early bed bugs left the caves when we did, and joined up unknowingly with trade caravans and waves of human migration. They reached China around the same time that they reached Greece, in the last few centuries BC. From there, they west across Europe, then went north.
They’ve been recorded in England since the early Middle Ages, and are believed to have come to America with the Pilgrims on board the Mayflower. From the northeastern US, they spread rapidly south, reaching South America before also arriving at the west coast in the company of trappers and fur traders.
Victims of bed bug bites usually experience itchy, sometimes painful rashes, which may also involve large and highly visible welts. In rare cases, the anesthetic and anticoagulant in bed bug saliva can lead to an allergic reaction, resulting in a more severe range of problems. Because bed bugs are tiny and difficult to spot, particularly if they haven’t fed recently, these rashes are one of the earliest visible signs of a bed bug infestation.
Bed bugs grow to be approximately 4 mm in length, and will be half to two-thirds as wide. Their young can be as little as half that size, and will be a pale brown, white, or yellowish color. Adult bed bugs are red, reddish-brown, yellowish-brown, or dark brown. Both adults and nymphs will turn darker, and become large and sluggish, after they have fed.
These unwanted houseguests inject a chemical, a modified saliva, when they bite. This combines an anesthetic, or painkiller, with an anticoagulant, which thins the blood and makes it less prone to clotting. The amount injected isn’t enough to cause serious harm to a person, although individuals with an existing heart or blood condition may be at some risk from large numbers of bites (studies aren’t clear on that point).
The reason for the anticoagulant is that bed bugs find the thinner blood easier to feed on, as well as to digest. Having eaten, bed bugs become sluggish, and will often spend some time remaining where they’re at to digest their meals.
Bed bugs will also defecate, breed, and lay eggs in the vicinity of a sleeping individual on whom they have just fed, unless there is some immediate threat to their safety. For this reason, another early sign of bed bug infestation is what they leave behind on the mattress: eggs, and egg husks, as well as tiny little black spots—bed bug offal—the size of the head of a pin.
A restless sleeper might roll over, inadvertently crushing bed bugs which have recently fed, leaving blood spots on their sheets and mattress which are often mistaken for their having bled after being fed upon. In fact, the anticoagulant is so mild as to wear off almost immediately after feeding has ended.
For more information on how to recognize bed bugs, what myths to ignore, and how to kill bed bugs, please consider the following links to other pages on this site. If you suspect you might have a bed bug problem, take action immediately—before their colony gets any bigger!