The blood-sucking insects known as bedbugs have plagued us for a millennium. Seventy years ago, we thought we had them beat. Now the pests are back, and they're stronger than ever.
It is early in the morning, and you wake up to find a row of red bumps running down your arm. They weren’t there last night, and they itch. Badly. Mosquitoes? Fleas? An allergic reaction to laundry detergent? No, the culprit is bedbugs.
In the past 20 years, and especially since the turn of the millennium, scenarios like this have become increasingly common worldwide, especially in urban areas. The pests are not limited to dilapidated apartments. They also live in shiny new condominiums and sleep in five-star hotels. No one knows for sure why bedbug populations have surged in recent years. Some blame globalization and international travel. Others, a lack of public awareness about the pests. Still others, the ban on the insecticide DDT.
Whatever the reason, bedbugs have caused havoc in cities worldwide. Is there any way to combat this nocturnal menace?
Know Your Enemy
Humans and bedbugs have had a long, intimate, but not especially affectionate relationship. Most entomologists believe bedbugs began preying on prehistoric cave-dwellers and followed human populations as they moved from caves to man-made structures.
There are about 75 species of bedbugs, and all of them feed on blood. Of those 75, just two regularly prey on humans: Cimex hemipterus, the tropical bedbug, and C. lectularius, the common bedbug. (Other species prefer to feed on birds and bats.) The latter is the one most often found in Europe and the U.S. Adults are reddish or dark brown and about one and a half times the size of a sesame seed. The insects are wingless and flat, allowing them to squeeze into the smallest cracks and crevices. When feeding, they plump up with blood.