The Bed Bug Life Cycle Up Close and Personal

small lice

"Sleep tight! Don't let the bed bugs bite!" When you were little, do you remember your parents saying that as they tucked you into bed at night? You probably thought bed bugs were silly, made up creatures like monsters hiding under the bed or in your closet. Unfortunately, you were wrong. Bed beds are in fact real, and they spread like wildfire if not taken care of immediately. In order to "beat the bites," read on to learn more about what bed bugs are, how to detect them, the bed bug life cycle, and a bed bug's history.

What Is a Bed Bug?

Before getting into the intricate details of the bed bug life cycle, it's important to understand the basics first. A bed bug is a type of insect and parasite that feeds on human blood in order to grow and reproduce, especially at night. Bed bugs live closest to where people sleep, sit, or rest for longer periods of time. Because they are nocturnal in nature, they generally hide during the day.

What Do Bed Bugs Look Like?

In order to detect bed bugs, it's also helpful to understand what they look like. They are usually light to reddish brown in color, flat, oval in shape, and do not have hind wings unlike many other insects. The front wings, on the other hand, are pad-like. An adult bed bug is about 4 to 5 millimeters long, and 1.5 to 3 millimeters wide.

How Do Bed Bugs Spread?

Bed bugs spread in the same way as lice. Rather than a lack of hygiene, bed bugs are typically spread through hitching a ride on the personal items of the person they feed upon. They love to spread through areas like:

  • A person's clothing or luggage, especially in areas where eggs and families of insects have been dwelling
  • Beds, couches, or chairs
  • Backpacks
  • Vehicles
  • Bedside clutter
  • Outlets
  • Cracks of ceilings
  • On wild animals, such as bats or birds, that also contain other species of parasites
  • Crowded places such as entertainment venues or lodging areas such as hotels and apartments
  • On public transportation, especially air travel

How to Prevent Bed Bugs From Spreading

To prevent the spread of bed bugs, a general rule of thumb is to take precautions while traveling. Some of these preventative measures include:

  • Checking shoes before leaving the site
  • Changing clothes outside before entering the site
  • Placing worn clothes in a closed dryer outside the site
  • Placing a suitcase in the tub
  • Vacuuming home beds at least once a month
  • Check over plane seats and public transportation seats before sitting
  • Checking hotel rooms carefully before bringing luggage in

How to Diagnose Bed Bugs

Before diagnosing bed bugs, it's crucial to check over the skin and potentially infested area. In other words, the person's symptoms must be evaluated. Some common bed bug symptoms include:

  • Small, round blotches that are red in color
  • Itching
  • Blotches that form in a line
  • Bite marks primarily on the arms, shoulders, and legs
  • A rash

More severe symptoms may include:

  • Insomnia and an obsession with bed bug infestation
  • Anemia due to excessive blood loss
  • Bacterial skin infection from scratching
  • Systemic poisoning

If some of these symptoms are present, it's possible that you have a bed bug problem on your hands. Another key way to diagnose is by investigating the potentially infested area. For example, checking over the bed or couch for reddish bugs or stains is one method.

Another method is by looking over the bites. If any bites are present, bed bugs will classically formulate a straight line of bites. Bed bugs rarely bite in the armpits or behind the knees, so that is another way to differentiate between different insect bites. Lastly, if there is a pungent, sweet odor emanating from the bed or infested area, that is another key sign.

How to Treat Bed Bugs

Most of the time, if a person has been bitten the rash will resolve itself within a couple of weeks as long as the person is not repeatedly bitten. Even though antihistamines and corticosteroids can speed up the treatment process and reduce itching, if the bed bugs are not removed from the site, the issue will only continue.

Luckily, there are precautions you can take on your own before calling an exterminator. Some of these methods include:

  • Locating the bed bug site and vacuuming
  • Applying heat to the infested area
  • Wrapping and suffocating the infested item with a plastic bag

After trying out the above methods, it's a smart idea to call an exterminator rather than using over the counter insecticides or sprays on your own. You can be confident that a professional will use the highest quality products and develop a treatment plan specific to your needs.

Is It Difficult to Detect Bed Bugs?

bed with white pillows and blanket

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You're also probably wondering about the difficulty level of detecting bed bugs. There are a few pieces of information to keep in mind. First of all, bed bugs usually do not ride solo. Even though they have the ability to do so, they tend to congregate. Another interesting fact is that one, single bed bug will feed, and then relocate to a place close to its known host, such as the bed spring or a pile of clothing. This means it's usually easy to find them in beds or electrical outlets.

The Bed Bug Life Cycle

Now that you understand a bit more about bed bugs overall, understand the bed bug life cycle and what all of that entails.

Stage 1: The Egg

Stage 2: Nymphs

Stage 3: Nymph #2

Stage 4: Nymph #3

Stage 5: Nymph #4

Stage 6: Nymph #5

Stage 7: Adult

How Quickly Do Bed Bugs Breed?

In general, female bed bugs will lay about 1 to 5 eggs on a daily basis. It takes about 2 weeks for those eggs to hatch, and after that first stage nymphs will begin biting and feeding on blood immediately. Remember: it takes about 5 weeks for a first stage nymph to mature into an adult, so within 2 to 3 months, there could be a massive population on your hands. That means you could have thousands of bed bugs in just 6 months. This is why it's incredibly important to get rid of bed bugs as soon as possible.

How Often Do Bed Bugs Feed?

Here's the short answer to this question: bed bugs will feed on blood about once a week. How often you notice them depends on the size of the infestation. It's also important to know that bed bugs are not going to die if you leave for vacation for a couple of weeks. In fact, bed bugs can go without feeding for months.

Because bed bugs are so small, it only takes about 5 minutes for them to get a full meal after an initial feeding. Similar to a mosquito bite, you may not even feel the bite, especially while you are asleep.

Interesting Facts About Bed Bugs

After learning everything there is to know about the bed bug life cycle, maybe you're interested in even more details. For example, what is their history, and where do they come from?

Epidemiology of Bed Bugs

Unfortunately, bed bugs are found virtually everywhere, and they have been around for much longer than they have been reported. Before the 1950's, about 30% of houses in the United States alone had bed bugs. While this number decreased in the United States from 1950 to 1980, bed bugs have increased in both the United States and developing countries since the 1980's. Why? Increased foreign travel, immigration, and stricter rules about pesticide use all play a role.

The frequent selling and exchanging of used furniture, used clothing, and other used items around the home contributes to bed bug issues. Other causes to the bed bug population increasing include:

  • A greater focus on other insects and pests for years
  • Bedbug resistance to insecticides over the years
  • Lower cockroach populations, since cockroaches are known to reduce bed bug infestations
  • Bans on the most effective pesticides, such as DDT

According to the U.S. National Pest Management Association, there has been a 71% increase in bed bug calls between 2000 and 2005. In larger cities with crowded conditions and high immigration rates, such as New York City, the bed bug population significantly increased from 500 incidents in 2004 to 10,000 by 2009. By 2013, Chicago was reported as the number one city for bed bug infestations. Currently Ohio holds the dubious honor of most bed-bug infested state.

Bed Bugs - A History

Cimicidae - the ancestor of bed bugs - first emerged approximately 115 million years ago. The reason that bed bugs are associated with bats and birds is because they were the bed bug's first hosts.

Interestingly, bed bugs were thought to have medicinal value as early as 400 BC in Rome, which is obviously different from how we see them today! For many years, bed bugs were used to treat ailments such as snake bites, ear infections, and by the 18th century, hysteria.

Apparently, bed bugs were a positive force in many parts of the world back in the 18th century. In London, for instance, people believed that bed bugs were brought in with supplies of wood to rebuild the city after the Great Fire of London occurred in 1666. Today, insecticides and pesticides are used to kill bed bugs. Back then, more traditional, natural methods were used, such as black pepper.


As you can see, the life cycle of the bed bugs biting you began long before you noticed them. On the plus side, the wealth of information we have about bed bugs today can help us understand more about the bed bug life cycle and how to best get rid of them.

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