The first time I got bed bugs was in 2004. I was gobsmacked to learn that's what was biting me at night in my New York City apartment. I didn't realize they were an actual species; I thought "bed bug" was a catchall phrase for anything that might creep under the covers with you. Then I got them again in 2009—twice. I had to upend my entire apartment (and my life) to get rid of them. It wasn't easy. Bed bugs have been cozying up to us for a very long time. They know all our tricks.
I guess I got bitten by the bug in more ways than one, because as a science journalist I began to research these maddening creatures. The result was my book Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World, which took me from bed bug research labs to the front row of an Off-Off-Broadway bed bug rock opera to bat roosts in the Czech Republic.
Here are seven crazy facts I learned about these tiny bloodsucking parasites. They're full of surprises.
1. Bed Bugs May Pre-Date Modern Humans
The bed bug might seem like a recent scourge but, in reality, it is an ancient pest, and our history with it stretches back many millennia. In 2012, scientists from Charles University in the Czech Republic published a genetic analysis suggesting the bug’s origins may date back 245,000 years. If that number holds up—and if the date on modern humans holds up—that means the bed bug could be older than we are.
2. The Army Tried to Use Bed Bugs as Bloodhounds in the Vietnam War
In 1965, scientists at the Limited War Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland, tested bed bugs and seven other bloodsucking pests for use in the Vietnam War. These critters are capable of sniffing out a meal—i.e. a person—and the scientists wanted to exploit this ability to detect enemy Vietcong hiding in the jungle.
The researchers wanted to know two things: whether the bloodsuckers moved in an obvious and consistent way when they smelled a person, and whether that movement could be transformed into sound. For the bed bugs, the scientists built a contraption with piano wire connected to a phonograph pickup, which converted the wire’s vibrations to an electrical signal that could go to a speaker or headphones (kind of like an electric guitar). When the bugs smelled a person, they walked and tripped the wire, which sounded an audible alarm.
Ultimately, the army abandoned the project, and the beg bugs never saw any action.
3. Bed Bugs Have Traumatic Sex
Don't let those hearts mislead you. Bed bugs mate through an unusual process called traumatic insemination. Yes, you read that right. And yes, it’s traumatic. The male climbs on top of the female’s back and curves his abdomen around her body. At the end of his abdomen is a needle-like appendage, the equivalent of a bed bug penis. The male stabs the female in the belly and ejaculates directly into her body. His sperm make their way to her ovaries through the equivalent of her circulatory system.
To counteract the stabs, the female bed bug has evolved a protective organ called the spermalege, which is a collection of immune cells that help heal the wound and protect her from pathogens. The outside of the spermalege appears as a small notch in her exoskeleton, which helps her guide the male bed bug’s sharp penis so he hits the right spot every time.
4. Henry Miller Loved Bed Bugs
Henry Miller was no stranger to controversial topics or dirty words—in fact, he reveled in them. Miller’s work, especially the novel Tropic of Cancer, was famously and repeatedly banned for its explicit content. You know what other dirty thing he loved? The bed bug. The pest appears in seven of his most famous novels: Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, Black Spring, Sexus, Plexus, Nexus, and Moloch. As the writer George Wickes once said of Miller, “He was always a bottom dog in spirit, always an outsider, always—to use one of his favorite words—a bedbug.”
5. Bed Bugs Are Okay With Inbreeding
Incest is taboo in most human societies, and it usually isn’t too popular in nature, either. Not so with the bed bug. In 2012, a team of entomologists and population geneticists published research suggesting that a bed bug infestation may start from just a few individual bugs [PDF]—or even from a single mated female, whose offspring goes on to mate with one another. Inbreeding on a large scale typically leads to genetic bottlenecks—a dramatic decrease in the gene pool—that are associated with population crashes and even extinction. But the bed bug is still going strong, which means it either has an unusual tolerance for inbreeding or some unknown mechanism that protects against the practice’s more damaging affects.
6. People Try Nutty Methods for Killing Bed Bugs
Bed bugs have always driven us mad, and for millennia we’ve tried our best—and failed—to wipe them off the face of the planet (or at least out of our beds). The pharaohs cast spells against the pest, while the ancient Greeks tried to lure the bugs to other flesh by tying hare or stag feet to their beds. In the 1800s and 1900s, we used dangerous sprays made of arsenic or mercury and fumigants including cyanide gas. We also tried baseball bats, gunpowder, blowtorches, gasoline, and, according to one recommendation from the late 18th century book The Complete Vermin-Killer, washing bed frames with wormwood and hellebore boiled in a “proper quantity of Urine.”
We finally caught a break after World War II and the advent of DDT and other modern synthetic insecticides, rendering the bed bug relatively rare for some five decades. The pest surged back 15 years ago and hasn’t let up since. Once again, we're resorting to desperate measures. In recent years, bed bug victims looking to save a few bucks have tried bypassing the exterminator and killing the bugs themselves. In the worse-case scenarios, these DIYers have set fire to their homes and cars, and one man set off so many bug bombs in his home it contributed to his wife’s death.
7. Bed Bug Infestations Are In All 50 U.S. States (And Beyond)
Bed bugs are in every state of the U.S. (yes, even Hawaii and Alaska, though they aren’t pictured here). According to a 2013 industry survey, 99 percent of American pest controllers treated for bed bugs over the previous year, up from 95 percent in 2010, 25 percent over the previous decade, and 11 percent beyond that. The bugs have surged worldwide, too, popping up with increasing frequency in Australia, Europe, and parts of Asia.