Bed bugs: humans’ most formidable predator

Whoever said that humans sit atop the food chain never experienced bed bugs. Once established in a dwelling, they are hard — and expensive — to expel. Meanwhile, these little vampires will bite like their lives depend on it…and they do, despite the fact that they can live a year without feeding at all. Still, these annoying and prolific insects have been at it for millennia, taking up residence, laying eggs and sucking blood. The old, repeated exhortation, “Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite,” is erroneous. If bed bugs are there, we have little control over their behavior.

So when did these awful pests start biting? Entymologists — insect studiers — believe they added human blood to their menu about 10,000 years ago. Long-time connoisseurs of warm-blooded wildlife, the bugs discovered that homo sapiens had less hair (often none) to work through before arriving at the point of service. Furthermore, scientists posit, the bedding humans used at this time was topped with animal skins, perfect refuges for hiding and encampment. It has been a one-way love affair ever since. Believe it or not, there are actually bed bug fossils in Egypt, dating back to over 3,500 years ago. This should not be a huge surprise since ancient Greek and Roman writings also reference these miniscule bloodsuckers. Aristophanes mentions them living in a couch in The Clouds (423 BCE) while Pliny the Elder praises them for their leech-like ability to heal circulatory diseases.

Although we may be tempted to associate bed bugs with dirty or unsanitary environments, they can in reality be found wherever humans dwell. Unlike cockroaches, they are not attracted to garbage or rotting food. They have one aim and interest…and it runs red. Infamous hitchhikers, bed bugs can hop from one person to another — in a mall, on the train, at school or at work. Flat and tiny, they are found embedded in library books and hard copy files. Some entymologists believe they worked their way across the U.S. in the suitcases of traveling salesmen, infesting roadside inns and motels along the way. When the peddlers returned home, they brought the nearly invisible carnivores, with insectile offspring in tow, with them. Once ensconced, the vermin proceed to feast and have babies.

So, how did this exhortation about sleeping tight and warding off bed bugs become so ubiquitous? Some speculation rests on bed construction in the 1700s and 1800s. Prior to the boxspring, beds were held together by ropes. The tighter the ropes, the firmer the mattress. Other theories rest on the snugness of one’s pajamas. More probable is that the word usage of “tight” implied sleeping well or soundly. The part about bed bugs may well come from literature: Emma Newton’s Boscobel: The Novel has a nurse soothing children with “Good night, sleep tight. And don’t let the buggers bite.” Two 19th-century New England authors make similar quotes, this time specifying bed bugs.

If only the bed bugs would cooperate.