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The Origins of Bed Bugs

Bed bugs are no doubt one of the most reviled pests in the country, and in North Carolina, they are a major nuisance; in fact, Charlotte, Greenville, Greensboro, and Raleigh all ranked in the top 25 for worst bed bug cities in the country in 2020. But one big underlying question is this: where do bed bugs come from in the first place? Any readers over 35 can probably remember a time when bed bugs were a rare thing for households to deal with, so why have they become pervasive in recent years? We have some answers. 

Bed Bugs in Ancient Times 

According to the Entomological Society of America (ESOA), experts believe that the bugs first

parasitized bats and then moved to humans inhabiting the same caves in the Mediterranean region. Relations between bed bugs and people were probably intermittent because hunters and herdsmen moved frequently. Life for hosts and parasites became easier with the formation of villages and cities, making it simpler for infestations to become established. 

Bed bugs were mentioned in Ancient Greece as early as 400BC, and have a history tracing back to ancient Egypt. Bed bugs were even written about by famous Greek philosopher Aristotle! In this early period, many ancient civilizations believed that bed bugs had medicinal benefits: for example, a bed bug “cocktail” was believed to be a cure for snakebite, and the ancients believed bed bugs could cure many diseases when ingested with wine, beans, or eggs.

Bed Bugs in the 20th Century 

Jump forward a few thousand years, and the bed bug situation becomes worse…and then considerably better. With the advent of more comprehensive home heating starting in the early 1900s, bed bugs were able to remain active essentially year-round. No longer tied to the climate cycles of the great outdoors, bed bugs had no need to enter a quasi-hibernation state for much of the winter, which allowed them to reproduce much more rapidly and further encouraged their entry into homes. Because of this, it is estimated that bed bugs were present in approximately ⅓ of all households in major European cities between the 1930s and 1940s, with London at a number close to ½ of all households. The issue was compounded by the World Wars, which led to increased amounts of travel across the globe.

So what happened? With bed bugs becoming a larger and larger problem, scientists got to work on developing a treatment that could stop bed bugs in their tracks — and they discovered one. In 1939, a Swiss scientist discovered that DDT, an obscure compound originally synthesized in the 1800s, was extremely effective at killing bed bugs. Five years after the large public rollout of DDT (which included integrating DDT into paint and wallpaper, and the public release of DDT “bombs”) there were so few bed bugs remaining that, according to the ESOA, “…it became difficult to find populations of bed bugs on which to do further research.”

Bed Bugs Today

So how did bed bugs have such a huge resurgence? There are a few factors at play. For one, bed bugs seem especially adept at building resistance to pesticides, and insects, in general, seem to build up resistance to DDT relatively quickly. In short, DDT rather quickly became an ineffective insecticide for treating bed bugs. An alternative called malathion was used in the 60s and 70s, but bed bugs also ultimately developed resistance to this insecticide as well. 

According to journalist Brooke Borel, these pesticide-resistant bed bugs likely began to spread across the world because of the huge boom in airline travel accessibility that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s; with more people traveling internationally, bed bugs were able to travel with them, and that included those that had become resistant to common pesticides. These sort of super bed bugs then set up shop in homes, hotels, theaters, and hospitals across the globe, and began reproducing. Over time, with limited pesticide options and ever-increasing travel, this has caused the bed bug problem in the United States and abroad to explode. 

Getting Rid of Bed Bugs

Ok, so it seems pretty clear that pesticides are not a long-term solution. So what is? According to our earlier cited bed bug bud Brooke Borel, the best treatment currently on the market to get rid of bed bugs is heat treatment. Luckily, dear reader, that’s exactly what City Wide Exterminating provides for fighting bed bugs. As we put it bed bug heat treatments essentially turn your home into one large oven, turning the heat up in a household to a level that incinerates bed bugs and their eggs. This is one treatment that it seems bed bugs cannot become resistant to. Visit our bed bug treatment page to learn more about our heat treatment process, and if you’re having a bed bug problem (or any other pest problem, for that matter) don’t hesitate to reach out!

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