Last updated 7/8/2013
What bed bugs (or bedbugs) look like depends partly on their life stage and whether they’ve just had a blood meal or not. You need to know that the adults are about the size of an apple seed, and the youngest nymphs can be the size of a speck of dirt. In other words, very difficult to see. The unfed nymphs are light-colored, whereas a bed bug that has fed will be red, rust, or brown in color. Here is a photo of a colony of bed bugs of various stages. Here is our gallery of photos of bed bugs and signs of bed bugs.
They also hide well. They can be very thin (like a piece of paper) and can slip into cracks. They may be hiding in places you do not think anything can get into. Though they prefer to feed late at night (around 3-5 am seems to be ideal), they may bite you without your knowledge, during the night or day, in bed or while you sit in a chair or on a sofa. You can be bitten for months and months without seeing an actual bug dead or alive. Bed bug bites can’t be diagnosed from looking at your skin, since bed bug bites can look like several other conditions–and they don’t look the same on everyone. Our bed bug bites photos page gives you some idea of the variations. (More on some of the other conditions you might have instead are below.)
Here is a photo used with permission from Stephen L. Doggett, Senior Hospital Scientist in the Department of Medical Entomology at the University of Sydney and Westmead Hospital. This is their bed bug site. He’s also the principle author or the Code of Practice for the Control of Bed Bug Infestations in Australia, which can be downloaded from the same site. We thank Stephen L. Doggett for giving us permission to post this helpful photo!
Where can I learn more?
This is a highly informative PowerPoint presentation by Harold Harlan, a well-known bed bug researcher. You will be able to gain a lot from it even though it is obviously meant to accompany a presentation. This PDF of a Powerpoint lecture by Harold Harlan (“Bed Bug Biology and Behavior,” April 2012) is highly informative (click to view PDF on NPMA website).
These are some links to Bed Bug Fact Sheets from university extension services and entomology departments:
Other things that might be bothering you
Bed bugs are rapidly spreading right now, but these other closely related species may also be the source of your woes:
Bat Bugs (Wikipedia entry with photo). More bat, bird, rat bug information to come when we find it.
Less closely related are bird mites (U of Sydney page on bird mites) and CDC page on scabies. Many of us are erroneously treated for scabies in the first instance; doctors can test for scabies and you should get them to do this before treatment if at all possible. You’ll be praying it’s scabies anyway, and hey, if you’re lucky, you’ll be right. (I wasn’t.)
It’s worth ruling out fleas (yes, even if you don’t have pets!) This Bedbugger.com FAQ on fleas explains how to detect fleas and gives helpful DIY trap and treatment ideas from some of our pest experts.
This PDF from the University of Kentucky outlines a number of insect and non-insect causes for “invisible itches”. Click to load PDF.
Non-insect causes include: allergies to cosmetics, animals, chemicals of all kinds may cause similar symptoms. There will, obviously, be no bed bug feces, bugs, or cast of shells in this case. See dermatologist and/or allergist.
Hot-tub folliculitis: apparently time in a hot tub can lead to a special bacterial infection that also looks a bit like these other conditions. Again, see your doctor.
Delusional Parasitosis (a.k.a. Ekbom’s Syndrome) is a condition in which people think that insects are crawling on them and biting them, when they are not. Although this American Entomologist article by Nancy C. Hinkle is entitled “Delusory Parasitosis” (click here to load a PDF), it also outlines how very real environmental, physical, and other conditions can cause similar symptoms to a bed bug infestation, including itching, crawling sensations (formication), skin conditions and rashes. While it is true that people are occasionally mistakenly diagnosed with Delusory Parasitosis (and later discover their symptoms to have been caused by bed bugs or another cause), it is a common condition.
If you think you have bed bugs but have not got a bed bug specimen, you should take steps to verify whether you do have bed bugs or another medical, pharmaceutical, or environmental cause. Use monitors (see below) to rule out fleas and detect evidence of bed bugs.
Enlist the help of PCOs and entomologists in identifying any insects or cast-off shells you find. You should at the very least see some bed bug feces (which can appear as small black specks or sometimes stains on the bed). You can post photos of suspected bed bugs, cast skins, eggs, or fecal stains in our forums for an expert to have a look.
Experienced PCOs can often identify the presence of bed bugs by such evidence. In the absence of any bed bug evidence, be persistent about seeing your physician and preferably a dermatologist as well, until someone is able to help you.
Many varieties of bed bug monitors are available now to help you (or your pest management professional) determine if you have bed bugs.
Active monitors actively attract bed bugs using Co2, heat, pheromones, or kairomones.
However, those options were quite costly. There are now much less expensive active monitors which still work to attract and trap bed bugs, for detection purposes.
“Detecting Bed Bugs Using Bed Bug Monitors,” written by Changlu Wang, outlines options for detecting bed bugs, including instructions on how to implement a DIY dry ice monitor Wang’s office developed. You can download it for free from the Rutgers website. Keep in mind, the dry ice monitor requires a certain level of knowledge (in handling dry ice) and dry ice can be costly and difficult to obtain. Forum user NewBlood found this monitor would cost him $140 a week to run, since in his area, dry ice could only be bought in 10 lb. blocks (at $20 a pop), which would sublime in 24 hours, needing daily replacement.
Luckily, in March 2010, a brand new active bed bug monitor debuted, one which uses C02 like the dry ice DIY monitor mentioned above, but which is much easier to assemble and run, using refillable C02 pellets instead of dry ice. The Bed Bug Beacon, designed by David James (who also invented the Packtite and Bed Bug Blue) is also priced under $50, and you can refill the pellets cheaply for longer or repeated use. You can read more about the Bed Bug Beacon or purchase it from US Bed Bugs, with free shipping.
You or your PCO may also decide to employ a passive monitor(like Packtite Passive/BBAlert Passive) or pitfall/interceptor bed bug monitor (such as ClimbUp Insect Interceptors or BlackOut Bed Bug Detectors).
Climbup (TM) Interceptors and BlackOut Bed Bug Detectors are designed to catch bed bugs which leave or climb onto the piece of furniture. You place disks under the legs of beds, sofas, chairs, etc. You can get a set of four ClimbUps for under $22, or a dozen for under $60; a dozen BlackOuts run about $50. (Make sure you get one for every leg of the item you want to use them with.)
They can be a helpful detection device in many cases. And they are great for people who don’t have bed bugs yet, as they would detect bed bugs which come in to feed on you via attached apartments or houses. Note some complaints have come from people using the ClimbUps brand on thick carpeting, which may cause them to crack more easily.
If you want something to trap bed bugs climbing onto or off of the bed, but the ClimbUp Interceptor does not suit the design of your bed legs, the Bed Bug Barrier may be another option. (We’re still waiting for more feedback on those from users.)
David Cain of bed-bugs.co.uk has designed a passive bed bug monitor which is now being marketed as the Packtite Passive (in North America) and BBAlert Passive (in the rest of the world). It is designed to be attached to various types of beds and serves as an attractive harborage for bed bugs. When bed bugs harbor there, you should soon find fecal traces, cast skins, or even bed bugs upon routine inspection of the monitor. It can then be removed and placed in a sealed bag to be shown to a pest professional, landlord, etc. Read all about the Packtite Passive/BBAlert Passive and watch an informative video from the manufacturer here, or purchase the Packtite Passive Bed Bug Monitor from US Bed Bugs.
Finally, canine scent detection dogs are now being trained to sniff out bed bugs. Canine scent detection can be an effective option. They are not 100% effective, but can be better than a human visual search. It is crucial to understand that training methods vary. Ask if your canine dog handler will carefully search for a bed bug or egg in the vicinity after a dog alerts. Otherwise, you have no way of verifying whether you might have a false positive.
If you are looking for a canine scent detection unit, please read our bed bug sniffing dog FAQ first, and come to the forums if you want to discuss dogs further; keep in mind that competing schools of dog training may have different perspectives, but that bedbuggers who have hired dogs in your area may be able to make suggestions about reputable firms.
A new product (released 2012) called Bed Bug Blue (from the makers of Packtite and the Bed Bug Beacon active monitor) may help you test suspected fecal stains to help determine if you have bed bugs. Read this FAQ for more on Bed Bug Blue. Or view or purchase this product on US Bed Bugs.
You may also find these FAQs useful in trying to figure out if you have bed bugs:
What are different types of bed bug monitors? How can they help confirm the presence of bed bugs?
What do bed bugs and signs of bed bugs look like? Where can I see photos of bed bugs, bed bug eggs, cast skins, and fecal specks?
Last updated 11/2012