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Observations, factoids, funny clips, and lots of bugs and other nature related images.

11-Minute Read

Ok. So, normally I work remotely (in Michigan), but this past week I made a trip out to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to do some on-site work at my home institution. That means staying at a hotel while there. Due to my entomological profession, that also means going through my standard routine of pulling apart the bed before I feel comfortable unpacking anything. Why, you ask? Well to check for bed bugs of course!

Bed bugs are small parasitic blood sucking insects in the family Cimicidae. There are actually eight different species of bed bug found in North America, but only two regularly feed on humans. The other species are mostly found living with different types of birds and one species is a bat parasite. They all look super similar though, so the easiest way to identify what species it is, is to know where it came from. Did you find it in the chicken coop or a wild bird nest? Probably a bird bed bug. Did you find it in your bedroom or hotel? Yeah, bad sign. It’s probably a human bed bug.

The Common Bed Bug, Cimex lectularius

The Common Bed Bug, Cimex lectularius

Bed bugs are found around the world- anywhere humans may live. If you live in more temperate areas like me, the Common Bed Bug, Cimex lectularius, is the species you are most likely to encounter. Folks in tropical regions are more likely have to deal with the Tropical Bed Bug, Cimex hemipterus. The species name “lectularius” actually means “bed chamber” in Latin, while the name “Cimex” translates to “bug”. So for once the easy to say name is pretty much a direct translation of the scientific name. I’m not sure what “hemipterus” translates to, although its probably something obvious that I’ll think of right after I post this story. Isn’t that how it always works lol?

Global distribution map of the Common Bed Bug. Map produced by GBIF from museum records

Global distribution map of the Common Bed Bug.
Map produced by GBIF from museum records

Unlike other blood feeding insects like mosquitoes, both the female and the male bed bug feed on our blood. And they keep feeding all their lives – from when they first hatch through adulthood. Luckily bed bugs are one of the few parasitic species that aren’t currently known to transmit any diseases, although their bites can cause rashes or allergic skin reactions. Apparently, they are a bit like the poison ivy plant – even if you weren’t originally allergic to their bites, with repeated or prolonged exposure you could develop an allergy. Much to the chagrin of some of my fellow entomologists that like to feed their study critters in the lab (yes, I mean folks who rear and study bed bugs – someone has to do it!)… Sorry, no free meals from me, despite a good cause.

Bed bug that has been feeding (left) and unfed (right)

Bed bug that has been feeding (left) and unfed (right)

Despite being small, or maybe because of it, bed bugs are great hitchhikers and really difficult to get rid of once you get an infestation. Which leads to my compulsory bug checks whenever I stay at a hotel. My bed bug checks include flipping all the sheets over, pulling the mattress out so you can check both behind and around the edges of it, and examining the headboard area. If possible you should also check behind the headboard, but this is often bolted to the wall or otherwise too heavy for me to move so I rarely get to actually check behind it. Even though I would like to… You should also check around any sofas, padded chairs, and even things like ottomans if they have nooks and crannies or fabric that little critters could hide in. Just to be safe. Usually the bed area is the most likely place for them though – that’s where you lay unconscious for many hours on end just asking to be fed on… When doing these checks, you should of course look for the bugs themselves, little brownish round to teardrop shaped things, but also for things they leave behind. Like exuviae (basically shed bug skins) and frass marks (aka poop stains), which usually look like dark spotting or spotting staining on fabrics.

Bed bugs (dead)

Bed bugs (dead)

Now, I don’t usually expect to actually find anything when I do these bed bug checks – most of the places I stay seem clean enough. Honestly, I’m often a little lackadaisical about it and mostly do it out of force of habit. It is good for your peace of mind when staying in a strange place though. Especially when the place turns out to be as grossly dirty, and just generally awful, as the hotel I stayed in last week. Never staying there again. Long story short, I had to move to three different rooms during just a four-night stay last week. The first room couldn’t get any internet reception, even after I spent two hours talking with the front desk and AT&T since the hotel told me I should call the service provider about the hotel’s internet issues. Yeah. It was that kind of place. The second hotel room did have a Wi-Fi connection, but after waiting several hours or so, I absolutely could not get the room to warm up. It was stuck on 60F no matter what I did. Possibly due to the random wires hanging out below the heating unit… Apparently, no one was on site to be able to fix it. So on to room three. Almost like I’m goldilocks I suppose, but none of these rooms was “just right”.

The third room was much warmer, a nice comfortable 70F (little did I know that the thermostat didn’t work in this room either and it would shoot up to a sweltering 80F in the middle of the night…). It also appeared to have an ok Wi-Fi connection. Well, it was ok when I first checked it, but was actually pretty terrible later on when I tried to use it in the evening for just the simplest of internet related tasks. So much for getting extra work or writing done while at the hotel. It was also by far the dirtiest of the three rooms. Horrible stains on the sheer drapes, dust on all the surfaces I had to wipe down before putting my stuff on it, and kickable levels of dirt and who knows what on the carpet. Forget nicely shampooed carpets, just a quick broom sweep would have been a vast improvement. I tried to keep my shoes on as much as possible. Needless to say, a bed bug check was definitely in order.

Close up of bed bug face and piercing biting mouth part

Close up of bed bug face and piercing biting mouth part

So. Sheet check. No bed bugs or evidence. Lots of stains (large, human stains, not from bugs) on the comforter though :puke: I had to get a fresh comforter brought up – I presume it had been washed (I really needed to believe that for my mental health) and that they just have no idea how to use bleach. Isn’t that the whole reason hotels always use white sheets?? So they can bleach them to kingdom come? Moving on. I pulled out the mattress. All sorts of gross bits under edges of the mattress where it sits on the bed skirt covering the box spring. Hair, crumbly looking stuff, and what appears to be food bits :puke: This is by far the dirtiest hotel I’ve ever stayed in. Including places I’ve paid a whole lot less for. There are some folds in the gross bed skirt cover. I gingerly open the folds… And there it is. One of my worst fears and the reason I always do these checks – a small brownish round thing. Crap.

Potential bed bug and just some of the grossness behind the bed

Potential bed bug and just some of the grossness behind the bed

I hadn’t pulled the mattress out super far, so it was a bit difficult to see the small thing that looked suspiciously like a bed bug. It wasn’t moving though, so I took a quick photo and then rushed to find something to pick it up with (and a container to put it in!) to get a better look. I really didn’t want to touch anything in that grossness with my bare hands. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any forceps on me, so I had to use a tissue. I did manage to find a small vial of ethanol in my purse that I could put it in. I know that sounds weird, but ask some other entomologists – most of us regularly have some kind of container on us at any point in time. Just in case, lol.

I carefully reached behind the mattress with the tissue to pick up what I feared to be a bedbug – and what would likely be the reason I can’t stay any longer at what was already an awful hotel. Thank goodness I’m an entomologist. It was NOT a bedbug. It actually wasn’t a bug at all. It appears to be a piece of oatmeal. Maybe? The grosser option being a large piece of skin or scab… Let’s go with oatmeal. Thankfully no legs. Still super gross. Like the rest of the room. But at least nothing will be sucking my blood, right? If you have other ideas on what it might be, feel free to email me your identification suggestions and I’ll add them in the comments section below…

Close up of bed bug pretender. Piece of food? Maybe??

Close up of bed bug pretender. Piece of food? Maybe??

In all my years of traveling (ok maybe not that many years lol), I’ve actually only found bedbugs at a hotel once before. A number of years ago now when I was headed to New Hampshire. The manager of the establishment (in Massachusetts if I recall correctly now) had the audacity to argue with me that it was not a bedbug. Even when I showed it to him in the vial I put it in. And told him I’m an entomologist. At that point in time, I actually worked down the hall from a lab that studied bed bugs (although I didn’t tell the hotel manager that, lest he accuse me of planting it lol). To be fair, I didn’t look at the bed bug I found under a microscope (since I was at the hotel), so I suppose it could have been a bat bug. On the mattress edge… That would mean they’d need to have bats living in the hotel though. I’m guessing a bat infestation wouldn’t have been any better for guests (or the hotel). And hungry bat bugs will bite humans even if they prefer bats… Ironically, the hotel that I did find bedbugs (which we left to find other less infested lodgings) was much cleaner than the hotel I just stayed at in Milwaukee… You can just never tell.

Bed bug that has been feeding (dead now)

Bed bug that has been feeding (dead now)

To learn more about bedbugs, check out these resources:

Last note: There is an ongoing initiative to digitize all parasitic insects and arachnids in museum collections across the US called Terrestrial Parasite Tracker. In addition to documenting where and when different parasites have been recorded, what the parasite was associated with (or what it was feeding on) is also being made accessible to anyone with access to the internet. This will be an amazing asset to researchers around the globe working on keeping humans, animals, and plants safe. To learn more about this project, check out: http://parasitetracker.org/. To find out more about organism associations, check out GloBI.


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Written by an entomologist for the enjoyment of all... The goal is to post 1 or 2 new stories every week, so stay tuned!