When asked the same question in an online survey of around 2,000 people visiting hotels for business and leisure, only 35 percent of business travelers and 28 percent of leisure travelers were able to identify the bedbug in the same line up. Around the same percentage of people picked “don’t know.”
“I’m not surprised about it at all because people bring in stuff all the time: I’m like ‘No, that’s a raisin, it’s not even a bug,’” said Michael Potter, an entomologist at the University of Kentucky who conducted the survey with three colleagues. “It’s easy for the public, who doesn’t deal with this stuff a lot, or who has maybe never encountered a problem, to not know a difference, but your parents or grandparents who lived through bedbugs, probably have a better understanding of what they look like.”
But maybe we should be more like past generations, because bedbugs — those bloodsucking, tick-size critters of the night that haunt your dreams whether you’ve ever had them or not — have experienced a resurgence over the last 15 years. These expert hiders can lay hundreds of eggs each, hitchhike around on clothing, bags or furniture and live up to a year without food; it’s also very costly and difficult to get rid of them.
“What we’re really trying to figure out is what the economic value is of reports of bedbugs,” said Jerrod Penn, an economist at the University of Kentucky who contributed to the survey.
So if some bug is vexing you — in your home, school, office, or hotel room — then it would probably be best to know which one it is before you call the exterminator, or if you were traveling, throw all your luggage away, switch hotels and demand a full refund.
“The risk is always there, the question is what you do about it,” he added.
For the researchers, the first crack at the answer to these questions starts with hotels, where many pest management professionals are finding bedbugs, and the stakes are high. Perhaps more of a problem than in the home, where reports may be kept private and relatively contained, hotels count on the good experiences of customers. And if a false claim goes viral on social media — like when someone’s “bedbug” was actually a crushed spider in a case that made news in Massachusetts last year — it can be damaging to a hotel’s business.
The online survey, which was conducted in 2015 with a sample of business and leisure travelers, was published Tuesday in American Entomologist. It was the first to assess travelers’ knowledge of and attitudes toward bedbugs. The researchers hope the results will inform travelers about bedbugs, aid the hospitality industry as it responds to customers’ experiences with the pests, and lead to future studies to understand the economic impact of bedbugs in other public and private places.
The adult bedbug, like the silhouette No. 4 in the lineup, is the easiest stage to spot, said Dr. Potter. The adults are flat, brownish and similar in size to a tick, sans blood. And like a tick, they don’t fly or jump. They crawl, most often around your bed, near your head, where the carbon dioxide you exhale lures them closer to the buffet of blood beneath your skin.
Young bedbugs, or nymphs, are tan, smaller models of the adults and vary in size depending on their development stage.
But you may have better luck finding their eggs, which look like white dust, or the peppery specks of dried blood they leave behind as waste. Less often, Dr. Potter said, you may see blood smears on your linens — but only if you’ve crushed a bug after it has eaten.
The best place to find the bugs and their fecal spots, if there were a best place, is around the seams, folds, tufts, labels and edges of the mattress. They’re often found behind headboards, said Dr. Potter.
Not everyone reacts to bedbug bites, but those who do get itchy, red welts on their skin. Bed bugs may cause psychological distress and sleep loss, but they’re not known to spread disease.
What are hotels’ precautions against bed bugs?
The survey asked travelers if they wanted to know about hotels’ proactive efforts to control bedbugs. Most people wanted hotels to take some preventive action, especially people who had had experience with bedbugs. But not everyone wanted to know about it.
“I’m still not convinced that people are as on board with proactive protection as they think they are,” Dr. Penn said, because he thinks some will see the signs as an indication the bugs are indeed there.
Many hotels — especially big or high-end chains — have protocols in place that may include preventive inspections, training housekeepers and engineers to identify bugs, and front desk attendants to carefully address complaints. In New York City, a bill is proposing that hotels conduct biannual inspections.
But don’t assume fancy hotels are better. — Bedbugs can turn up in places that appear spotless.
If you find a bedbug in a hotel room, what can you do?
First, request another room far from your current one. If you found the bug during the day, and you just got there, your clothes are probably nothing to worry about, said Dr. Potter. But if you’ve unpacked and it’s night, you can ask the hotel to put your clothes in a hot dryer to kill any bugs that may be there. A hot car in temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit can also serve as a bedbug killing chamber for larger objects like your suitcase, as long as you open them up and wait long enough for the air to permeate them.
Keep your clothes in one spot or in bags and your suitcase zipped up, off the ground and the bed. Check the headboards and the mattress for signs. Some people even put their suitcase in the bathtub or buy bedbug proof pajamas or a tent. “The devil is in the details with how neurotic you will be or are,” said Dr. Potter, who thinks traveling is already a pain. “I don’t think that’s necessary.”
If it happens to you at home, it’s best to act early, and respond to the first sign of infestation because big infestations are expensive.
“It often comes down to money with people, and unfortunately, we don’t have any kind of societal safety net,” said Dr. Potter, for dealing with bedbugs.