The worldwide war on bed bugs

by Lauren Butler, Junior Journalist 29th October, 2017

The worldwide war on bed bugs

When kids hear ‘don’t let the bed bugs bite’ as their parents turn out the lights, I hardly believe their minds turn to small parasitic insects that feast on human blood but - with reports that bed bug infestations have risen by over 5000 percent since the late 90s - the figures on bed bugs might just be enough to scare kids and hoteliers alike.


Bed bugs have existed in Australia in varying numbers for well-over 100 years and, as international travel enriches the lives of an increasing number of individuals across the globe, bed bugs may have just become the world’s biggest little travellers. In recent years, Australia was introduced to a new species of bed bug, the tropical bed bug (Cimex Hemipterus), which is also thought to have arrived in the country not by way of ‘human host’, but via an unsuspecting suitcase.


While hoteliers are occasionally required to deal with bed bugs within their own hotel walls, or perhaps even consider the problem at a national level, new research from the University of Sheffield in the UK confirms that hoteliers need to start considering a worldwide war on bed bugs – one piece of dirty laundry at a time.


The research, undertaken by behavioural ecologist Dr William Hentley and released in late September, uncovered that while bed bugs are host-seeking creatures (proving they are out to get humans), they can navigate towards human odour sources, which might be why they are so drawn to human bedding. Not only can bed bugs shack up in clothing, bedding or luggage, but they are also proven to survive for up-to a year without a human ‘blood meal’, meaning that luggage containing recently worn clothing can essentially become a bed bug hideout on wheels.


As a part of his research, Dr Hentley utilised a ‘bedroom-scale experimental arena’ to determine whether a) bed bugs would leave their refuge, b) they would gather on soiled clothing, and c) whether elevated CO2 (to simulate a breathing human host in the room) modified bed bug behaviours. The results indicated that bed bugs were most likely to be on (or in) bags containing soiled clothing, that they were not attracted to clean bags filled with clean clothing, and (contrary to the original hypothesis), that CO2 (or the presence of humans) had no effect on the result. So, while bed bugs need humans to live a long and happy life, they have no issue with hitchhiking on a short international vacation without any physical contact.


In his report, Dr Hentley stated: “The advent of relatively frequent, short-stay holidays in locations long distances from the hosts’ residence will facilitate dispersal. Careful management of holiday clothing may be an important strategy in the prevention of bringing home and spreading bed bugs.”


While any information on tackling the rise of the bed bug is good information, such a discovery isn’t likely to warm the hearts of hoteliers who have little control over guest cleanliness and laundry activities – but Dr Hentley can offer some simple solutions to the problem, suggesting that because bed bugs struggle to climb smooth objects, metal luggage frames could assist in keeping bed bugs contained within their improvised habitats. The provision of complimentary scented plastic bags in hotels may also assist in keeping the bed bugs at bay, with the odour of soiled clothing unable to pass through the plastic, therefore not attracting bed bugs and also preventing their escape if the laundry has been ‘inhabited’. It also places great value on accommodation providers offering laundry services, creating a great reason to offer guests a place to wash and dry their belongings and be rid of any unwanted ‘guests’.


While no accommodation provider wants to plaster the word ‘bed bug’ on its website or hotel walls, quelling the bed bug issue in Australia (and indeed the world) is the responsibility not only of hoteliers, but also of guests. Without mention of bed bugs, guests can be made aware of how they can do their part simply by requesting that they use the facilities provided and stow their suitcase on the luggage rack in their room.


For now, perhaps parents should be teaching the next generation a more relevant phrase…   ‘Wash right, seal tight, and don’t let the bed bugs take flight.’

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