Why everyone is so freaked out about bed bugs right now

Entomologist Yasmin Akhtar on how to spot them, the buggiest cities and how bad the problem really is

(Photograph courtesy of Yasmin Akhtar, photo illustration by Maclean’s)

This fall, as models and celebs swept through Paris Fashion Week, so too did an outbreak of small, flat blood-sucking bed bugs. “No one is safe,” warned Paris’s deputy mayor, Emmanuel Grégoire, when asked whether infestations were confined to a certain area. Seven schools were forced to close, and sightings of bed bugs in homes, hotels and even the Metro system sparked mass anxiety. The crisis stoked fears that bed bugs could spread around the world as fashion week attendees boarded flights home—likely with some stowaways tucked into their clothes and luggage. 

University of British Columbia entomologist Yasmin Akhtar spent five years researching bed bugs and she has some scary stats to report. Two of Canada’s biggest cities, Toronto and Vancouver, are the worst offenders, but infestations have popped up far from urban areas, too. So, instead of worrying about Paris, she believes it’s more important to understand how these bugs behave and what we can do to avoid—or, if worst comes to worst, control—any infestations here at home. 

First things first: how will I know a bed bug if I see one? 

Bed bugs are tiny reddish-brown nocturnal insects, oval-shaped and about the size of an apple seed. They feed on the blood of humans and need a blood meal to develop through their five nymphal stages before they become adults. Female bed bugs also need blood meals to lay eggs. 

READ: Bed bugs: Montreal’s most annoying university roommates

During the day, they hide in beds, furniture, even books. At nighttime, they come out of their hiding places and suck blood from humans. Some people can have an allergic reaction to the bites, including skin rashes and swelling.

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about bed bugs?

People may not realize that bed bugs can live without a meal for a year or more. So if there’s a bed bug infestation in an apartment and then it’s vacant for a year, they can survive. But they like clutter. Clutter provides them with hiding places. They don’t transmit disease, and they aren’t associated with bad hygiene. They have nothing to do with cleanliness or dirtiness. 

Paris is at the top of lots of people’s minds when it comes to bed bugs. I know people who dressed up as French bed bugs for Halloween. How worried do Canadians really need to be about bed bugs hitching a ride all the way here from Paris? 

If people are going to travel from Paris to here, of course some of them are going to bring bed bugs—bed bugs can crawl into luggage, so people can easily carry them from place to place. They can also hide in airplane seats. But we should not worry too much about that because travel has been happening for a long time, and we already have bed bugs in Canada. Especially in Toronto and in Vancouver, there are high levels of infestations. 

I’ve read that about 30 per cent of people don’t have reactions to bed bug bites at all. How would they know if they have them?

When an infestation increases—and an infestation can spread very fast once a female lays eggs—there are bed bugs everywhere. You can find them in the seams of a mattress, in electrical outlets, behind doors, and in furniture. I’ve seen them in kitchens, in bathrooms, in drawers, on picture frames and even behind curtains. Once an infestation increases, they move throughout the apartment. They also may smell like almonds. 

Some are calling the current prevalence of bed bugs a “resurgence,” while others—like France’s transport minister—are denying this idea. Globally, what kind of outbreak are we actually looking at right now?

For about two decades, there’s been a global resurgence, but the cases are underreported. Why would a landlord or a hotel manager want to report a bed bug infestation? Their business would be affected. Tenants, for fear of being thrown out of their apartment, might also not want to report. 

There’s a free public database called the Bed Bug Registry, which was founded in 2006, where people can report bed bug infestations throughout North America. It shows about 20,000 posts covering 12,000 locations, but that doesn’t mean we’ve only had 20,000 infestations. If there was a rule that everybody needed to report infestations, the story would be different. 

So there’s been a global resurgence for two decades now—what’s behind it? 

Travel is a contributing factor. I’m afraid that frequent exchange of secondhand items, like furniture and items, also plays an important role. If those items are infected with bed bugs, you’re bringing the bugs into your home. But the most important factor is that bed bugs began developing resistance to insecticides. DDT was effectively used to control bed bugs after the Second World War, but bed bugs developed immunity. After that, they developed cross-resistance to pyrethroids, another type of insecticide. 

If this has been going on for a while, what’s different about the current moment?

During COVID, we didn’t hear much about bed bug infestations because of social distancing. People weren’t going to restaurants and movies, and they weren’t travelling. But after COVID, we’ve seen an increase in travel, and whenever there’s an increase in travel, we also find an increase in infestations. 

How big is Canada’s bed bug problem right now? 

It’s the same as the past two decades. Sometimes it peaks and sometimes it goes down, but the problem is still there, and it’s widespread. If you look at the reports from the pest control company Orkin, they’ve found that there are 25 cities in Canada that have been heavily infested with bed bugs. Out of that list, 15 cities are in Ontario. The top two cities are Toronto and Vancouver, because big cities bring in people from all over the world. My colleagues and I used to go out and collect bed bugs in the field, so we know how bad infestations can be. Even some hotel managers in Vancouver, who were serious about getting rid of their infestations, allowed us to go inside and collect them. 

READ: Are bed-bug bylaws a good idea?

You’ve probably seen more bed bugs than anybody should reasonably see in their lifetime. 

I have seen so many bed bugs. I’ve seen them in socks under people’s beds, in clothes, in books—I saw one mattress with thousands and thousands of bed bugs, which we took back to the lab to use for research. 

If people are seeing bed bugs on transit and in library books, that would mean infestations in their city are pretty bad. What can people do to avoid bringing bed bugs home? 

Monitor your luggage when you come home from travels. Don’t put it on your bed. Bed bugs don’t fly, but they can crawl, so sometimes they can crawl into your bags. When you come back from visiting people’s houses, don’t put your clothes on the bed. You have to be careful. There are bed bugs on planes, on public transport, even in hospitals. There have been cases where people have taken library books to read in bed and they have bed bugs, so when the books are returned, people in the libraries get bitten. A few days ago, a guy told me he bought a sweater from a thrift store and it had bed bugs, so his house got infested. Facebook Marketplace has also become very popular among people of all ages—free stuff and secondhand items are very attractive—but if a house is infested with bed bugs, then of course, they will get to new houses through furniture and clothing. 

I’ve been visiting infested apartments to get bed bugs for my research. They get into my clothes, they get into my shoes. The babies are so small. As soon as they come into contact with your skin, they begin feeding and their size increases. They’re hungry, they’re thirsty. They want to drink blood. But when we get back to the lab, we change our clothes and shoes and put them into a heated area to get rid of the bugs. You have to be careful, because if you bring home one female, they’re going to start a whole colony. But if you take a few precautions, things will be under control.

Can you spot them with the naked human eye? 

Oh, yes. An aggregation pheromone keeps them together, so they’re found in big crowds, which makes it easy to spot and kill them. Their poop is dried blood, so you can see red spots on sheets, and you can see their white eggs. 

And what can we do if we find bed bugs in our home? 

You can monitor the bed bug infestation, get rid of clutter and identify infestation areas. They like to hide in the seams of mattresses, and you also have to inspect headboards and seal cracks in furniture. You have to wash sheets and pillows in very hot water, maybe once or twice a week. Sometimes you might have to get rid of an old mattress and buy a new one. 

You can also use natural insecticides, like diatomaceous earth, to get rid of bed bugs. You can sprinkle it in cracks and close to furniture, and it will deprive bed bugs of water, rupturing their cuticles. They will die of dehydration. That’s a very effective way of killing them. They can pick up the product and carry it to other bed bugs, which will kill those bed bugs too. These are the necessary steps that you can take to eliminate bed bugs, even if a pest control company is coming to apply treatments. It’s not enough to have just one—both need to work together. 

I’ve read that diatomaceous earth can be dangerous. Should people be buying food-grade versions? 

Yes, people should buy food grade. You need very little—you don’t need to sprinkle it in a whole room. 

As rents rise, it becomes increasingly difficult for tenants to move to new housing. If their current landlord isn’t helping them deal with an infestation, that can leave them stuck in infested units. 

Yes, totally. Controlling bed bugs should be done with the co-operation of tenants, government agencies, and pest control agencies. The government has to play a role, because if they make laws that owners are responsible for reporting bed bug infestations and paying to control them, that will be more effective. Bed bugs can move from one apartment to another, so in apartment buildings, it is very important to clean or spray all of the apartments in order to eradicate infestations in that building. 

READ: How the bed bug took over the world

In some U.S. states, there’s a law that landlords need to report bed bug infestations to agencies. They have to tell tenants in a building about the bed bug infestations. When landlords and pest companies work together, there’s often a decline in bed bug infestations.

What do you think is the worst part of having bed bugs? 

Oh my god, it’s psychological. If a person is working full-time and can’t sleep because of bed bug bites, how will they function the next day?  I’ve seen people with mobility issues who were sitting in a chair all the time and being bitten by bed bugs. But sometimes entire apartments are infested with bed bugs and they’re feeding on you, and you might not even realize.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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