Bed bug infestations are frightening because they seem impossible to stop. Plus, these insects are extremely contagious. If one or two sneak into your clothing or your luggage, you could easily infest an entire house, hotel, school, or hospital. And they can be quite difficult to kill. But how long can a bed bug live without food? Let’s find out as we discover how to manage bed bugs.
The Typical Life Cycle of a Bed Bug
Bed bugs are tiny creatures that don’t move around much, so they don’t enjoy exposure. You won’t see them sprinting across open spaces like other pests. Instead, they crawl along seams and fringes, easily slipping their streamlined bodies into cracks and invisible gaps around your home. They delight in dark places, and moderate temperatures are good for their livelihood.
Like other insects, bed bugs lay eggs, and a female can lay up to 5 every day. Weirdly bed bugs can hibernate for more than a year under the right circumstances – more on that later. But under normal conditions, they only live for 4 to 6 months. In that lifespan, a female bed bug can lay up to 500 eggs. And these eggs only take 21 days to mature before they start laying eggs too.
Bed bugs feed on blood, and they’ll generally gorge themselves for 5 to 10 minutes per meal. They eat once every few days, then rest, mate, and lay eggs before their next meal. So if a whole colony of bed bugs is feasting on you, you’re likely to get complications from all that blood loss. But you might not even notice because they don’t always leave marks on your body or your bed.
Also, bed bugs aren’t restricted to the bedroom. They hang out wherever humans do, so you could pick some at the movies, on a long-distance bus, or even at the thrift store. If you just sit on the wrong sofa for a few minutes, you might carry some stowaways when you get up! And since they sometimes feed on pets and insects, they could piggyback onto you at the shelter.
Studies suggest bed bugs were first discovered in bat caves where they fed on those furry flying marsupials. This was way back, maybe 3,500 years ago in Ancient Egypt, Rome, and the Middle East. And it’s ironic, because old stories talk of blood-sucking vampire bats, yet it’s the parasites on these creatures that ended up feasting on our fluids. They soon acquired a taste for humans!
How Long Can Bed Bugs Live Without a Meal?
According to various scientific studies, bed bugs can live anywhere from 30 days to 18 months without food. This depends on various factors including room temperature, local climate, the age of the bed bug, the strain of the bed bug, and how long it gorged on your blood before its food source was taken away. They can live this long due to a biological process called diapause.
Diapause is a sort of hibernating state that bed bugs can trigger when the surrounding areas are too hot, too cold, or when there’s no food nearby. And since adult bed bugs are paper thin and barely 5mm long, they can sneak into various cracks and crevices for months at a time until a tasty snack shows up. Remember, they viably feed on the fresh blood of any mammal or insect.
But since they seem to prefer human blood, they hang out in our houses and quickly build up colonies. And we inadvertently offer shelter, since they don’t just live in our beds. They’re just as comfy in chairs, baseboards, or any slot they can squeeze into. But since they can barely crawl 100 feet per night and only feed every few days, beds are the perfect spot to feed, rest, and nest.
Interestingly, bed bugs don’t eat like we do. They don’t need 3 to 6 meals a day. Instead, they binge 3 or 4 times a week taking long naps in between. And when food sources are low, they kick into diapause and can stay in metabolic slumber for months at a time. This is partly why they’re so hard to get rid of. And over the years, bed bugs have developed immunity to lots of pesticides.
Another reason they’re tough to manage is they live in hard-to-reach places. They sneak into the seams of your seats and mattresses, baseboards, and light switch panels. In clothes, they might nest inside the hems or stitches, areas you can’t access without ruining your clothing. That’s what makes it so easy to pick them up at flea markets, or even at fancy high-end clothing stores.
How to Get Rid of Bed Bugs
The surest way to kill a bed bug is to light it up. At temperatures above 114°F – that’s 46°C – a bed bug will die within ten minutes. But unlike roach fires, the fire department is unlikely to come burn down your house. Besides, you could get arrested if you do it yourself. That’s called arson, and your insurance company won’t thank you for it! You could try freezing the bed bugs…
But that would require sub-zero superpowers, and unfortunately, that’s not something you can pick up at the store. But while calling an exterminator is your best bet, you can try some of their tricks on your own. First, figure out where the bed bugs are hiding. Because they can’t travel that far, they’ll pick a spot where you settle for long periods, like your bed, work chair, or TV couch.
Take off the sheets, bedding, and rugs in these rooms. Wash them on a hot cycle if the fabric can take the heat. Steam and heated dryers are good too, and you can disinfect these items in the process. Use a vacuum cleaner on your mattress, upholstery, baseboards, wallpaper, carpets, light switches, and any other spots where you’ve seen bed bug traces. Dispose of the dirt carefully.
Ideally, a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter can help you destroy the eggs and shells without cross-contamination. Steam cleaning is a useful follow-up step because direct contact will kill the bed bugs instantly. A household steam iron will do in a pinch, but be wary if your furniture is timber or metal. Moisture can warp wood, rust iron, and cause mold on fabric if it doesn’t dry.
Whichever treatment option you use, ensure that you dry everything thoroughly to avoid extra damage. Some exterminators have treatment machines that essentially bake your home, raising the universal temperature too high for the bed bugs to stand. But confirm their track record or their fancy gadgets could come in and melt down all your plastics and fancy furniture. Not fun!
Long-Term Bed Bug Control
Like many bloodsuckers, bed bugs use carbon dioxide to spot their prey. As you breathe it out at night, these pests can latch onto you like a homing beacon. And since they anesthetize you when they bite, you may not even feel their presence. But unlike mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks, bed bugs don’t spread diseases because pathogens and viruses can’t survive long inside bed bug bodies.
But it still feels nasty to think of those tiny critters crawling all over you … *shudder*. And since they lay up to 5 eggs in a day, you’ll soon be feeding an army! Plus, anyone that visits your home will carry these uninvited guests back with them. You don’t want to be a source of contagion, so stop that infestation quickly! You can call in professionals or order a bed bug kit online for DIY.
In the old days, people would set their metal bed frames on fire to destroy bed bugs. These days, a good vacuuming session and steam treatment will keep them at bay for a few weeks or so. But to send them away permanently, you need residual bug sprays, gels, and powders. Aim them at the spots where you’ve found signs of bed bugs. Powders are especially good for electric items.
It’s also essential to steam your luggage and/or pat it down with residual powder when you’ve been traveling. This stops you from importing bed bugs and other pests into your home. Wash and dry your travel items at the highest temperatures they can stand, especially bedding, shoes, and clothes. Dry cleaning works too because they’re likely to be steam treated and disinfected.
The Final Word on Starving Bed Bugs
DDT is a commercial pesticide that’s remarkably effective at killing bed bugs. It almost wiped them out in the 1950s! But it’s toxic to humans too, so it was banned in 1972. As for how long a bed bug can live without food, we agree it’s one to eighteen months under lab conditions. But starving them at home is impractical. Instead, call an exterminator for treatment and control.