Bed bugs have been with us for a long time. Despite only returning to epidemic levels in the last few years, the history of bed bugs and their ancestors date back to as much as 11,000 years ago. It was believed that bed bugs used to feed on bats and early humans in caves, then followed those humans as they roamed further out into the world.
Or so was the theory until recently, when researchers found evidence that bed bugs actually lived before humans, crawling the Earth for at least 115 million years. How have bed bugs existed for so long? And what does the history of bed bugs mean when researching ways to get rid of bed bugs for good?
Bed bugs in the 20th century
While bed bugs have been feeding on us since ancient times, modern treatment methods didn’t begin appearing until chemical development in laboratories began in the early 1900s. Before then, traditional treatment efforts included the use bowls of oil under beds, laying out bean leaves with tiny barbs, burning decayed leaves to as a smoke-based method of home fumigation, or dusting the bedroom with plant ash.
This all changed after the Industrial Revolution. As electricity in homes became more common, bed bugs were able to more easily survive and thrive during the cold winter months. This allowed them to reproduce all year long and travel to other homes when their nests became overpopulated. As the rate of bed bug infestations increased, so too did the desire for industrious companies to develop a cure.
During World War II, the weapon of choice against bed bugs was fumigation with Zyklon B. This was somewhat effective, but Zyklon B developed an infamous reputation for its use in the death chambers of Nazi extermination camps. After the war, Zyklon B was largely replaced by DDT. DDT is an organochlorine that first gained favor in its use controlling malaria and typhus. By the end of 1945, DDT was widely available for sale to the American public.
DDT was so effective against 20th century bed bugs that it nearly wiped out the species completely. However, DDT was found to be toxic to a wide range of marine animals and was eventually linked to the thinning of eggshells. This thinning contributed to the decline of raptor birds such as the bald eagle and peregrine falcon. DDT was later banned in the US and those bird populations steadily recovered.
Today’s bed bugs are almost completely resistant to the effects of DDT and similar compounds. Common strains of bed bugs found in the US are also resistant to the pyrethroids that were developed after the DDT ban, forcing insecticide producers to develop new compounds. With the combination of these resistances and increased air travel, bed bugs have returned to their epidemic levels of yesteryear.
Prehistoric blood suckers
Modern bed bug infestations have spurred the need for modern bed bug research. While scientists are gradually learning more about these strange pests, their research has dug up a shockingly long timeline of the history of bed bugs. In 2017, the oldest known specimens of bed bug ancestors were found in an Oregon cave system. These fossils dated back somewhere between 5,000 and 11,000 years ago, which would place them within the first known human settlements such as Jericho and Aleppo.
Until very recently, there was a single dominant theory regarding the history of bed bugs and their ancestry: ancient predecessors fed on bats in caves until early humans came to inhabit the same caves. These bat bug ancestors then evolved alongside both bats and humans, feeding on the blood of both hosts to grow and reproduce. When those humans left the caves, the bugs that fed on them went with them. This lead to the divergence of the species known today as bed bugs and bat bugs.
This theory was just shaken by a discovery made in May of 2019: early ancestors of bed bugs have actually been around for at least 115 million years. This means that the parasites predated the bats that were their supposed first hosts by more than 30 million years. Not only does this mean that bed bug ancestors were feeding on animals that have long since gone extinct, it also means that the divergence of bed bug species happened long before mankind stopped dwelling in caves.
How this affects modern research
So what does this turn of events mean for research into new bed bug treatment methods? The reason it’s hard to provide a simple answer for that is because modern research of bed bugs is only just beginning. We don’t know yet if DNA research and genome mapping will lead to treatment or prevention breakthroughs, as such work has only taken off as a result of this recent bed bug epidemic.
The ancient ancestor discovery that broke the cave-dwellers theory was found by accident – researchers were actually trying to learn more about the unique method of mating that bed bugs employ. The practice is called “traumatic insemination”, in which the male pierces the female’s abdomen with his aedeagus and injects his sperm through the wound into her abdominal cavity.
In fact, the genome of the common bed bug was only mapped recently, in 2016 by researchers at the University of Rochester. Those researchers anticipate that the method in which they isolate bed bug genes could make those genes effective targets for future pest control products.
In the coming years, we may begin to see even more unique and innovative bed bug fighting tools enter this growing market. Researchers are hard at work discovering and studying new and unusual techniques that may be viable for consumer use in the near future. Concepts on display at recent conferences include fungal spores that sprout and strangle bed bugs or antibiotics in human blood that may weaken bugs that ingest them. The war on bed bugs is just getting started, and humanity is going to go in guns blazing.