Bed bugs may be waging a nightly war on your family. Their bites are itchy and can happen seemingly without warning. The best thing you can do is build your understanding of bed bug behavior so you can address the problem as soon as it starts. The more you understand about bed bugs, their feeding and mating habits, and their general behaviors, the easier it will be for you to know when to call in pest management professionals.

How Do Bed Bugs Behave?

Bed bugs typically don't come out when the lights are turned on. They may not scurry away like cockroaches, but bed bug biology and behavior means they aren't fans of bright light. Instead, they're nocturnal, meaning they like to hide away during daylight hours and prefer to come out when the sun sets and the lights are off in your home.

Bed bugs tuck themselves into dark, warm areas like inside your mattress, your pillow, in upholstered furniture, behind electrical outlets in your walls, in curtains and in the crevices of headboards. They don't nest like several other unwanted insects. Instead, they simply hide in groups, waiting until they find a good source of food to emerge from their hiding spots. Once they feed, they typically retreat back into that hiding spot until they feed again, approximately five to seven days later, although not all bed bugs follow the same feeding schedule.

Bed bug feeding behavior

As nocturnal insects, bed bugs tend to feed at night, most often when you're sleeping. They actively look for exposed skin and start feeding where your skin meets the sheets and sometimes follow a three-bite pattern. They start feeding on one spot before progressing to their second and third bite locations, creating a distinctive bite line.

While this pattern is sometimes observed, there is not a definitive explanation among researchers as to why. Most lean towards the theory that bed bugs begin to feed and may be disrupted by the host before finishing, so they move to a nearby site. They do not habitually feed in a three bite pattern. Once they start feeding they continue until they have a full blood meal.

That being said, bed bug bites may also appear in a seemingly random pattern. This is likely because several bed bugs have clustered together and fed at the same time.

With so many bites happening throughout the night, it might seem like you would feel at least a few when they happen. But, thanks to an anesthetic in their saliva and an extremely sharp, straw-like mouth they use to pierce your skin, you won't feel a thing. Plus, their saliva contains an anticoagulant, which prevents blood clotting, so bed bugs are able to complete their feast in only three to 10 minutes.

Though bed bugs can hide anywhere in your home, they typically stay within eight feet of their primary food sources: you and your family. They don't feed every night after gorging themselves. Instead, they take between five and 10 days to digest your blood, then they mate and lay eggs before heading back to your bed for another feeding. 

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What attracts bed bugs to your bed?

Believe it or not, it's not the smell of skin or human bodies that attract these insects from all corners of your home. Instead, it's the carbon dioxide and other chemicals you emit when you are asleep combined with the warmth, blood and moisture of your body in bed that draws them to you night after night.

What makes it worse is that bed bugs can sense the carbon dioxide from as little as three feet away from your bed. Though they're more likely to seek out food sources they can sense easily, they're not afraid to go on the hunt. They'll search for blood meals in random patterns until they find something or someone to feed on.

Bed Bug Mating Behavior

Bed bugs are prolific breeders. When they're not feeding, they're mating and reproducing to grow their populations. After they feed, they retreat to their hiding space to digest their meal and start laying eggs. The average female bed bug can lay one to seven eggs each day and between 200 to 250 eggs in their lifetime. That said, the number of eggs female bed bugs can lay depends on how often they feed. The more often they're able to feed, the more eggs they'll be able to lay.

While laying a few hundred eggs in a lifetime isn't a lot by insect standards, it's highly problematic when you have an active infestation in your home. Hundreds of female bed bugs can end up laying tens of thousands of viable eggs, multiplying their population quickly until the problem spreads throughout your house.

That's why working with a professional bed bug specialist is so important. Even if you only see a few bed bugs in your sheets, there could be many more lurking around your home.

Bed Bug Nymph Behavior

It takes approximately six to ten days for bed bug eggs to hatch. Newly hatched bed bugs are called nymphs. They grow rapidly and proceed through five different stages during this phase. At first, bed bug nymphs are incredibly light in color. Most appear white or off-white. Once they feed, they start changing into the darker, reddish-brown color we typically notice. That color will continue to deepen as they molt and shed their exoskeletons as they grow.

Often, these shed exoskeletons, commonly referred to as bed bug shells, are the first sign of an infestation that homeowners notice. Bed bugs tend to molt in the seams of your mattress and in the wrinkles of your sheets. With each successive shedding, the bed bug nymphs grow larger until they finally reach adulthood.

Bed Bug Social Behavior and Habits

Though bed bugs are prolific breeders and can spread throughout a house quickly, they're not social insects. This means that bed bug nesting behavior is distinctly different from other insects. They don't build nests like ants, wasps, or some other common household pests. But they still congregate together in their preferred hiding places.

The clusters of bed bugs can make it seem like they're creating a colony. But instead, they're just all seeking refuge in the same limited habitat. As their numbers expand due to their breeding habits, many of the older bed bugs will start to wander away from their preferred hiding spots in search of new, less crowded food sources.

Female bed bugs often flee highly populated areas after the first few mating cycles. They do this because the mating process is painful and they want to avoid the experience.

Bed bug lifespan

Adult bed bugs tend to live for between four and six months on average. But these insects are hardy creatures and, if conditions are ideal, they can live for up to a year. During their lifespan, they spend their time feeding, mating and, subsequently, expanding the infestation.

Bed bugs are able to survive in less-than-ideal conditions. Adult bed bugs can go up to 400 days without feeding. Bed bugs are also to know to survive temperatures between freezing and 122°F and are even evolving to resist standard pyrethroid insecticides .

Because of their tenacity, finding ways to get rid of a bed bug infestation on your own is incredibly difficult. Worse, they continue breeding and growing their population throughout their entire lifespan, so even if you think you've gotten rid of these unwanted insects, there's always a chance that some survived undetected.

Unmistakable Signs You May Have Bed Bugs

Bed bug bites may be the most noticeable sign of bed bug activity in your home, but they're not the only sign you should look for. Remember, the bites themselves can be hard to differentiate from other insect bites. Instead, look for other signs of infestations in your home. These include:

  • Shed skins
  • Rust-colored spots on the mattress and bedding
  • Blood spots on your sheets and pajamas
  • A musty, sweet-smelling odor in your room

Of course, you should also check the seams of your mattress, along your headboard and the dark crevices in your furniture for living bed bugs. If you notice any or see the above signs of bed bug activity, it's time to get help from an experienced professional.

Know When to Get Help for Bed Bugs

If you're trying to decide if you need to get help for bed bugs, the best place to start is to inspect your home for the common signs of an infestation. If you see anything out of the ordinary or suspect you've carried bed bugs home from a hotel, college dorm or camp, don't hesitate to seek help. Contact an experienced pest control specialist and let them inspect your home.

Professionals know what to look for and where to check for infestations throughout your home. They'll be able to identify even the smallest signs of bed bugs long before you and your family even notice that the bugs are taking up residence. Pest control experts have a firm understanding of bed bug behavior and are better prepared to help you deal with infestations before they spread.

Remember, bed bug control isn't something you should DIY. The insects can be very difficult to kill with standard household pesticides and if you miss even a few, you won't get rid of the infestation completely.

Don't let bed bugs take over your home

If you've noticed any of the common signs of bed bugs or think you might have a bed bug infestation building in your home, don't put it off. Contact Terminix® and schedule a free consultation. If you have an active bed bug infestation in your home, our team will create a treatment plan to help you get rid of the infestation so you and your family can sleep.