Sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite

School researchers get the itch for Embarrassing Bodies experiments.

Bed bugs are infesting homes, hotels and offices worldwide on a scale not seen for over 50 years. But what happens when we get an infestation and how quickly does it grow? That’s the question Dr James Logan, our resident biting insect expert, set out to answer in a ground-breaking experiment.

“Bed bugs are about the size and shape of an apple pip,” said Dr Logan. “They hide in places like skirting boards and underneath your bed. You probably wouldn’t see one because they only come out at night to feed on your blood whilst you are asleep.

“They don’t spread disease but you can react very badly to bed bug bites and get secondary infections in the bite wound if you scratch it. In some cases, very large infestations can cause people to become anaemic from the blood loss.”

To find out more about the night-time activities of these arthropods, Dr Logan and his team conducted a ground-breaking experiment to recreate a real-life infestation in a special secure laboratory designed to replicate a bedroom.

Angela Kaye, a researcher who works in Dr Logan’s laboratory at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, spent a night in the room whilst Dr Logan monitored the activity of the bed bugs. Angela has been bitten by insects thousands of times throughout her career in the name of research, so she was first in line to spend the night sleeping in the infested bedroom.

Angela Kaye said: “On the first night there were two bed bugs with me. We then calculated how many bed bugs there would be in six weeks time if they were not treated – I slept with 76 bed bugs on the second night. It was incredibly interesting to see how long it took them to scuttle out of the nooks and crannies to bite me once I got into bed.”

Alongside current work to develop a bed bug detection trap, Dr Logan and his colleague Dr Mary Cameron have a new addition to their arsenal – Midas the bed bug sniffing dog. Midas, from the charity Medical Detection Dogs, is currently being trained to work with hotels and pest control companies to sniff out infestations in the early stages. Dogs have the ability to scent a single bed bug or just a few bed bug eggs, allowing for localised treatments before an infestation escalates.

The recent rise in the number of infestations is attributed to the fact that bed bugs are very good hitchhikers and have taken well to the increase in global travel and the booming second-hand furniture trade.

Another key factor is resistance to insecticides, meaning that once bed bugs have been found, getting rid of them can be a struggle.

Dr Logan added: “Bed bugs are notoriously difficult to treat and it can be very expensive to get rid of them. I would advise holiday-makers to keep bags on luggage racks rather than the floor when travelling so they don’t pick up any stowaways. And if you do find them at home, call a credible pest control service immediately.”

Dr Logan’s experiment will be shown on the latest series of Embarrassing Bodies: Live from the Clinic at 8pm, Tuesday 22 May on Channel 4.