Bed bugs are so common that most people know what they are, and plenty of us will encounter them at least once (usually at the hands of a budget hotel with questionable sheet-changing policies).
They are rarely seen outside of their preferred habitat of the bedroom and survive almost solely on human blood, but how do they fit into the rest of the food chain? Does anything eat bed bugs. And, if so, can these natural enemies be recruited to help keep them under control?
What are bed bugs?
Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) are a common, global pest that have bothered humans for centuries. These tiny, blood-sucking insects feed on both people and animals, though they are usually found in and around beds and other sleeping areas.
They are best known for their nocturnal feeding habits, their horribly itchy (and often extensive) bites, and – worst of all – for being almost impossible to get rid of.
Luckily, there are a few species of insects and other animals that eat bed bugs. But can they help you to prevent or eradicate a bed bug infestation?
What insects eat bed bugs?
Cockroaches are important predators of bed bugs and are known to eat both the insects and their eggs. In fact, some believe that the booming bed bug populations of recent years are partly down to the widespread use of insecticides, which kill roaches far more effectively than previous pest control methods.
Roaches are, arguably, an even worse house guest than bed bugs, thanks to their tendency to harbor diseases. Even if they weren’t so gross, it’s unlikely that they’d be able to get rid of your bed bugs as bed bugs are likely to breed more quickly than they can be eaten.
Pharaoh ants are tiny ants that eat almost everything in their path, including bed bugs and their eggs. The exact origin of the pharaoh ant is forgotten knowledge, though it is thought that they are probably native to Africa. They have since been introduced to almost every region on Earth and are considered a major indoor pest in the United States and Europe (so, again, not a viable form of bed bug control).
Masked hunters are another type of insect that is not only prevalent throughout Europe and North America, but that also hunts and feeds on bed bugs.
Immature masked hunters carry dust on their bodies, camouflaging them as little piles of dust. They usually live outdoors and do not actively try to bite humans, though they might do if disturbed.
Although they do naturally prey on bed bugs (along with sowbugs and earwigs) they won’t do so hungrily enough to keep your home completely free from any of these insects.
What other animals eat bed bugs?
Certain species of common house lizards will also eat bed bugs if given the chance. However, they are very unlikely to eat large numbers of them and can’t be expected to keep infestations under control. Some spider species may also eat bed bugs but, again, not nearly enough to contribute to bed bug control.
Is using natural predators an effective method of bed bug control?
Definitely not. First of all, the main predators of bed bugs are cockroaches and pharaoh ants. Neither are really preferable to bed bugs and to start an infestation of either under your bed would be insane.
Of course, you could just hope that your house lizards will do the job, but most bedrooms will only have a few of these at most. Even if you are hoarding hundreds of lizards in your bedroom (seek help) this is unlikely to clear your infestation (though it will cause sanitation issues).
Obviously, no one is using natural predators to get rid of their bed bugs. Common solutions include insecticidal sprays, washing sheets and other contaminated items at high temperatures and enlisting the help of professional pest control services.
By far the best way to protect yourself from bed bugs, however, is to stop them from infesting your home in the first place. They may be tough to get rid of, but they can be surprisingly easy to prevent once you know how they spread and how to stop them.
How can you avoid bed bugs?
Bed bugs most often spread in suitcases, laundry, and bags of second-hand clothes that are transported from household to household. They are especially rife in cheap, shared accommodation (like hostels), where a high turnover of guests, backpacks left on beds and a casual attitude towards laundry makes it easy for them to spread.
Whether you book a bunk in a 12-bed dorm or a private room in a decent hotel, it’s always best to play it safe when it comes to bed bugs. You can avoid them by:
- Always doing a bed bug check when sleeping away from home. Bed bugs may be tiny and good at hiding, but it’s often easy to spot where they’ve been from the droppings, dead bugs, bloodstains, egg cases and skin casks they leave in their wake. Thoroughly inspect the mattress, headboard, bed frame and sheet linings of hotel beds before sleeping, and request a room change or refund if you find evidence of bed bugs.
- Never leaving luggage on your bed. Bed bugs usually spread from place to place by stowing away inside suitcases and bags, then emerging once you’ve brought them home with you. You can easily prevent this by keeping your luggage away from your sleeping area, and keeping any clothes that have touched your bed separate (i.e. securely wrapped in a plastic bag) until you’ve had a chance to launder them.
Bed bugs are common throughout the world and, though most often seen in luggage and bedrooms, do have a few natural enemies. Various insects, such as cockroaches, pharaoh ants and masked hunters all eat bed bugs, as do some lizard and spider species. However, none of these are a viable form of bed bug control. Take preventative control steps to reduce your risk of getting bed bugs and, if you do find yourself with an infestation, call a pest control expert for extermination advice.