9 Myths About Bed Bugs, Debunked

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No one would blame you for being afraid of bed bugs: They infest our most private spaces and feed on us when we’re vulnerable. But once you dispel the common myths surrounding the insects, they suddenly seem a lot less scary. Here’s what you need to know about how dangerous bed bugs really are, where they like to hide, and the best ways to get rid of them.

1. MYTH: THEY SPREAD DISEASE.

Someone holding a vial containing two bed bugs on a white piece of paper.
STAN HONDA, AFP/Getty Images

If you have a bedbug infestation, you’ll feel itchy, have trouble sleeping, or develop an allergic reaction to the bites. The psychological toll bed bugs take on people is also a real issue: Research has found that it’s common for people living with bed bugs to experience anxiety, depression, and paranoia. But compared to other blood-suckers like ticks and mosquitoes, bed bugs aren’t dangerous—they aren't known to spread any diseases to humans.

2. MYTH: THEY’RE TOO SMALL TO SEE WITH THE NAKED EYE.

An engorged bed bug feeding on a person.
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If you’ve examined every inch of your mattress and still can’t find any unwelcome insect guests, you can relax a little bit: You would have likely seen any bed bugs that were lurking in the fibers (unless they're hiding somewhere ... more on that in a bit). It’s true that bed bugs are small—about the size of an apple seed—but they’re not so small that it’s impossible to see them with the naked eye. They’re normally flat, but when they’re engorged they’re even easier to spot. “When they are fed they look plump, like little sausages,” Virna Stillwaugh, an entomologist and pest control specialist who researched bed bugs at North Carolina State University, tells Mental Floss. But experts caution that bed bugs are difficult to distinguish from many other insects, so it’s best to get an expert for a positive identification.

3. MYTH: THEY ONLY LIVE IN BEDS.

An unmade bed.
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The bed bug's namesake may be its creepiest hangout spot, but it isn’t the only place they're likely to lurk. They can be found in the folds of curtains and laundry and the seams of couches and chairs. Their hiding place doesn’t even need to be fabric: They’ve been known to settle into drawers, wallpaper, electrical outlets, and even the heads of screws. It’s for this reason that any kind of free furniture, not just beds, you see out on the street should almost always be left alone.

4. MYTH: THEY ONLY COME OUT IN THE DARK.

A light shining on a bed and two pillows.
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Keeping your lights on all night won’t stop the bed bugs from biting. As long as the little pests are hungry, they’ll crawl out of their hiding places to feed, no matter how bright it is in your bedroom. The myth that bed bugs don’t like light may have originated from the fact that they’re nocturnal, and therefore more active at night. Don’t use this as an excuse to change your sleeping schedule, however, as they can bite at anytime.

5. MYTH: YOU CAN RECOGNIZE THEIR BITES.

A man pointing to bed bugs feeding on his arm.
STAN HONDA, AFP/Getty Images

Don’t depend on a telltale bite mark to alert you to the presence of bed bugs. People react differently to bed bug bites: They can come in various sizes, include irritated rashes, or produce no rash at all. A cluster of red marks where multiple bugs were biting exposed skin is one common sign to look out for, though the evidence isn’t always this obvious. Some bites don’t leave a mark or leave one that’s barely visible, allowing the parasites to feed discreetly for days.

6. MYTH: THE BEST WAY TO KILL THEM IS WITH RUBBING ALCOHOL.

A bed bug on a piece of cotton.
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One especially misguided myth suggests using rubbing alcohol as a DIY bed bug control method. But it turns out this isn’t very effective: In one bed bug study, rubbing alcohol only killed half of its intended targets. And on top of that, dousing your furniture in rubbing alcohol also turns it into a fire hazard. People employing this tactic have started several house fires in the U.S. over the last decade.

7. MYTH: YOU CAN GET RID OF THEM ALONE.

A man holds a leashed beagle that is sniffing a bed for bed bugs.
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Unless you’re an exterminator, never try getting rid of bed bugs on your own. Bed bugs are starting to develop resistance to certain pesticides, so even blasting them with harsh chemicals you bought from the store may not be enough to stop them. It usually takes a combination of factors, including heat and fumigation, to completely rid an infested home of bed bugs. “This is one of the things that’s not do-it-yourself,” Stillwaugh says. “It’s best left to professionals.”

8. MYTH: THEY’RE ATTRACTED TO DIRT.

A person cleaning a table top with spray and a cloth.
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Bed bugs are are often associated with dirty places, but in reality they couldn't care less about the cleanliness of your home: What they’re really looking for is heat and carbon dioxide, something every human being emits regardless of how they live. “Bed bugs have been found everywhere from high-end hotels to apartments and shelters,” Stillwaugh says. It is true that bed bugs have an easier time infesting disorganized homes, but that’s because the clutter gives them more places to hide and not because they’re attracted to filth.

9. MYTH: THEY CAN FLY.

An illustration of a giant bed bug shadow looming over a bed.
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Good news: Outside of your nightmares, bed bugs can’t fly. The tiny insects have no wings with which to swoop down upon their victims. They’re also incapable of jumping great distances—unlike their fellow parasite, the flea. If they want to get somewhere, they have to crawl there.

New Study Reveals 'Hyper-Alarming' Decline of Rainforest Insect Populations

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iStock/jmmf

Climate change is decimating yet another vital part of the world's ecosystem, according to a startling new paper. Rainforest insects are dying off at alarming rates, according to a new study spotted by the The Washington Post. In turn, the animals that feed off those insects are decreasing, too.

In the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a pair of scientists from the Rensselaer Polytechnic University in New York and the National Autonomous University of Mexico studied populations of rainforest arthropods (an invertebrate classification that includes insects and spiders) in the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico. They compared the number of insects lead author Bradford Lister found on trips in 1976 and 1977 with the number he and co-author Andres Garcia found on trips they took between 2011 and 2013.

Lister and Garcia used nets and sticky traps to collect insects on the ground and several feet above the ground in the forest canopy. They dried these captured bugs and measured the mass of their haul against the mass of insects found in the 1970s, finding that the modern net sweeps captured only an eighth to a fourth of the insects captured in the '70s. The mass of insects captured by sticky traps on the ground declined by 30 to 60 times what they were a few decades ago. They also tracked populations of lizards, frogs, and birds that live off those rainforest insects, finding that those populations had declined significantly, too, at levels not seen in other rainforest animals that don't rely on insects for food.

Tropical insects are particularly vulnerable to climatic changes, since they can't regulate their body temperature. During the time of the study, average maximum temperatures in El Yunque rose by almost 4°F (2°C). The warming climate is "the major driver" of this decline in arthropod populations, the study authors write, triggering a collapse of the forest food chain.

The paper has other scientists worried. "This is one of the most disturbing articles I have ever read," University of Connecticut entomologist David Wagner, who wasn't involved in the research, told The Washington Post, calling the results "hyper-alarming." Other studies of insect populations have found similarly dire results, including significant declines in butterflies, moths, bees, and other species. One recent study found that Germany's flying insect populations had decreased by as much as 75 percent in the last three decades. Scientists don't always attribute those population losses directly to warmer temperatures (habitat loss, pesticide use, droughts, and other factors might play a role), but it’s clear that insect populations are facing grave threats from the modern world.

Not all insect species will be equally affected by climate change, though. While we may see a sharp drop in the populations of tropical insects, scientists project that the number of insects in other regions will rise—leading to a sharp increase in crop-eating pests in some parts of the world and broadening mosquitos' geographical range.

[h/t The Washington Post]

13 Chill Facts About Sloths

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iStock.com/janossygergely

Sloths seem to be everyone's "spirit animal." They get to eat, sleep, and hang out in trees all day, going about their business without a care in the world. Or at least that's how it looks. As it turns out, there are plenty of good reasons why sloths are so sluggish—and laziness isn't one of them. Here are 13 things you should know about the world's slowest animal.

1. TWO-TOED AND THREE-TOED SLOTHS AREN'T ALL THAT SIMILAR.

A baby two-toed sloth
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The cute little babe pictured above is a two-toed sloth, of which there are two species belonging to the Megalonychidae family. The four species of three-toed sloths, on the other hand, are part of the Bradypodidae family. The two groups are only distant relatives and have a few notable differences between them. While three-toed sloths are active in the daytime, two-toed sloths are nocturnal creatures. Three-toed sloths are also smaller and slower than their two-toed counterparts.

2. BOTH HAVE THREE TOES, THOUGH.

A two-toed sloth
Tim Evanson, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The names used to distinguish the sloths are somewhat of a misnomer. Both have three toes on each hind limb. The real difference applies to the fingers on their forelimbs; one family has two claws, while the other has three. To avoid confusion, some groups—like The Sloth Conservation Foundation—have starting calling them two-fingered and three-fingered sloths.

3. THEY'RE RELATED TO THE EXTINCT GIANT GROUND SLOTH.

Illustration of a giant sloth
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Two-toed and three-toed sloths both evolved from giant ground sloths, the largest of which weighed several tons and stood about 12 feet tall. The animals went extinct about 10,000 years ago, likely due to hunting by early humans.

4. THEY WOULD FAIL AN EYE EXAM.

Close-up of a sloth
iStock.com/BrianLasenby

Sloths aren't exactly known for their sharp senses, and this is especially true for their eyesight. A mama three-toed sloth can't spot her own baby from 5 feet away, and combative male sloths have been observed trying to hit each other from a similar distance. Scientists say a genetic mutation is to blame. Three-toed sloths are born without cone cells in their eyes, which are needed to detect colors. As a result, they see things in black and white, and in poorer resolution, too. They also have a hard time handling bright lights—not the best trait for a diurnal (daytime) creature to have.

5. THEY'RE SURPRISINGLY GOOD SWIMMERS.

Sloths are painfully sluggish on land. Their hind legs are weak, so they have to use their arms and upper body strength to pull themselves forward. Plop them in some water, though, and they can move three times as fast. Their long front arms make them skillful swimmers, and they can hold their breath underwater for up to 40 minutes. If a body of water is nearby, they may jump in and use it as a shortcut to navigate the forest more quickly. In the above clip narrated by David Attenborough, a male sloth swims as fast as he can—which is pretty fast, all things considered—to track down a female sloth's mating call.

6. THEIR "LAZINESS" IS A SURVIVAL TACTIC.

A sloth in a chair
iStock.com/GeorgePeters

It's no secret that sloths are slow. Their reaction time is about a quarter as fast as a human's, and they move at a pace of 6 to 8 feet per minute. Indeed, three-toed sloths are the slowest animals on Earth, beating out other famously slow animals like giant tortoises and snails. When the animals were first documented in 18th-century scientific texts, they were harshly described as "the lowest form of existence." But their slowness is why they haven't died out. Sloths largely subsist on leaves, and it can take up to a month for their four-part stomachs to digest a single meal. The leafy greens aren't very nutritious, so they have to conserve as much energy as possible to survive—and that means moving less. As a bonus, their slow movements help them go unnoticed by predators that rely on sight to hunt down prey, like jaguars, ocelots, and harpy eagles.

7. THEY DO JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING IN TREES …

A baby sloth hangs from a branch
iStock.com/Mark Kostich

Sloths are arboreal creatures, so they spend almost all of their time in trees. They eat, sleep, mate, and give birth while hanging upside-down—a feat made possible by their anatomy. Their internal organs are anchored to their abdomen, which shifts weight away from their diaphragm and lets them breathe more easily, and therefore expend less energy.

Three-inch claws also help them latch onto branches and stay suspended far above the forest floor. In fact, their innate ability to cling to branches is so strong that dead sloths have been found dangling from trees, lending new meaning to the phrase "death grip."

8. … EXCEPT POOP.

A sloth on the ground
iStock.com/Damocean

As a consequence of their slow metabolisms, sloths poop once a week—and sometimes just once a month. Two-toed sloths often let 'er rip from the trees, but three-toed sloths follow a bizarre routine that has baffled scientists. They typically make their way down to the forest floor to relieve their backed-up bowels, and once they get there, they do a little "poo dance" while digging a small hole to defecate inside. Without the camouflage afforded to them by the foliage of the forest canopy, sloths are much more likely to be picked off by predators. About half of all sloth fatalities occur when they're on the ground, most likely doing their business or finishing up. So why do they do it? It might have something to do with sex, and marking a tree for a potential mate to find. "Whatever is going on, it's got to be kind of life or death for survival," sloth biologist Rebecca Cliffe tells The Washington Post. "In my brain, that tells me that it's probably something to do with reproduction because that is the driving fact behind most animals' crazy behaviors."

9. AND THEIR POOPS ARE ENORMOUS.

A man holds a sloth
iStock.com/Ssviluppo

When they do poop, their turds tend to be massive. If you put the contents of a sloth's bowel movement on a scale, they might weigh up to one-third of the animal's body weight. This is 282 percent larger than what scientists would expect to see in an animal of the sloth's size. "You can watch their stomachs physically shrink as they poo," Cliffe tells The Washington Post. Oddly enough, though, sloths don't fart. So there's that.

10. ALGAE OFTEN GROWS ON THEIR FUR.

A sloth covered in algae
iStock.com/dene398

Sloths have a symbiotic relationship with algae. Studies have shown that algae is sometimes passed down from a mother sloth to her baby, and the transfer is mutually beneficial for both animal and plant. The sloth's long fur creates a cozy home for the algae—which readily absorbs the water they need to thrive—and the sloths get a coat of green-tinted fur that doubles as camouflage. Sloths also eat the algae, which provides a much-needed source of nutrients.

11. FEMALE SLOTHS SCREAM WHEN THEY WANT TO MATE.

Females get the courting process started by letting out a loud, high-pitched scream to let male sloths know she's ready to mate. "This call is a loud 'eeeeeh' lasting more or less one second," sloth researcher Adriano Chiarello tells Live Science. Researchers are unsure on the particulars of sloth courting or copulation, or even if males will fight for the right mate with the screeching female (or if any fights are territorial instead). Whatever the details, the ensuing gestation period is between five and six months, and then the female sloth will birth one baby sloth, which is—uninterestingly—just called a baby sloth.

12. THREE-TOED SLOTHS CAN ROTATE THEIR HEADS 270 DEGREES.

A sloth turns its head to look back
iStock.com/MikeLane45

This special talent puts three-toed sloths in the same category as many owls. In both species, this Exorcist-esque ability can be attributed to their bone structure. Sloths have extra vertebrae at the base of their necks that let them look in all directions with ease. Although sloths aren't great at defending themselves, they can at least see when danger is approaching.

13. FOR SUCH DEFENSELESS CREATURES, THEY LIVE FAIRLY LONG LIVES.

A sloth peeks out from behind a tree
iStock.com/Damocean

"Live slow, die whenever"—the unofficial slogan bestowed upon sloths by the internet—pretty much gets it right. On average, sloths live to be about 20 years old, but some species can live longer in captivity. The world's oldest sloth—a female of the Hoffman's two-toed variety named Miss C—died last year at the ripe old age of 43. She was a lifetime resident of Australia's Adelaide Zoo.

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