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.

20 Black-and-White Facts About Penguins

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iStock/fieldwork

Who is a penguin's favorite family member? Aunt Arctica! 

We kid! But seven of the 17 species of penguins can be found on the southernmost continent. Here are 20 more fun facts about these adorable tuxedoed birds. 

1. All 17 species of penguins are found exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere.

A group of penguins on an iceberg.
iStock/axily

2. Emperor Penguins are the tallest species, standing nearly 4 feet tall. The smallest is the Little Blue Penguin, which is only about 16 inches.

Three emperor penguins
iStock/Fabiano_Teixeira

3. The fastest species is the Gentoo Penguin, which can reach swimming speeds up to 22 mph.

A gentoo penguin swimming underwater
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4. A penguin's striking coloring is a matter of camouflage; from above, its black back blends into the murky depths of the ocean. From below, its white belly is hidden against the bright surface.

Penguins swimming in the ocean
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5. Fossils place the earliest penguin relative at some 60 million years ago, meaning an ancestor of the birds we see today survived the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

Emperor penguins with chicks
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6. Penguins ingest a lot of seawater while hunting for fish, but a special gland behind their eyes—the supraorbital gland—filters out the saltwater from their blood stream. Penguins excrete it through their beaks, or by sneezing.

Penguin swimming in the ocean
iStock/Musat

7. Unlike most birds—which lose and replace a few feathers at a time—penguins molt all at once, spending two or three weeks land-bound as they undergo what is called the catastrophic molt.

Gentoo penguin chick molting
iStock/ChristianWilkinson

8. All but two species of penguins breed in large colonies of up to one thousand birds.

A colony of king penguins
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9. It varies by species, but many penguins will mate with the same member of the opposite sex season after season.

Two chinstrap penguins
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10. Similarly, most species are also loyal to their exact nesting site, often returning to the same rookery in which they were born.

Magellanic penguin nesting in the ground
iStock/JeremyRichards

11. Some species create nests for their eggs out of pebbles and loose feathers. Emperor Penguins are an exception: They incubate a single egg each breeding season on the top of their feet. Under a loose fold of skin is a featherless area with a concentration of blood vessels that keeps the egg warm.

Penguin eggs
iStock/Buenaventuramariano

12. In some species, it is the male penguin which incubates the eggs while females leave to hunt for weeks at a time. Because of this, pudgy males—with enough fat storage to survive weeks without eating—are most desirable.

A group of emperor penguins and chick
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13. Penguin parents—both male and female—care for their young for several months until the chicks are strong enough to hunt for food on their own.

Penguin chick and parent on a nest
iStock/golnyk

14. If a female Emperor Penguin's baby dies, she will often "kidnap" an unrelated chick.

Three emperor penguin chicks
iStock/AntAntarctic

15. Despite their lack of visible ears, penguins have excellent hearing and rely on distinct calls to identify their mates when returning to the crowded breeding grounds.

Gentoo penguins
iStock/Goddard_Photography

16. The first published account of penguins comes from Antonio Pigafetta, who was aboard Ferdinand Magellan's first circumnavigation of the globe in 1520. They spotted the animals near what was probably Punta Tombo in Argentina. (He called them "strange geese.")

A group of magellanic penguins on the seacoast
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17. An earlier, anonymous diary entry from Vasco da Gama's 1497 voyage around the Cape of Good Hope makes mention of flightless birds as large as ducks.

A cape penguin in South Africa
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18. Because they aren't used to danger from animals on solid ground, wild penguins exhibit no particular fear of human tourists.

Man videotaping a penguin in Antarctica
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19. Unlike most sea mammals—which rely on blubber to stay warm—penguins survive because their feathers trap a layer of warm air next to the skin that serves as insulation, especially when they start generating muscular heat by swimming around.

Penguin swimming in the ocean
iStock/Musat

20. In the 16th century, the word penguin actually referred to great auks (scientific name: Pinguinus impennis), a now-extinct species that inhabited the seas around eastern Canada. When explorers traveled to the Southern Hemisphere, they saw black and white birds that resembled auks, and called them penguins.

This story was first published in 2017.

10 Colorful Facts About Cassowaries

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iStock/BirdImages

All birds are living dinosaurs, but the dagger-clawed cassowary especially looks the part. Even wildlife biologists call cassowaries the world's most dangerous bird—and yes, it has been known to kill people. Here’s everything you need to know about the majestic and terrifying beast.

1. The southern cassowary is Earth's second-heaviest bird.

Scientists recognize three living species of cassowary—all of which live in New Guinea, northeastern Australia, and nearby islands. The dwarf cassowary is the smallest, with an average height of around 3 feet. The northern cassowary, an orange-throated behemoth, can stand nearly 5 feet tall. The southern cassowary is bigger than both at 5 foot 6 inches tall. The only two birds that grow taller are ostriches and emus. Adult southern cassowary females can weigh up to 157 pounds, and males 121 pounds, making them the second-heaviest birds on the planet behind ostriches.

2. Cassowaries have dangerous feet.

In the southern cassowary's Australian range, you might come across warning signs that read “Be Cass-o-wary.” Heed this advice. Normally, cassowaries are shy and reclusive, but they can become aggressive when threatened and strike back with powerful head-butts and pecks. Their most dangerous weapon is the razor-sharp claw on the middle toe of each foot, which, in southern cassowaries, grows to be 5 inches long. The birds deliver a series of downward kicks that have been known to break bones and cause fatal lacerations. 

3. Rearing cassowary chicks is the father's job.

Female cassowaries breed with several partners. After laying her eggs, she abandons them, at which point the males take over and incubates the eggs for at least 50 days. The fathers never leave the nest, not even to eat or drink. Once the eggs hatch, males spend the next nine months raising and defending the chicks. Males also teach the chicks how to forage so they can fend for themselves.

4. Cassowaries are surprisingly good jumpers.

What’s scarier than a 150-pound modern dinosaur with killer claws? One that can leap 7 feet off the ground. To get the most out of those toe daggers, cassowaries will sometimes jump feet-first at an attacker, with the claws slashing downward in midair. They’re also great swimmers and sprinters with a top running speed of 30 miles per hour.

5. Cassowaries have a spike hidden on each wing.

Cassowaries are closely related to emus and more distantly related to ostriches, rheas, and kiwis. All of these birds, known as ratites, are flightless. Cassowaries have small vestigial wings tipped with a small claw that probably serves no purpose.

6. Cassowaries are frugivores that also eat their own poop.

Wild cassowaries dine mainly on fruits and berries that fall to the ground in the rainforests they call home. A typical southern cassowary can eat up to 11 pounds of fruit a day, along with plenty of fungi and the occasional dead animal for some extra protein.

Cassowaries also hunt rodents, snails, and lizards. Poop is yet another item on the menu. Cassowary poop usually contains half-digested fruit, which still has plenty of nutritional value, so the birds devour each other’s droppings as well as their own. 

7. The function of their odd crests, or casques, is a mystery. 

Cassowaries sport royal-blue necks and shaggy black feathers, but their most distinctive feature is the helmet-like casque that sits above the eyes. The bony protrusion is covered with a sheath of keratin (the material that makes up your fingernails), and it begins to develop when the bird is around 2 years old. Scientists have long speculated, sometimes wildly, about its purpose. One theory is that casques help cassowaries push aside forest underbrush. The casques might also be used to attract the opposite sex.

A more interesting hypothesis involves how these birds communicate. Cassowaries emit very deep bellows—the lowest bird calls known to humans. Perhaps their casques amplify and broadcast these sounds by acting as a resonance chamber. Certain crested dinosaurs (like Parasaurolophus of Jurassic Park fame) may have produced calls the same way.

8. Cassowaries can live for decades (at least in zoos).

Naturalists don’t know how long a wild cassowary can expect to live. A few southern cassowaries have reached their 40th birthdays in captivity. In zoos, northern cassowaries can top that figure—one reached the age of 48 and another may have been as old as 61. The average lifespan for captive dwarf cassowaries is about 26 years.

9. Cassowaries have strange genitalia.

Both sexes have a pseudo-penis that isn’t connected to any of their internal reproductive organs. When cassowaries mate, the male ejaculates through his cloaca, an orifice at the base of the pseudo-penis. When they aren’t mating, males' pseudo-penis is turned inside out and retracted.

Such peculiar anatomy has given the cassowary a unique place in New Guinean culture and folklore. For example, the native Mianmin people tell stories about a human woman with a penis who somehow transformed into a cassowary. Another indigenous group, the Umeda, put on a regular ceremony called “ida.” A big event that lasts for two days and nights, the ritual involves a fertility dance which calls for two male dancers who represent a pair of cassowaries. Each player is given a heavy mask and is coated with charcoal from head to toe.

10. At least two unfortunate humans have been killed by cassowaries. 

To date, there have been only two verified reports of a cassowary taking human life. In April 1926, a cassowary fatally charged 16-year-old farmer Phillip McLean in north Queensland, Australia. More recently, a 75-year-old Florida man was killed by a cassowary he had kept as a pet at his exotic bird farm.

In 1999, Queensland Parks and Wildlife ranger Christopher P. Kofron analyzed 150 documented cassowary-on-human attacks. Twenty-two percent of attacks resulted from the bird defending itself, its eggs, or its chicks, 5 percent were triggered by somebody getting too close to the cassowary’s food, and 73 percent involved a cassowary that associated people with free meals. Many cassowaries in Australia had lost their natural shyness around humans thanks to people feeding them bananas and watermelon. Today, feeding a wild one is against the law, but the practice continues.

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