Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
“I think I just killed a bed bug,” said my cousin’s voice in a message. “Call me.”
I was immediately skeptical. She had just moved into a share with two other women. The person she was replacing was returning in a few months.
Although the bugs could have been there without the roommates' knowledge, it just didn't seem likely, and there was no reason to think this household was in a bed bug crisis. I called my cousin back immediately.
“First, take a deep breath,” I told her. “Next, make sure it’s a bed bug before you say anything to your roommates. If it is one, they’ll blame you since you just got there. If it isn’t, they’ll get panicked for no reason.”
I asked her to describe it.
“It’s kind of pear-shaped and has a little white thing in the middle,” she said.
“Hmmm,” I said. “It could be a roach nymph.”
“Oh, it has those ridges across the back,” she said. So do roach nymphs, I told her. But the resemblance stops there. Bed bugs are oval, not pear-shaped, and the unfed ones have a red dot in their middle, not the other way around.
"That does not necessarily sound like a bed bug," I said. “E-mail me a picture."
Bed bugs are a major problem, but they are still not a conclusion to be jumped to without hard evidence.
“People think they have bed bugs the way you get a bad headache and think it’s a brain tumor,” I told my cousin. Like many dire illnesses, they have a lot of symptoms that could be a sign of anything.
And many types of bugs are mistaken for bed bugs by the uninitiated and uninformed (which unfortunately can include the occasional pest-control operator). Here are some bugs you might be seeing (and mistaking for bed bugs):
- Those little shiny oval-type bugs that are dark brown, so look blood-filled? They’re not. They are spider beetles, and they are roughly the shape of fleas in terms of profile (the source of a misidentification by my doctor in the other direction that delayed my noticing my second infestation in 2010). Spider beetles are harmless and don’t even look anything like a bed bug, once you put them side by side, as Bedbugger.com did with these photos by Lou Sorkin last month.
- Carpet beetles are small, round and brown but have discernible wings. Their larvae look like minute furry caterpillars. The hair on those mini-caterpillars can be the culprit in bites--some people are allergic to those hairs, and when brushed by them, erupt in welts. Carpet beetles do not bite either, and although they can be a pain if they build up, eradicating them is nothing like getting rid of bed bugs.
- Book lice are small creatures that can be mistaken for bed bug nymphs. They feed on fungi and mold, according to Bedbugger.
- Bat bugs are tricky because they resemble bed bugs so closely that it takes a practiced entomologist looking under a microscope to i.d. them. Finding one is much better news than bed bugs: They are a bit less intrusive once you get rid of the bats, and take a bit less time to eradicate, as entomologist and PCO Jeffrey White describes in this video.
My cousin e-mailed me a photo of her find. As she had described, it had the ridges. But it was a different shade of brown than a bed bug, plus it was wider at the bottom end than on the top. I was convinced it was not Cimex, but sent it to Lou Sorkin, entomologist extraordinaire, anyway.
“German cockroach nymph,” came the reply the next morning. The whole thing gave me a bit of déjà vu; it was the same scenario and diagnosis I’d gotten after finding something similar when I first moved into the share in my last apartment.
Bottom line: Keep your cool when it comes to getting the bed bug diagnosis. As with an illness, always get a second opinion. It is important to be sure and deal with someone who knows bed bugs and their signs, lest you spend loads of money and then be bereft if hit with the real thing.
Theresa Braine is a NYC-based journalist and bed bug survivor whose work has appeared in the NY Daily News, People, Newsday and other outlets. Bedbugged! is her weekly column about life in the trenches and climbing out with your sanity intact.