Milius versus the bed bugs

Science News writer Susan Milius experiences the perils of knowing what bed bug scientists do in their own hotel rooms

SEATTLE, January 4 — It’s been years since I last lay awake in the dark worrying about what’s under the bed. Or even worse, what’s behind it.

But I’ve just switched coasts and woken up in a Seattle hotel room at 4:07 am Pacific Time. And now I can’t stop thinking about the personal stuff that bed bug scientists told me about their adventures in hotel rooms.

I did check out this Seattle hotel at, which I learned about at the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of America several weeks ago. Anyone encountering bed bugs in hotels or residences in the United States or Canada can post a notice of infestation at the Web site. And I can attest that the site makes riveting reading for anyone planning a trip.

When I checked out Seattle, there didn’t seem to be a lot of hotels mentioned, considering how much travel there is. The trouble is that a registry is only as good as the people who bother to post on it.

I’m trying not to think about those omissions now. The rest of the entomology meeting keeps echoing in my head. Bed bugs are resurging in North America after decades as a rarity. Hotels are getting infested again, and suitcases are carrying hitchhiking bugs to even more hotels — and not just cheap, broken-down places at that. So how do bed bug scientists stay in a hotel at all, I started asking them.

Andrea Polanco-Pinzón of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg told me that her graduate advisor checked the lab members’ hotel rooms for bed bugs before giving the all clear for folks to settle down and unpack. And if I wanted to hear about a bed bug scientist who found something nasty in his room, she urged me to go find Michael Potter of the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

Potter told the story at the end of his talk, showing a magnified picture of a dusty wooden surface with discarded bed bug skins and a larva he had found when searching his current hotel room. At two of the last three entomological society annual meetings, he said, his room has had bed bugs.

During the lively question period after his and several other bed bug talks, someone voiced the question I suspect all of us were thinking: When Potter and other bed bug scientists go out looking at creeping, crawling infestations, do the bed bugs hitchhike home?

Potter took the question in good grace and said he’s very careful. One of the easiest mistakes to make, he warned, is forgetting to look for hitchhiking bed bugs on the bottom of shoes when leaving an infested site. Also, he said, on getting home, “you do the stripping-in-the-garage thing.”

Actually I don’t know what he said right after that. I was overwhelmed by the image of my downtown apartment building where we count ourselves lucky if we park within a block of the front door. Getting home from an infestation, should I ever have to do it, is going to take careful planning.

After the talks, Potter gave me a little coaching about just what it means to check a hotel room. (His web site,, has instructive pictures of mattresses and couch cushions.) Undo the bed sheets and check seams and corners, he says. Bed bugs when not bloated from a meal are thin as a sheet of paper and can squeeze into minute crevices. Immature bed bugs are even smaller and paler than adults, but bed bug excrement leaves surprisingly dark stains.

When pressed though, Potter said a clean mattress doesn’t necessarily mean a clean room in his experience. All the disturbance of maids changing linen so often, he speculates, may drive the bugs to crevices elsewhere in the room, such as headboards.

That part of the conversation stuck with me when I checked in to this hotel last night. It’s well located with appealing Internet rates. But what had looked quaint in the Internet pictures just seemed seedy after remembering Potter’s web site.

So I put my luggage in the bath tub, which surely shouldn’t have bed bugs, and began yanking sheets out of their tidy tucks and peering into the seams. Given the low-wattage hotel light, I was glad I had a small flashlight in my purse, though I did half expect the mattress to say, “Ahhh.”

I moved on to the suitcase stand. This idea came from Stephen Kells at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. He too studies bed bugs but told that he usually just checks hotel beds and suitcase stands.

He acknowledged, however, that he’s not particularly sensitive to bed bug bites. The more often someone gets bitten, the more likely reactions become, with mad itching and swelling red welts. Kells is lucky with bed bugs but he still doesn’t have an easy time in hotels. He’s ultra sensitive to cat fleas, he said.

I didn’t meet anyone who intentionally gets bitten, but I didn’t meet the whole crew from Virginia Tech. Polanco-Pinzón told me that when she needs lab bed bugs fed on human blood, she turns to her advisor’s remarkable husband. (Normally the lab maintains the colony on chicken blood.) Said husband doesn’t react badly to bites and apparently has a strong commitment to science. So he allows researchers to set containers of bed bugs upside down on his arm. A mesh covering on the jars allows the bugs to poke through and jab into his flesh. If he’s busy, Polanco-Pinzón says, he sits at his computer with the bug-dining arm and its jars across his body much as if he were nursing a baby.

I’m not that committed. I play the flashlight this way and that over every surface of the suitcase stand as if were an archaeological treasure. All I discover is that even a simple metal stand with a few straps has an astonishing number of crevices.

I’m beat. I decide to leave my luggage in the tub in case I wake up burning for a new round of bug hunting. One of the entomologists’ PowerPoints had included a picture of someone sleeping in a tub to avoid bed bugs. It was a joke, or so I thought at the time.

As I sit on the bed in Seattle fiddling with the clock, I feel the headboard looming behind me. Plenty of hotels now have headboards mounted on walls, and Potter had discussed some of the suggestions for checking out bugs behind them: poking a business card down into the cracks or blasting a hairdryer into the gap. I hadn’t gotten the impression that Potter had high hopes for the effectiveness of these techniques.

What he does not —repeat, not —recommend is trying to get the headboard off the wall, even if the board is just sitting in a slot and not bolted in. Headboards, especially for the more luxurious sizes of beds, can get heavy enough to wrench backs or smash toes. I try to put Potter’s picture a buggy bed out my mind.

I fail.

The headboard comes off the wall with surprising ease. Though I see why this endeavor is not recommended. This bed is probably only a full, not a queen or a king, yet even its relatively light headboard is still a lot of acreage wavering around. I avoid smashing the lamp only by a last-minute course correction.

Now I’m really grateful for the flashlight. This headboard has a beige fabric back, about the color I remember from the picture of the immature bed bugs. Also the fabric has thousands of crevices.

I start working over it with the flashlight and then realize that I’m now leaning against the back side of the fabric. There’s no garage handy, but I jump back, strip off my sweater, dump it in the tub, remember that’s supposed to be the bug-free zone for my suitcase and end up wadding the sweater in the hotel’s plastic laundry bag.

Changing into another shirt, I gingerly go back to the headboard. There’s dust but I don’t see any obvious bugs.

So that was last night. And in spite of what my East Coast sleep cycle says, it’s still night. I’m going to close the laptop and close my eyes, and find something else to worry about. Like the fact that the headboard is back on the wall mount but is really, really crooked.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.