Thursday, 22 August 2013

Bed Bugs in New Products, Retail Stores, Imported Goods

In his Aug 22, 2013 blog post for the Huffington Post, Andrew Rennie describes a bed bug encounter. “Plainly visible on our brand-new sheet set, purchased at a big-box retail chain,” he writes, “was a bed bug. Dead, thank God, but its tiny, contorted legs twisting skyward still filled me with… dread” ("Parasites and Profiteering," Huffpost Living). 

Yes, that would fill me with dread as well. Suddenly we’ve gone from “don’t buy (or otherwise salvage) used furniture” to “nothing is safe.” Even brand new products, apparently, straight from the store, can be infested with bed bugs. 

At its actual size – about 5 millimeters long – this female bed bug would resemble other insect species to the untrained eye. Image by Gilles San Martin from Namur, Belgium. CC BY-SA 2.0

Where Bed Bugs Come From

Rennie’s post was not about bed bugs: it was about lousy customer service, and on
that topic I agree with him one hundred percent. By the time I finished reading, however, I was more focused on the whole bed-bug-in-the-new-sheets thing. How ironic – that an adult bed bug would be found neatly packaged in sheets that had never seen a bed! Sort of like getting a free sample of dishwasher detergent with your new dishwasher... only, not.

I wonder, was that bug identified as a bed bug by someone who really knows their bugs? An awful lot of insects look superficially like a bed bug (and if those sheets were imported, we’re not just talking North American insects). If the bug had turned up in a box of cereal, would it have been a weevil? Or a grain beetle of some kind? If it had arrived in a flower pot from the local garden center, would Rennie have given it a second glance? What's the probability that new sheets are now coming complete with a bed bug infestation?

It’s not impossible that Rennie’s nemesis was a bed bug. Bed bugs certainly can travel in shipments from other countries. Bed bugs have been found in retail stores. They could be present in a sheet factory, sure, but unless the employees of that factory are sleeping there too, you wouldn’t expect that to be a very happy home for a bed bug – lots of places to hide when the lights are on, granted, but not much to feed on in the dark.

Bed Bugs in Retail Stores and Products

Bed bugs can’t recognize new sheets as pay dirt and plan ahead. They don’t know an unused sheet from a windsock, a pillow from a bag of marshmallows. It’s us they recognize, not items we have never used. A dead bug in a package of new sheets is no more likely to be a bed bug than one in a package of computer paper.

The University of Minnesota tells us where bed bugs are most likely to be found in a clothing store (unsurprisingly, they don’t specifically mention the linen department of a big-box store). High-risk locations include fitting rooms, returns areas, seating areas, cloth bags attached to shopping carts etc. These locations have something in common: they are exposed to the (used) clothing and belongings of numerous people who could potentially bring bed bugs into the store ("Let’s Beat the Bed Bug," 2012).

As David Emery points out in Urban Legends: “Email: Bedbug Infestations Due to Imported Clothing,” imported products have not been associated with bed bug infestations in retail stores (, 2010). Similarly, unused manufactured products are unlikely to introduce bed bugs into our homes. 

Is it a Bed Bug? Be Sure

Anyone who suspects they have found a bed bug should have it properly identified before spending time and money on a problem that may not exist. I suspect Rennie’s “bed bug” was an innocent look-alike, left with “its tiny, contorted legs twisting skyward” when it got caught up in whatever process folds new sheets and jams them into plastic packaging.


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