WHAT DO BED BUGS FEED ON?

Written by: A O’Neill, Licensed Pest Control Technician

Bed bugs have adapted to live alongside us and feed on human blood or the blood of warm-blooded animals for centuries.  Why? because they need it to reproduce and survive. 

There are two main species that drink blood, Cimex lectularius (common bed bug) and Cimex hemipterus (tropical bed bug).  But it’s the common bed bug that plagues our homes, hotels, office buildings, schools, and anywhere else people gather waiting to feed on us.

Read on to find out about the feeding habits of this blood-sucking pest.

Close up photo of adult bed bug from side view feeding on human
Credit: Public Health Image Library publicdomainfiles.com

How Often Do Bed Bugs Feed

Bed Bugs are photophobic, which means they don’t like light, and they are nocturnal so they come out of hiding at night to feed when you sleep.  But how often they feed depends on certain conditions, such as host availability and having an ideal temperature of between 70-80ºF (21-27ºC).

If these conditions are met then each bed bug will feed every 5-10 days, and feeding can take from 3-10 minutes until satiated.

Before they feed their apple seed-shaped bodies are flat and a rusty-brown color, and when fed their bodies become engorged and elongated and a darker red-brown color.

Picture of adult bed bug before and after taking a blood meal
Picture of adult bed bug before and after taking a blood meal
Image credit: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/183643

After their meal, these cryptic parasites crawl back to their dark harborage areas to digest your blood, mate through ‘traumatic insemination’, and then lay eggs.

Thankfully bed bugs can neither fly nor jump but they can crawl quickly to get to a host and they like to hide within a few feet of where you sleep.  Common hiding places are the bed, mattress seams, box spring, and nearby furniture, or your couch if you sleep or rest on it for long periods of time.

Although bed bugs prefer to feed at night, there are some exceptions where they feed during the day, such as if the infestation has grown large and they are hungry, or if a person works nights and sleeps in the daytime.

If you’re seeing these pests in the day, then call a professional pest control company because it’s likely you have a growing bed bug infestation problem that will be difficult to treat on your own.

How Much Blood Can a Bed Bug Drink?

During a single feed a bed bug can take up to 6 times its body weight in blood? The before and after feeding image above shows how their bodies change so they can take it all in.

Do Bed Bugs Feed Every Night?

Having a bed bug bite you once every 5-10 days doesn’t sound too traumatic as a single bed bug does not need to feed every night. But remember there will be more than one bed bug and even a small population of them soon grows into a big infestation if not detected in time.

Unfortunately, moving to another bedroom to sleep in will only spread the infestation as they will soon find you in there too.

An infestation can contain thousands of these blood-thirsty pests, so you can imagine how many bed bugs could be feeding on you each and every night.

Do Bed Bug Nymphs Feed?

Yes. A newly emerged nymph (baby bed bug) is hungry when born and will seek out a blood meal immediately and feed.

Picture of Bed bug nymph feeding on  blood.  Baby bed bug is almost translucent and the human’s blood is visible inside its abdomen.

Bed bug nymph during feeding. Image credit: CDC/ Harvard University

A female bed bug lays approximately 5 eggs a day (various studies have differing amounts, but it seems to be around this figure) and possibly hundreds during her life cycle.

These eggs, which can be laid individually or in clusters are hidden in hard-to-reach places and will hatch in 7-10 days (7 days under ideal conditions mentioned above).  Each one is only the size of a speck of dust (1mm) and is translucent-white making them very difficult to see with the naked eye.

The immature nymphs will molt (shed their exoskeleton) five times before they become adults, and they will reach adulthood in approximately 21 days.

However, they must have a blood meal before each molt takes place.

Bed bugs cycle of life
Bed bug cycle of life from eggs to adults and molting stages.

If they are not able to feed then they are unable to molt to the next stage and eventually die. But these nymphs are hardy and can live for up to 4 months before feeding on their first meal.

How Do Bed Bugs Feed On Humans?

When we sleep, the heat of our bodies and carbon dioxide exhaled into the air attract bed bugs. They crawl onto your body and pierce your skin with their elongated mouthpart known as the proboscis (or beak) and feed until they are fully engorged. This can take anywhere from 3-10 minutes.

When a bed bug feeds on you, its proboscis becomes fully extended and has two stylets to drink your blood and inject an anticoagulant and anesthetic to numb your skin so you don’t feel it bite.[1] After the bed bug finishes eating, its mouthparts fit back under its body.

Not everyone reacts to the bites, but those who do can develop itchy red welts that may get irritated and prone to infection. Fortunately, although classified as a public health pest, they are not known to transmit disease but are associated with several skin conditions caused by scratching the bites or having an allergic reaction.[2]

In addition, bite marks from bed bugs look the same as other insect bites, making a diagnosis virtually impossible unless finding other signs of bed bugs in your home which include:

  • live bugs
  • shed skin
  • bloodstains on your mattress and bedding as well as black fecal spots

These are a good indication that the welts could be from bed bugs, but you need to find other evidence of bed bugs to be sure. 

You might also find these pictures of bed bugs feeding and bite marks interesting.

Do Bed Bugs Feed on Dogs and Cats?

What animals do bed bugs feed on? Bed bugs prefer human blood as it provides them with the right amount of nutrients needed to sustain them. But if a human host is unavailable then they will scavenge and feed on the blood of animals such as dogs, cats, birds, and rodents. Although this is not common they can be found in pet bedding in a severe infestation.

What Do Bed Bug Bites Look Like on a Dog?

If they do make their way through the fur and bite your dog, then the bites will look like small red welts on areas where there is less fur, such as the belly or legs.

Just as some people find the bites from bed bugs itchy, your pets can also have reactions to them which can cause skin irritation issues if they are scratched a lot.

How Long Can Bed Bugs Live Without Food?

Bed bugs are able to survive without a host to feed on for between 2 to 6 months.[3]

But what’s worse is that they can enter a type of hibernation called diapause for a year or possibly longer without feeding when the temperature drops to below 55ºF (12.7ºC) and they do not have access to a host.

This alone makes the common bed bug an extremely resilient and hard-to-treat pest and one you don’t want to find in your home or feeding on you!

Now you know what bed bugs feed on—blood, and only blood and as long as they can feed on it, they are able to grow and keep reproducing. So, if you suspect you have them it’s vital that you act immediately, read How to Permanently Get Rid of Bed Bugs which gives you step-by-step guidance to treat them on your own.

However, if it’s within your budget, then it’s always advisable to use a reputable pest control company to carry out an inspection and put together a bed bug treatment plan, so you’re free of these pests as soon as possible.

There are a lot of useful resources on this site that tell you everything you need to know about bed bugs.  

FAQs

Can cats and dogs carry bed bugs?

No, animals do not carry bed bugs and bed bugs do not live in hair or fur but they can be found in their bedding if the infestation is bad.
 

Do bed bugs eat food that we eat?

Bed bugs do not eat food like other insects such as cockroaches we might find in our homes. Their only food is blood.
 

Do bed bugs live on people?

No. Bed bugs are parasites that feed on human blood but they don’t live on us.  When they have finished feeding they crawl back to their harborage areas until they need to feed again. 

Do bed bugs eat dead skin?

Bed bugs feed solely on blood, which means they don’t eat dead skin. Their mouths are shaped so that they can only eat blood.  House dust mites feed on the dead skin cells that we shed. 
 

Do bed bugs die after they bite you?

No, they crawl back to their harborage areas to digest their blood meal. A bed bug will feed on you every 5-10 days during its lifetime.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3255965/

[2] https://www.epa.gov/bedbugs/bed-bugs-public-health-issue

[3] https://entomology.ca.uky.edu/ef636

I’ve been in the pest control industry helping people get rid of their unwanted pests for over 20 years, both in the UK and Canada.

As a licensed pest management professional, I’ve seen and treated just about every common household pest, insect, or rodent, you can think of. I’ve seen the damage caused when an infestation has been left too long and has become hard to get rid of.

For this reason, peststopsolutions.com was created. By having honest advice and the right guidance to hand, along with scientific evidence to back up claims, you are given information on the best eradication methods, as well as how to get rid of most pests yourself.