Updated: Nov 1, 2019
Most of us can tell a yellow jacket from a bumble bee, or a mosquito from a horsefly. But beyond that it’s fair to say that the vast majority of us just don’t know our bugs very well!
On the other hand, why should we, really? Unless you’re a student of the natural sciences (and entomology in particular) or a Pest Management Professional (PMP), there aren’t too many times when you have to ‘Name that Bug’.
Well, that might be true. But what happens if you really need to identify a particular bug? More to the point, if you think you have bed bugs in your home, are you positive that’s what you’re dealing with?
True, an exterminator will certainly be able to identify the bug in question, but calling in a PMP is an expensive proposition, especially if you’ve mistaken the offending ‘bed bug’ for something else that you can easily deal with yourself.
So, let’s start with a brief primer on bed bugs. We’ve discussed bed bugs many times in our blog pages, so if you want more detail about them (or tips on how to get rid of them), check out either Bed Bugs - The Guests No One Wants or Why Is It So (DAMN) Hard to Get Rid of Bed Bugs?
Anyway, according to Michael Potter, a well-known and highly regarded entomologist at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture:
“Bed bugs are small, brownish, flattened insects that feed solely on the blood of
animals. Although the common bed bug (Cimex lectularius) prefers feeding on
humans, it will also bite other warm-blooded animals, including dogs, cats, birds
and rodents. . . . Adult bed bugs are about 3/16” long and reddish-brown, with
oval-shaped, flattened bodies. . . . Bed bugs do not fly, and they don’t jump like
fleas do ― but they can crawl rapidly over floors, walls, ceilings and other
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the pests that are often mistaken for bed bugs. They include:
Bat bugs ̶ so named because they are often found in, and around, bat nests ̶ in attics, under roofing, in caves, and abandoned buildings ̶ are among the most commonly misidentified bugs, in part because they are of the family Cimex pilosellus, which is related to the previously mentioned Cimex lectularius family. And, like bed bugs, they are parasites, feeding on the blood of other bats, although they will target human beings (or pets) if the opportunity presents itself! According to one reliable source:
“Bat bugs and bed bugs look almost identical in body shape and color. The most
useful identifying feature is their hair; a bat bug has longer hairs on their upper
thorax than those of a bed bug.”
So, you’re forgiven if you can’t readily distinguish as bed bug from a bat bug, okay? Still, you have to act upon what you know!
One final, but important point: Not only is it sometimes difficult to distinguish bed bug bites from those of bat bugs, but the same is true of scabies.
Scabies marks and bed bug bugs are remarkably similar, but their treatment isn’t.
Scabies is triggered when a person is bitten by small mites, specifically Sarcoptes scabiei var. hominis, an invertebrate animal closely related to ticks. And, like bed bugs, these mites
feed on human blood. However, while bed bugs feed on the surface of the skin, scabies mites actually burrow under the skin, where they feed and lay their eggs. This usually results in grayish-white, raised lines, unlike bed bug bites, which typically appear as raised, flat, red welts.
Unfortunately, scabies is highly contagious, and is easily passed from person to person. So, if you think you’re a victim, see your doctor right away!
Read more about how to tell scabies from bed bugs.
Given their taste for carpets (hence the name), carpet beetles are more akin to clothes moths than bed bugs, since they do not feed on human blood. Rather, they prefer such things as wool, fur, felt, silk, feathers, skins, and even leather! Why their preference for these materials above others? Well, it turns out that materials such as the ones listed above contain keratin, which is a fibrous animal protein upon which carpet beetle larvae are able to subsist.
According to a specialist at the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources:
“The adults are small (1/16 to 1/8-inch), oval-shaped beetles ranging in color
from black- to various ‘mottled’ patterns of white, brown, yellow and orange. . . .
[They] can also thrive on lint, hair, and debris accumulating under baseboards
and inside floor vents and ducts.”
The eggs of the carpet beetle can usually be found in air ducts, closets, under furniture, or under baseboards.
Cockroach nymphs are anything but nymph-like, and are very similar in appearance to bed bugs. However, unlike bed bugs, which cannot fly, cockroach nymphs eventually develop wings when they reach adulthood, which makes them a good deal more mobile than bed bugs. Like their bed bug compatriots, cockroach nymphs are nocturnal and like to find shelter in various cracks and crevices and cracks in the daytime. These cockroaches love dark places: Under sinks and cookers, behind refrigerators, in cupboards, around drains, etc.
New nymphs are fairly easy to spot, being bright white in color, although they will gradually darken in the hours after hatching. Then they become grayish-brown and continue to darken every time they molt ̶ which is fairly often. The time between the initial hatch and maturity can vary greatly, from a few months to a year!
NOTE: While cockroach nymphs might taint foodstuffs in your pantry, they normally don’t bite humans. However, their presence can trigger asthma attacks in those predisposed to such ailments.
Swallow bugs are not as prevalent as bed bugs, especially in suburban and urban areas, but they are certainly a viable species, formerly known as Oeciacus vicarious. As the name suggests, swallow bugs are usually found in barns, farm buildings, large warehouses, and storage sheds, although they can, and frequently do, take up residence on human habitats.
While bed bugs possess exceptionally flattened bodies (except when engorged with blood) with round abdomens; long, four-segmented antennae; and a small prothorax, swallow bugs can be distinguished from other, similar species by their antennae, the last two segments of which are the same length. Plus, swallow bugs tend to be grayish brown in color, whereas regular bed bugs are reddish brown.
According to BugGuide:
“Bugs lay eggs that hatch in 35 days; nymphs mature in 10 weeks; adults are
long lived and will mate and reproduce as long as food is available. Adults
disperse to other nesting colonies by clinging onto the feathers of the host
as it seeks for suitable nest sites. During the fall and winter when the birds
are absent, the adults either seek alternative hosts (e.g. mice, bats, other
birds) or remain in the empty nest- the bugs can survive for up to a year without food.”
While they’re a bit smaller than bed bugs, it’s easy to see why people regularly misidentify spider beetles ̶ especially if you’re not particularly familiar with either insect. It is probably the fact that most spider beetles are reddish-brown in color (although some are black) that causes the confusion. That, and the shape of their bodies, which are shiny and oval shaped. Like bed bugs, spider beetles prefer dark, secluded places to hide ̶ pantries, warehouses, and especially attics if they contain rodent, bird or bat droppings.
It is a misconception that spider beetles depend, like bed bugs, on the blood of human hosts. In fact, spider beetles rarely bite humans. For the most part they live on the foodstuffs found in most pantries. If you find holes in food packages, silken coons, or webbing in any exposed food, these are sure signs that you have a spider beetle infestation.
There are all sorts of ticks out there ̶ Blacklegged ticks, Lone Star ticks, American Dog ticks, Groundhog ticks, Gulf Coast ticks, Rocky Mountain Wood ticks, and Western Blacklegged ticks ̶ and they come in a variety of sizes and colors. But, to the untrained eye they just look a lot like bed bugs!
However, unlike bed bugs, which will bite, feed on your blood, then leave (usually at night, while you sleep), ticks burrow into your skin ̶ and stay attached. Some times for several days, before