9 Myths About Bed Bugs, Debunked

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No one would blame you for being afraid of bed bugs: They infest our most private spaces and feed on us when we’re vulnerable. But once you dispel the common myths surrounding the insects, they suddenly seem a lot less scary. Here’s what you need to know about how dangerous bed bugs really are, where they like to hide, and the best ways to get rid of them.

1. MYTH: THEY SPREAD DISEASE.

Someone holding a vial containing two bed bugs on a white piece of paper.
STAN HONDA, AFP/Getty Images

If you have a bedbug infestation, you’ll feel itchy, have trouble sleeping, or develop an allergic reaction to the bites. The psychological toll bed bugs take on people is also a real issue: Research has found that it’s common for people living with bed bugs to experience anxiety, depression, and paranoia. But compared to other blood-suckers like ticks and mosquitoes, bed bugs aren’t dangerous—they aren't known to spread any diseases to humans.

2. MYTH: THEY’RE TOO SMALL TO SEE WITH THE NAKED EYE.

An engorged bed bug feeding on a person.
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If you’ve examined every inch of your mattress and still can’t find any unwelcome insect guests, you can relax a little bit: You would have likely seen any bed bugs that were lurking in the fibers (unless they're hiding somewhere ... more on that in a bit). It’s true that bed bugs are small—about the size of an apple seed—but they’re not so small that it’s impossible to see them with the naked eye. They’re normally flat, but when they’re engorged they’re even easier to spot. “When they are fed they look plump, like little sausages,” Virna Stillwaugh, an entomologist and pest control specialist who researched bed bugs at North Carolina State University, tells Mental Floss. But experts caution that bed bugs are difficult to distinguish from many other insects, so it’s best to get an expert for a positive identification.

3. MYTH: THEY ONLY LIVE IN BEDS.

An unmade bed.
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The bed bug's namesake may be its creepiest hangout spot, but it isn’t the only place they're likely to lurk. They can be found in the folds of curtains and laundry and the seams of couches and chairs. Their hiding place doesn’t even need to be fabric: They’ve been known to settle into drawers, wallpaper, electrical outlets, and even the heads of screws. It’s for this reason that any kind of free furniture, not just beds, you see out on the street should almost always be left alone.

4. MYTH: THEY ONLY COME OUT IN THE DARK.

A light shining on a bed and two pillows.
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Keeping your lights on all night won’t stop the bed bugs from biting. As long as the little pests are hungry, they’ll crawl out of their hiding places to feed, no matter how bright it is in your bedroom. The myth that bed bugs don’t like light may have originated from the fact that they’re nocturnal, and therefore more active at night. Don’t use this as an excuse to change your sleeping schedule, however, as they can bite at anytime.

5. MYTH: YOU CAN RECOGNIZE THEIR BITES.

A man pointing to bed bugs feeding on his arm.
STAN HONDA, AFP/Getty Images

Don’t depend on a telltale bite mark to alert you to the presence of bed bugs. People react differently to bed bug bites: They can come in various sizes, include irritated rashes, or produce no rash at all. A cluster of red marks where multiple bugs were biting exposed skin is one common sign to look out for, though the evidence isn’t always this obvious. Some bites don’t leave a mark or leave one that’s barely visible, allowing the parasites to feed discreetly for days.

6. MYTH: THE BEST WAY TO KILL THEM IS WITH RUBBING ALCOHOL.

A bed bug on a piece of cotton.
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One especially misguided myth suggests using rubbing alcohol as a DIY bed bug control method. But it turns out this isn’t very effective: In one bed bug study, rubbing alcohol only killed half of its intended targets. And on top of that, dousing your furniture in rubbing alcohol also turns it into a fire hazard. People employing this tactic have started several house fires in the U.S. over the last decade.

7. MYTH: YOU CAN GET RID OF THEM ALONE.

A man holds a leashed beagle that is sniffing a bed for bed bugs.
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Unless you’re an exterminator, never try getting rid of bed bugs on your own. Bed bugs are starting to develop resistance to certain pesticides, so even blasting them with harsh chemicals you bought from the store may not be enough to stop them. It usually takes a combination of factors, including heat and fumigation, to completely rid an infested home of bed bugs. “This is one of the things that’s not do-it-yourself,” Stillwaugh says. “It’s best left to professionals.”

8. MYTH: THEY’RE ATTRACTED TO DIRT.

A person cleaning a table top with spray and a cloth.
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Bed bugs are are often associated with dirty places, but in reality they couldn't care less about the cleanliness of your home: What they’re really looking for is heat and carbon dioxide, something every human being emits regardless of how they live. “Bed bugs have been found everywhere from high-end hotels to apartments and shelters,” Stillwaugh says. It is true that bed bugs have an easier time infesting disorganized homes, but that’s because the clutter gives them more places to hide and not because they’re attracted to filth.

9. MYTH: THEY CAN FLY.

An illustration of a giant bed bug shadow looming over a bed.
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Good news: Outside of your nightmares, bed bugs can’t fly. The tiny insects have no wings with which to swoop down upon their victims. They’re also incapable of jumping great distances—unlike their fellow parasite, the flea. If they want to get somewhere, they have to crawl there.

What's the Difference Between Pigeons and Doves?

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To the layman, the difference between pigeons and doves has something to with color, maybe. Or location. Or general appeal (doves usually get much better press than pigeons do). But what’s the actual, scientific difference between doves and pigeons?

As it turns out, there isn’t one. Paul Sweet, the collection manager for the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, says the difference is more linguistic than taxonomic.

“The word dove is a word that came into English from the more Nordic languages, whereas pigeon came into English from French,” Sweet tells Mental Floss.

Both dove and pigeon refer to the 308 species of birds from the Columbidae family, Sweet says. There’s no difference between a pigeon and a dove in scientific nomenclature, but colloquial English tends to categorize them by size. Something called a dove is generally smaller than something called a pigeon, but that’s not always the case. A common pigeon, for example, is called both a rock dove and a rock pigeon.

“People just have their own classification for what makes them different,” Sweet says. “So in the Pacific, for example, the big ones might get called pigeons and the smaller ones might be called doves, but they’re actually more closely related to each other than they are to other things in, say, South America, that are called pigeons and doves.”

The difference boils down to linguistic traditions, so feel free to tell people you’re releasing pigeons at your wedding or that you’re feeding doves in the park. Scientifically speaking, you’ll be correct either way.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

8 Hair-Raising Facts About Black Cats

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No member of catkind is more maligned than the black cat. At best, they're bemoaned as lackluster photography subjects; at worst, they're seen as harbingers of really bad luck. But there's a lot to love about these furballs, as evidenced by the holidays in their honor—the ASPCA celebrates Black Cat Appreciation Day annually on August 17 and, across the pond, October 27 is National Black Cat Day—and the facts below.

1. IN SOME CULTURES, BLACK CATS ARE GOOD LUCK.

A black kitten stretching
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They may have a less-than-stellar reputation in some areas of the world, but there are plenty of places where black cats aren’t bad luck at all. If you’re a single woman in Japan, owning a black cat is said to increase your number of suitors; if you’re in Germany and one crosses your path from right to left, good things are on the horizon.

2. THEY'RE A SAILOR'S BEST FRIEND.

Not only were cats welcome aboard British vessels to hunt mice, but sailors generally thought a black cat in particular would bring good luck and ensure a safe return home. A few of these kitties have been enshrined in maritime history, like Tiddles, who traveled more than 30,000 miles during his time with the Royal Navy. (His favorite pastime was playing with the capstan’s bell-rope.)

3. THERE IS NO ONE BLACK CAT BREED.

The Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) recognizes 22 different breeds that can have solid black coats—including the Norwegian Forest Cat, Japanese Bobtail, and Scottish Fold—but the Bombay breed is what most people picture: a copper-eyed, all-black shorthair. The resemblance to a "black panther" (more on those animals in a bit) is no coincidence. In the 1950s, a woman named Nikki Horner was so enamored with how panthers looked that she bred what we now refer to as the Bombay.

4. BLACK CATS ARE AS EASILY ADOPTED AS CATS OF OTHER COLORS.

Black cat facts.
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It’s common to think that black cats in shelters are the last in line to find their forever homes, but a recent survey from the ASPCA suggests otherwise. Although euthanasia numbers for black cats were some of the highest, their total number of adoptions was the highest of any hue as well. The vet who conducted the study argues that there may just simply be more black cats than other colors.

5. THEIR COATS CAN "RUST."

A black cat’s color all boils down to a genetic quirk. There are three variants of the black fur gene (solid black, brown, and cinnamon), and the hue works in conjunction with the pattern. If a cat has a solid black hue, but also the dominant tabby stripe gene, heavy exposure to the sun can make the eumelanin pigment in its fur break down to reveal its once-invisible stripes (another potential cause: nutritional deficiency). What was once a black cat is now a rusty brown cat.

6. THE GENE THAT CAUSES BLACK FUR MIGHT MAKE THESE FELINES RESISTANT TO DISEASE.

Even though their coloring is what gives them a bad reputation, these felines may be getting the last laugh after all. The mutation that causes a cat’s fur to be black is in the same genetic family as genes known to give humans resistance to diseases like HIV. Some scientists think the color of these cats may have less to do with camouflage and more to do with disease resistance. They’re hoping that as more cat genomes are mapped, we may get a step closer to curing HIV.

7. YOU CAN VISIT A CAT CAFE DEVOTED TO BLACK CATS.

Step through the doors of Nekobiyaka in Himeji, Japan and get ready for your wildest cat lady dreams to come true. Black cats are the stars of this café and visitors are invited to pet (but not pick up) these lithe felines. Each of Nekobiyaka’s identical-looking black cats wears a different colored bandana to resolve any catastrophic mix-ups.

8. THEY'RE DIFFICULT TO PHOTOGRAPH—BUT IT CAN BE DONE.

A black cat is photographed against a blue-gray background
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The modern-day conundrum black cat owners face isn’t bad luck, but bad lighting. In a world filled with people sharing photos of their pets on Instagram, black cats can end up looking like a dark blob in photos. One photographer’s advice? Minimalist backgrounds, so your subject can stand out, and angling them towards natural light sources (but keep them out of bright sunlight!). If you're snapping pics on your iPhone, tap on your cat's face, then use the sun icon to brighten up the photo.

BONUS: BLACK PANTHERS HAVE SPOTS.

Technically, there is no such thing as a black panther—it’s a term used for any big black cat. What we call black panthers are in fact jaguars or leopards and yes, they have spots, too. Their hair shafts produce too much melanin thanks to a mutation in their agouti genes, which are responsible for distributing pigment in an animal’s fur. Look carefully and you can see a panther’s spots as the sunlight hits them in just the right way.

This article originally ran in 2016.

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