Can You See Bed Bugs With The Naked Eye?
There’s no question that the thought of bed bugs makes many people’s skin crawl, mostly because they can be difficult to see. While they are small pests that can cause a big problem, many people ask me whether you can actually see bed bugs with the naked eye.
My quick answer is yes and no, but I will go more in depth so that you know everything you need to know about bed bugs (and probably more than you want to know). Even if bed bugs give you the “creepy crawlies” I believe that arming yourself with valuable information may help you avoid a bed bug infestation in the first place.
Can You See Adult Bed Bugs With The Naked Eye?
As mentioned, my answer to this common question is mixed. If you are looking for a bed bug and you know what to look for, then yes, it’s possible to see adult bed bugs with the naked eye. I have years of experience in identifying bed bugs, and if you want to identify them properly, you need to get close.
If you have no experience with bed bugs and don’t know what they look like, you probably won’t be able to see them. Even if you do see an adult bug, you may easily mistake it for something else if you don't know exactly how big bed bugs should be, or what shapes they come in.
Not sure if you’ve ever seen a bed bug? I’ll start by discussing the basic characteristics:
Bed bugs are about 5 to 7 mm or 3/16 to 1/4 inches in length. For a better idea of size, this is roughly the size of an apple seed. Keep in mind that the size of a bed bug may vary depending on the age (adult vs. nymphs) and whether or not it has had a recent feeding.
If the bed bug has just eaten, it’s body has a balloon-like and elongated appearance and is reddish-brown in color. A bed bug that hasn’t eaten recently has a long, oval-shaped body, and is brown in color.
Bed bugs have characteristics of a “true bug” which include:
- A beak with three segments
- Four-part antennas
- Non-flying wings (or wing pads)
- Short hairs with a golden appearance
- Six legs
- Cone-like eyes
When examining a bed bug up close, you may catch a whiff of their signature scent which is best described as a “musty and sweet” odor. This unique scent is produced through the glands which are located in the lower part of the body.
If you think you’ve spotted a bed bug, pay attention to how quickly it moves. Bed bugs typically move slower than other bugs.
Even though they are slow to move, they are most likely (and quickly) looking for a dark place to hide such as a mattress or couch once they are disturbed - and unfortunately, getting rid of bed bugs from a mattress or similar can be notoriously difficult.
Can You See Baby Bed Bugs / Nymphs With The Naked Eye?
You might think that properly identifying an adult bed bug is a little tricky, but identifying baby bed bugs (also known as nymphs) is often a much bigger challenge. If you’ve got a good eye and you know what to look for, you might be able to spot bed bug nymphs.
The size of the nymph is dependent on which life cycle stage it’s in, and they are often translucent or whitish-yellow in color. Like adult bed bugs, nymphs are easier to spot when they have recently eaten.
The typical sizes of a nymph during life stages are as follows:
- The first stage is 1.5 mm
- The second stage is 2 mm
- The third stage is 2.5 mm
- The fourth stage is 3 mm
- The fifth stage is 4.5 mm
To put that in better perspective, the head of a pin is about 2 mm, so that’s a good indication that nymphs are going to be a lot harder to spot than adults. Baby bed bugs have all the same characteristics as the adults.
Can You See Bed Bug Eggs With The Naked Eye?
Adult bed bugs, under normal circumstances, have a lifespan of about four-six months. During a female bed bug’s lifetime, she may lay up to 250 eggs and the eggs hatch between six to ten days. This gives you a quick glimpse of how many bed bug eggs you could encounter.
Can you see these eggs? The chances are pretty slim that you’ll spot them immediately, but much like the adults and nymphs, I believe you can see them if you’re familiar with their identifying characteristics.
Bed bug eggs are pearl-white in color, oval-shaped and about 1/16 inches long. Eggs that are more than five days old are marked by an “eye spot.” Identifying bed bug eggs can be very challenging and even with years of experience, I’ve come close to missing some newly hatched eggs.
Properly identifying bed bug eggs is an important step in preventing a full-blown infestation.
Where Do Bed Bugs Hide?
Despite its name, bed bugs have a variety of hiding spots not just underneath beds. Given their small size, bed bugs can crawl into the smallest of places. While they prefer dark and cozy spots like a sofa cushion or underneath a mattress, a bed bug will go anywhere it can fit.
I have witnessed many heavily infested homes where bed bugs were crawling in and around outlets and behind framed pictures hanging on the wall. Bed bugs will hide in the joints of a dresser drawer or on the tag of a mattress. Any space that you think might be off limits, think again.
Although they have a reputation of being a pest that only resides in low-income dwellings, bed bugs aren’t picky about their place of residency. Bed bugs will live in high-rise apartments in a busy downtown area, a motel that is in desperate need of maintenance and cleaning, or they will hide out in a clean, newly built home in a suburban area.
Even though people spot bed bugs in movie theaters and on a subway, the chances of transporting one into your home, during the daylight hours, is less likely. Bed bugs are more active at night, and if they are planning to move (such as hopping a ride in your suitcase), they will probably do that when you’re asleep.
What Are The Best Ways To Look For Bed Bugs?
Now that you have a better idea what to look for when searching for a bed bug you may feel the need to go over everything in your home with a fine-toothed comb and magnifying glass. Not only will that be labor intensive but it might lead you to a dead end.
It’s important to remember that even if you take the subway, stay in a hotel, go to a restaurant, and purchase a “like new” couch off of Craigslist, you aren’t destined for bed bugs. Yes, you may increase your chances of an infestation, but you shouldn’t avoid going out into the world or stop enjoying life out of fear of bed bugs.
How do you know if you have bed bugs? Sometimes the quickest and most accurate way to look for bed bugs is to identify the physical signs of bed bugs. Here are some common signs that bed bugs are (or have been) present:
- Rust-colored or reddish stains on mattresses
- Dark spots (approximately the size of a pinhead) which “bleeds” onto fabric like a marker
- Eggs or eggshells
- Bed bug shells/casings
- Alive and moving bed bugs
Whether you’re at home, staying in a B&B or hostel, or visiting friends, a quick look under the mattress and the bedding can give you a good indication whether or not bed bugs are present. If there’s a heavy infestation, you might see bed bugs crawling in and out of or around places other than a bed or couch. Don’t forget to do a quick sniff test for that musty and sweet odor.
Another way to look for bed bugs is to watch for bites or rashes on your skin. If you suspect that you may be living with bed bugs, it’s best to inspect your bedroom first. If you don’t see any eggs, nymphs, or adult bugs, you might need to wait for bites to appear on your skin; this is not the method that I prefer or recommend, but it is often a tell-tale sign.
Bed bug bites typically show up a few days after the bite occurs and while many people have a visible red welt that itches, others do not or mistaken it for a different type of insect bite. Unfortunately, bed bug bites can also last for a while, too.
When searching for bed bugs use a little common sense. When purchasing second-hand upholstered furniture, look in the crevices and underneath the cushions before purchasing or bringing into your home. When you return home from traveling via air, bus, or train, inspect your suitcase.
Which Bugs Are Sometimes Mistaken For Bed Bugs?
It’s not uncommon for people to falsely identify a bed bug. Even after years of identifying bed bugs, I occasionally need to do a double take when coming across specific bugs. As bed bugs become more common in households across North America, people are quick to assume that many bugs in their homes are bed bugs.
When trying to identify a bed bug properly, try to remember the “true bug” characteristics along with the odor and size. Although I think that bed bugs have a very distinct look to them, I am also aware that they are often mistaken for other bugs which may or may not be less of a problem.
Carpet beetles are round in shape, are often brown or black in colors, and may have a pattern of white, brown or orange. They are similar in size to an adult bed bug, but they have short antennas and a hard shell. They also have dense tufts of hair on their bodies.
Swallow bugs are another bug commonly mistaken for a bed bug due to being extremely similar in length and color.
When people have bed bug bites, they often mistaken the red, itchy welts for a flea bite or may even suspect a lice infestation. Flea have flat bodies and have “jumping legs.” Flea eggs resemble small, clear worms which are more likely to be found on your pet’s bed than on yours.
While lice also have six legs and other “true bug” characteristics as a bed bug, their bodies are long and tear-shaped. They can be found on mattresses and other pieces of furniture, but are more likely to reside on a human body, as they can’t survive long without a human.
As soon as you suspect that you may have bed bugs in your home, you may find yourself closely inspecting every speck of dirt you come across. I still remember finding a few seeds in my couch cushion and was convinced that they were bed bug eggs, only to later find out I had spilled a packet of planting seeds.
If you spot something that you think looks like a bed bug, a nymph, or an egg, don’t panic. It may be lint, dirt, or even a seed and yes, it may be a bed bug. Once you properly identify the bed bug at whichever stage it’s in, you can take the next step in preventing or eliminating an infestation.
No one wants to share their home with bed bugs. Even though I have years of experience and am fascinated by them, I do everything in my power to keep them away.
Despite all of the steps that people take to prevent bed bugs entering their living space, there’s always the likelihood that a few could hop on board with your luggage or come with a piece of furniture you buy at a yard sale.
The best way to keep bed bugs out of your life is by having the ability to identify them properly. Can you see a bed bug with your naked eye? It takes some practice but with if you have all the right information, you are more likely to spot them more quickly.
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