Bedbug Sex and Violence
Instead of paying attention in class in Junior High School, Sally wondered about where snakes hid their penises. Many years later, she was hired to research and write about how all the other species on the planet “do it.”
Bedbug Sex and Violence was written for WebVet at the height of bedbug paranoia, which was entirely justified since infestations had returned with a vengeance. This article explains why.
On a recent trip to New York, I discovered that Gotham is under siege by a creature that I grew up believing had disappeared along with the age of nursery rhymes and the Brothers Grimm. “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
It turns out that prior to the middle of the twentieth century, bedbugs were very common. Thanks to DDT—toxic to all living things, including bedbugs—we have been free of these nasty pests. But as good environmental citizens, by eliminating the use of DDT we have spawned the return of these little beasts. In fact, they have returned worldwide, hitching rides in suitcases and clothing as we mobile humans travel about, unknowingly providing these creepy-crawlies with free public transportation.
I thought it only fitting to share their entertaining mating habits with you.
It seems that the male bedbug is equipped with a formidable, swordlike penis which he uses to impale his mate—in her stomach, of all places. No wonder it’s called “traumatic copulation!” His sperm then enters the female’s bloodstream, eventually arriving at a storage gland, where it remains until (and this is where people come into the picture) the female feeds on human blood and produces a clutch of eggs ready to be fertilized.
No pain, no gain
In wily nature, nothing happens without a benefit. Because the male ejects such copious amounts of sperm, there’s enough left over for lunch. In other words, the female uses part of the male ejaculate as nourishment. As always in the survival-of-the-fittest scheme of things, healthy, well-nourished females produce thriving bedbug babies.
I should mention that there is some compensation provided to the assaulted female. She has evolved something called the Organ of Berlese (named after a famous entomologist—not what you’re thinking). The Organ of Berlese is, “a pad of tissue in the abdomen that assists in repairing the puncture wound.” (A Natural History of Sex by Adrian Forsyth).
Of course the female of the species would have to manufacture her own bandage! And by the way—all that assaultive sex?—the more of it she has, the shorter her life expectancy. Female bedbugs have been known to give the males a wide berth.
“Come here baby, let me show you my witty rapier.”
“Not tonight, Henry, I’m having my Organ of Berlese time of the month. I’m still getting over my wound from our last date.”
And what does the male get out of all this fierce stabbing and impaling (aside from the moment)? His sperm is in her bloodstream, and short of death by squishing, can’t be eliminated. A giant high-five to the lowly bedbug. He has beat out the competition.
The entomologist Howard Evans remarked, “the image of a covey of bedbugs disporting themselves in this manner while waiting for a blood meal—copulating with either sex and at the same time nourishing each other with their semen—makes Sodom as pure as the Vatican.”
Wait a minute. Did he say copulating with either sex! Yes, yes, that’s right; there are homosexual stabbings and inseminations of male bedbugs too. Actually, here’s where it gets brilliant. When a male stabs another male in the stomach, his sperm travels through the bloodstream to the male sperm duct. When the injured party turns around and has sex with a female, the sperm he ejects is a mixture of his own and that of his male competition. The original stabber makes his victim spread his genes!
This is technically known as “sperm transfer by proxy”. And if you’re thinking that if there’s a term for this then it must be true for other species as well, you’re right: fresh water snails, the acanthocephalan worm and the list goes on.
Parting words of wisdom
If, next time you enter your bedroom, you notice an unfamiliar, sordid smell, and when you awaken in the morning you discover little, itchy, red welts all over your body, you can take some satisfaction in knowing that you have contributed to the well-being and robust baby-making of another species. Once you’ve realized this—go get some DDT!! (I’m only joking. I kid the bedbugs).
What I will say—because it bears repeating—“Sleep tight, and don’t let the bedbugs bite!”
Let’s lighten up the mood and get away from all this nasty violence. Next time, we’ll talk about perfume and pheromones and animal scent and the wicked ways they make living things want to mate with each other.