Beware the Blood-suckers!
It’s no accident that vampires and blood-sucking aliens feature so prominently in the movies and popular culture. Knowing that something wants your blood is a uniquely disquieting feeling, and the fact that it’s lurking in your own home – not on the set of True Blood or the latest Twilight film – makes it all the worse.
While Count Dracula and his undead kin aren’t really out to get you, and there are no vampire bats in Britain other than in a few zoos, there are plenty of lesser “creatures of the night” that are just itching to plunge their mouth-parts into your veins. Here’s a quick guide to some of what you might call – and quite rightly – the most blood-thirsty.
Bed BugsIf only Cimex lectularius – the common bed bug – was larger, it wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Dr Who, but then since it can consume five times its own body weight in blood, in less than 15 minutes, it’s probably a good job it’s not! As it is, with each female laying some 500 eggs in her lifetime, and four or more generations of hungry mouths being produced every year, this small blood-sucker does quite enough damage at little more than 6mm long.
Emerging from their daytime hiding places once they detect the presence of a warm sleeper, a colony of bed bugs crawling across your bedding is an image straight out of a horror movie in miniature. Once they have fed, now newly engorged and dark with ingested blood, they’ll make their way back home, gradually returning to their former pale, flat selves as they digest their meal. When they have, like the Terminator, you just know they’ll be back!
TicksTake a walk in the countryside – especially between late spring and early autumn – and you may come back with more than you bargained for – in the unpleasant shape of a tick. Between meals, these small blood-sucking cousins of spiders and mites hide in the long grass, in bracken or in bushes, until a warm-blooded animal happens along. Although some British species only bother one type of creature, others are more than happy to accept all the blood donations they can. Humans and our pets will do very nicely, thank you – just sit back and watch that tiny “spider” bloat its body to the size of a pea!
Worldwide, ticks are responsible for spreading a range of diseases, but fortunately while the varieties found in the UK can carry infections, they generally don’t pose the risk that they do in other parts of the world. The one notable danger is Lyme Disease, which can cause serious long term health problems – though it is, happily, both very rare and highly unlikely to prove fatal. The symptoms often include fever and headaches, but in some people they can be rather more general and flu-like, so any post-bite illness should be checked out by your GP just to be sure.
FleasIf you’re a cat or dog owner, you’re pretty much bound to come across fleas sooner or later. A single female can lay several hundreds of eggs, getting started within a couple of days of her first feed of blood. Her eggs will fall off Tiddles and Fido, into their bedding, and since nice, warm centrally-heated houses make great flea nurseries, although she will only live for a little under a month, unless you act swiftly your home’s flea population will be vast in no time at all.
Fleas are well adapted for their way of life. They have no ears and are almost totally blind, but by sensing vibrations, body heat and the carbon dioxide in breath, they manage to locate their victims, and their flattened bodies are perfectly designed for quick movement through fur once they find them.
Blood-Suckers and DiseaseAround the world there’s no shortage of blood-suckers, including sand flies, tsetse flies, “kissing bugs”, mosquitoes, gnats and midges as well as some kinds of lice and mites, with this assorted bunch of beasties and their kind being vectors for many blood-borne diseases. Amongst the illnesses to be laid at the door of these diminutive Draculas are the likes of sleeping sickness, dengue fever, filariasis, leishmaniasis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Chagas disease, West Nile fever, malaria and bubonic plague! At least in Britain, you are reassuringly unlikely to ever risk encountering any of these.
Despite its distinctly ‘squikkie’ overtones, there are good reasons for feasting on blood – technically known as haematophagy – at least from the point of view of the creature doing the sucking. Blood is after all, a nutritious food, if you like that sort of thing! Besides, blood suckers aren’t all bad. Hirudin, which is widely used as a blood thinner, comes from leeches and recently desmoteplase, a new drug for stroke patients, was developed from the saliva of Desmodus rotundus – none other than our old friend the vampire bat!
Still not convinced? Well, you’re not exactly alone! Fortunately there are suitable remedies available and in the other sections of this site you’ll find loads of useful information, hints and tips to help you deal with any of this blood-thirsty crew if you or your family are unlucky enough to encounter them. Blood’s thicker than water, after all!