Swallow Bugs Vs. Bed Bugs: How to Tell the Difference

Jessica Stone
by Jessica Stone

Although swallow bugs are not as prevalent, particularly in urban and suburban areas, they are commonly mistaken for bed bugs. Both pests are small and similar in appearance, and many assume that they are dealing with a bed bug infestation when they may have just found a swallow bug. For this reason, it’s important to understand the differences between them.

The easiest way to differentiate between a swallow bug and a bed bug is based on appearance. Swallow bugs are generally smaller than bed bugs, are grayish in color, have long, fine hairs, and visible antennae. Bed bugs, on the other hand, do not have body hair, are reddish in color, and their antennae are not immediately visible.

However, there is much more to this battle of swallow bugs vs. bed bugs than appearance. Continue reading to learn more about how to identify these two pests properly so that you can address the problem accordingly.

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What is a Swallow Bug?

Swallow bugs are one of several different types of bugs that look similar to bed bugs. Though, they are quite different. Swallow bugs get their name because they typically infest barn and cliff swallow nests. They are parasites that feed on these birds, but will also bite humans.

Swallow birds make their nests out of mud pellets and organic materials like hair, grass, fur, and feathers. These materials make a convenient place for swallow bugs to hide inside the birds’ nests. A swallow bug infestation can become so severe that many adult swallow birds may abandon their nests and even their hatchlings.

These pests attach to adult swallows’ feathers, which allows them to move from nest to nest. Swallow bugs can live without a source of food (blood) for an entire year, but may survive for up to three years without feeding. Because of this, they will wait in a nest until a swallow bird returns. The pests remain dormant during periods where swallows are not present and tend to emerge in late winter to early spring in anticipation of a new host.

Swallow bugs cannot reproduce unless they drink blood. They also can only develop and reproduce on the blood of cliff swallows. In fact, cliff swallows usually only return to nesting locations every other year to evade high populations of swallow bugs.

What Do Swallow Bugs Look Like?

Swallow bugs look nearly identical to bed bugs, which is why they are commonly mistaken for each other. The pests are wingless and have the same flat, oval-shaped body, with long four-segmented antennae. They are greyish brown in color and approximately 44 mm in size. Swallow nymphs are often much smaller and have a tan or red color, depending on how recently they’ve fed on blood.

Do Swallow Bugs Infest Homes?

It is possible to find swallow bugs in residential settings. If you have swallow birds nesting on your property in your building, you may end up with swallow bugs in your home. Perhaps they fell out of the nest they were infesting and crawled into your home. While inside, they may hide in cracks and crevices in your flooring, gaps in your upholstery, mattresses, or even in your closet.

However, it is unlikely that you’ll have a full-on swallow bug infestation in your home unless you have a swallow nest in your home as well. Ohio and Colorado have previously reported swallow bug infestations in hotels and high rises, as swallow birds are very common in these particular states.

Do Swallow Bugs Bite?

Since they survive on blood, swallow bugs do bite. Swallow bugs also can and will readily bite humans. There are two main periods when bites tend to peak. The first is in the spring and right before migrant swallows return to their nests and swallow bugs start to resume activity. Since most of the survivors are starved adults, they may aggressively seek out alternative blood sources.

Problems with swallow bites tend to subside when swallows are present and swallow bugs make their way to nesting areas. When the swallows abandon their nests, swallow bugs will be more commonly found inside homes and biting can occur.

How to Get Rid of Swallow Bugs in Your Home

Since swallow bugs will only be around when swallows are present, you need to get rid of them at the source. Once the swallows have left the nest, the entire nesting area must be treated and removed by professional exterminators.

That said, the following steps will walk you through how to effectively get rid of swallow bugs in your home:

  • Look for nests. Since swallow bugs come from the nests of cliff and barn swallows, the first step is to locate the possible nests on your property. Swallows are protected species, so you should not kill them or destroy their nests with hatchlings inside, as doing so is against the law. However, if the nests are empty, you can remove them.
  • Discourage the swallows from returning. Since swallows like to build nests in the same location, you need to prevent them from coming back. There are a number of methods for repelling swallows, including installing netting under eaves and overhangs and cleaning and disinfecting previous nesting areas to remove odors that might attract them.
  • Clean areas where swallow bugs hide. Like bed bugs, swallow bugs like to hide in tiny cracks and crevices. So, when you find them inside your home, inspect these areas and deep clean accordingly.
  • Consider hiring a professional pest control company. When you find swallow bug activity inside your home, it’s likely that you’ll need treatment with a residual insecticide by a professional to get rid of the problem. Though, these insecticides can be highly toxic to swallows and should not be used anywhere where birds are still active.

What is a Bed Bug?

Bed bugs, on the other hand, likely get their name from their habit of hiding in beds and feeding on human blood while they are sleeping. Although humans are their most common victim, bed bugs will also drink from a variety of warm-blooded animals.

The pests have been linked to humans for well over 3,300 years and are found virtually anywhere that humans like to gather, including homes, offices, hotels, schools, retail establishments, and even public transportation. Bed bugs are known for being brilliant “hitch hikers,” which is how they can travel such long distances. They will latch onto clothing, linens and even suitcases, ending up wherever these items go.

Since bed bugs are commonly confused with many other types of bugs, detection is challenging which populations to grow unseen.

What Do Bed Bugs Look Like?

Bed bugs are small, flat, oval-shaped, flightless pests with six legs that, like mosquitos, live off of the blood of humans and animals. They have a reddish-brown color and usually roughly the size of a poppy seed. Though, they can range in color from almost white to brown, turning a rust red after they’ve fed.

The common bed bug doesn’t grow much bigger than 0.2 inches and can be seen by the naked eye to the perceptive onlooker. However, nymphs are much smaller, approximately the size of the head of a pin, and can be more difficult to see. Although adult bed bugs have structures on their back that look like wings, called wing pads, they do not and cannot fly.

Swallow Bug vs. Bed Bug – Five Key Differences

Swallow bugs and bed bugs may look similar, but there are some distinct differences between these two insects.

  • For starters, swallow bugs are much smaller. Bed bugs are between five and seven millimeters in size, while swallow bugs around three to four millimeters.
  • Another key difference is that swallow bugs have visible antennae.
  • Unlike bed bugs, swallow bugs also have very visible hind legs. Even though bed bugs do have back legs, they are not visible to the naked eye.
  • Another distinguishing feature between swallow bugs and bed bugs is body hair. Swallow bugs have long, fine hair that coats their entire body, and bed bugs do not.
  • The final difference is color. Swallow bugs tend to lend more grayish in color, whereas bed bugs have a reddish hue.

Though possible, it is relatively uncommon to find swallow infestations in homes, as humans and their pets are not the primary food source of swallow bugs.

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Related Questions

Do swallow bugs fly?

Swallow bugs do not and cannot fly. They also lack any sort of wing structure. Though, swallow bugs do have exceptionally strong hind legs that allow them to crawl and climb around swallow nests and potentially make their way into your home.

What bugs are often mistaken for bed bugs?

In addition to swallow bugs, booklice, fleas, ticks, cockroach nymphs, carpet beetles, and spider beetles are some of the bugs that are commonly mistaken as bed bugs. The welts that form as a result of bed bug bites also do not distinguish the pest, as the bites look very similar to itchy bug bites from a number of other pests.

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Jessica Stone
Jessica Stone

Jessica considers herself a home improvement and design enthusiast. She grew up surrounded by constant home improvement projects and owes most of what she knows to helping her dad renovate her childhood home. Being a Los Angeles resident, Jessica spends a lot of her time looking for her next DIY project and sharing her love for home design.

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