Bed Bugs! (How do we control these bastards?)

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I received an email earlier this evening–my cousin living in New York, in a beautiful old building. Apparently, his building is experiencing an infestation of bed bugs. Here’s his email:

I’m sorry to “bug” you about this, but i have some entomology related questions and i really need the help of an expert. there has been a huge bed bug problem in brooklyn and everyone i know is getting them. there is a lot of hysteria and misinformation, which is why i thought i would ask an expert. bed bugs is like the new AIDS in nyc.

here’s the deal: my apartment seems fine, but i have close friends in the adjacent building (which is owned by same landlord) who have bed bugs. we live in 100-year-old tenement style buildings that are cheap and beautiful but very poorly maintained. there is a lot of back and forth traffic between the two buildings. their apt has been exterminated twice, but the problem persists. other tenants in their building also have had them for quite a while. worse, mutual friends who live outside of our buildings have recently discovered bed bugs. and nobody knows if it has been spread around from visiting. i’m really worried that i’m going to have them soon, since i constantly hang out with the same people. i really don’t want to move or see my neighbors move since this would mean moving somewhere really ghetto or taking on a huge increase in rent.

Now, what good is having an entomologist in the family if she can’t help with insect infestations? So I spent several hours writing up a comprehensive inspection and treatment plant for him, then thought “hey, this would be perfect for my blog!” So here it is. Enjoy!

At the moment, bed bugs have made a huge come back in the US. They are extremely common in big cities (such as New York, SF, Chicago and LA) and have infested many upscale hotels and apartment complexes, which, as you might imagine, has caused no end of media coverage.

The good news is bed bugs have not been linked to the spread of any disease at all, and are therefore less dangerous than more common things like fleas. The even better news is that if you have an infestation it can be managed relatively easily so you won’t have to move or get rid of all your stuff.

The bad news is the management can be time consuming, and bed bugs can be really annoying. You can develop allergies to bed bug bites pretty easily, so prevention and treatment are important.

Basic Bed Bug Information

Bed bugs are extremely small (about 1/16th inch), blood-feeding insects that live in very tiny places and tend to emerge at night. (To give you an idea about the size, fully grown adult bugs have been found in picture frames between the glass and the frame itself). The females need a blood meal to produce eggs, and lay those eggs in small, protected areas such as crevices in beds, behind loose wallpaper, or cracks in the base boards. The eggs are laid in a sticky substance that allows the eggs to stick tightly wherever they are placed. Adults lay a stand of eggs every 15 days or so. Once the eggs hatch, the larval or baby bed bug needs a blood meal to grow. Bed bugs can live for around a year without a blood meal, which is one reason they are so tough to get rid of. They thrive in areas that are climate controlled, which is why they are so prevalent inside apartments and hotels.

Bed bugs can be easily spread. Since they are so small, they can crawl into clothing, luggage, animals, etc. and happily move to new places whenever they can. Most infestations start when someone travels to an area with an infestation and the bugs infest their luggage, or when an infested piece of furniture is brought into the home.

If you have a reaction to the bed bugs (most commonly a welt and itching around the bite) you can treat it with topical cortisone to reduce the itching and Benadryl or other oral antihistamine to control the reaction.
Now onto the good stuff: treatment. First step is making sure you’re infested by bed bugs. You don’t want to treat for them if you don’t actually have them. Bed bugs are found in small areas, and while they are commonly in the bedroom (since that’s where people are sleeping and easy meals) they can also be found everywhere else. You need to do a thorough inspection of the apartment to both identify if you have an infestation and where the bugs are. You don’t want to miss a group of bugs, since just a few adults can spark a full blown infestation within 2 weeks.

Step 1: Inspection

Inspection tools:

  • A quality flashlight
  • Thin blade spatula for looking behind wallpaper and under carpets
  • Screwdrivers and wrenches for dismantling bed frames, removing switch plates, etc.
  • 10x magnifying glass, just to make sure the bugs are alive when you find them
  • Garbage bags (for containing infested items as soon as you find them)
  • Packing tape (to seal garbage bags)
  • Vacuum cleaner
  • Steam machine (recommended but not necessary)
  • Carpet adhesive (available at any hardware store)

Start your inspection where you’ve seen the bugs or where you think the infestation started. Look along all edges, crack, seams, and fold. Screw holes are very important and can house huge populations. The bed itself should be carefully inspected, and the frame taken apart. Favored areas for the insects are where the head and shoulders of people rest. However, fully and carefully inspect the entire bed and frame.

As soon as a bed bug is discovered, stop your inspection and treat the insect. Bed bugs are easily disturbed, and may scatter once discovered. Don’t give them the chance to find new hiding places. Once those bugs are taken care of, continue your inspection where you left off.

Mattress

  1. Remove any mattress pads. Start with the edging/piping of the mattress, and look along all stitching lines.
  2. Check along the sides and edges of the mattress first, then continue to the top and bottom, following the stitching lines as a guide.
  3. Finish by giving special attention to labels, tags, air screens or buttons that may be present. Also closely inspect any holes or tears in the mattress, as these will allow easy access to the center of the mattress and could indicate a fully infested mattress.

Box spring

  1. Start with the edging and piping on the box spring.
  2. As you lift the box spring from the bed frame, pay special attention to the frame itself. Bugs on the frame will scatter seconds after being exposed to light, so check the frame immediately after lifting the box spring.
  3. Look under any plastic guards, if present. If there is a bad infestation, remove the plastic guards to check for bugs, then reattach with a staple gun.
  4. Double check any folds and attachments, and remove if necessary. (If there is no evidence of infestation in the box spring–i.e. fecal matter, bugs themselves or blood spots, then don’t rip it apart just to check thoroughly. I’ll give you some treatment advice in a bit).
  5. Check any countersunk screws, depressions, cracks, or dings.
  6. Finally, check the joints and corners of the spring itself.

Bed Frame

  1. Remove mattress and box spring and start with the rails, paying special attention to joints, welds, end caps, cracks, holes, seams, countersunk areas, damage, and dents. Bed bugs will hide in both metal and wood frames.
  2. Inspect all cross bracing, paying attention to areas listed above.
  3. Inspect the legs, wheels, and casters (if present).
  4. Remove head and foot boards, and pay special attention to features mentioned in #1.
  5. If bugs were present on mattress or box spring, you need to take the bed frame apart for an adequate inspection. If bugs were not found during your other inspections, you can adequately inspect the frame without dismantling. However, if you don’t dismantle it, be very careful during your inspection to not overlook possible cracks and seams.

Bed Area

  1. Move the bed frame and inspect area where the bed met the floor, paying special attention to dents or depressions in the carpet or floor.
  2. Inspect the baseboards, checking in cracks, depressions, peeling paint, peeling wallpaper, under plugs and phone jacks, and under carpets.
  3. If carpeting butts up against the baseboards, or is affixed to the wall, carefully peel it back a few inches to check for bugs. Carpet can be replaced using carpet adhesive. Use carpet adhesive sparingly.
  4. Remove any area rugs that were near the bed and inspect the area beneath the rug, and the underside/edges of the rug itself. If bedroom has wall-to-wall carpeting, peel back several inches starting from the baseboards and inspect the floor beneath, tack strip, and the underside of the carpet. Replace carpet with carpet adhesive.
  5. Use spatula to scrape or scoop the underside of the baseboard. Angle spatula so leading edge rests on floor and trailing edge scrapes the bottom portion of the board. Inspect debris. This may crush any insects present, so pay attention to blood spots or fecal matter present.

Once you finish the bed area inspection, move to the next piece of furniture and inspect using the same guidelines. Don’t gloss over any area, especially if there is a known infestation, since these bugs are so tenacious.

For small electrical appliances or toys, hold item over a plastic sheet and briskly shake or tap the item. Inspect any debris that falls from the item for insects.

Step 2: Control

As soon as you find a bed bug, or evidence of bed bugs, start control measures to treat present bugs before moving on to next inspection area. Work efficiently and quickly–you only want to move objects once if possible to discourage insect scatter.

Set up a “clean” area. Inspect and treat a single area of the apartment, and once this is finished, you can put each inspected and treated item in that area. This will open up other areas for inspection and allow you to keep track of what you have inspected and treated. Make sure you don’t introduce any untreated/inspected items to this area, especially if a confirmed infestation is present.

Treatments

1. Vacuum. As soon as you see a bug, vacuum it up. Once you have finished your inspection and treatments of the whole apartment, or the vacuum is full, empty it outside, preferably far from the building. Make sure you don’t let the contents touch your clothing or person, or you may carry bed bugs back into your home. If the vacuum has bags, seal the bag with packing tape and place it in the freezer for 24 hours. This will kill all the bugs in the bag. You can then dispose of the bag in the dumpster.

2. Steam machine. Steam is very effective as a treatment, and kills all stages of the insect. Once you have vacuumed the bugs up, thoroughly steam the area where the bugs were found. Make sure the area can dry completely, though, or you risk introducing mold and dust mites into the area (which are more dangerous than bed bugs in terms of allergies). For large items such as mattresses, put the item in front of a large fan. Steam kills the bugs instantly, but once the steam is removed the object is subject to re-infestation, so make sure to place the item in the clean area immediately.

3. Washing/drying. Clothing, bedding, and other washable items can be treated using the washer and dryer. Wash items at the hottest setting possible. The insects all die at approximately 120º F (48º C), so wash them on the “hot” setting, and dry them for at least 45 minutes on the highest heat setting. Any items that are near an infestation should be washed and dried (several times if it makes you feel better, although once should be enough). Items in other rooms or in dressers/closets away from the infestation may be ok, but to be safe wash everything in the apartment.

Items that cannot go through the washer (or you don’t want to wash) but can tolerate the dryer may be placed in the dryer for at least 45 minutes on the highest heat setting (at least 1200 F).

4. Freezing. Items that cannot be easily washed may be frozen. Cushions, pillows, stuffed animals, etc. should experience a core temperature of at least 230 F (-50 C) for 5 days to ensure total insect control. If you have access to a super freezer, instant death occurs at -150 F (-260 C). The lower the temperature, the shorter you have to leave the item in the cold.

5. Dry Cleaning. For items that cannot be washed, dried or frozen, you can take to the dry cleaner. However, the cleaner must be informed of the possibility of bed bugs so the owners can take proper precautions. This gives them the opportunity to charge you a lot more, so use this as a last resort (and for your very best clothing).

6. Mattress Covers. If there are holes or tears in the mattress, or you suspect for any reason there may be bugs inside the mattress or box spring itself, cover the mattress and box spring with a plastic, bug-proof cover. These can be found online at the Bed and Bath Store, the Natural Allergy Store, or Allergy Solution.

If you suspect living insects inside the mattress, make sure you use the vinyl covers. If you are simply preventing a possible infestation, you can use the cotton-feel covers. Seal the covers with packing tape along the sipper and seams, and leave in place for at least one year. (Remember that adult bugs can survive for at least a year without a blood meal, so a minimum of 12 months is recommended to starve any living adults). Use this same technique to cover the box spring.

7. Washing. Use a stiff-bristled brush and soap and water to thoroughly scrub any areas where bugs are found. The eggs can be hard to dislodge, so hard scrubbing is necessary. Wash several inches around the infested area, and use a stiff toothbrush to get into nooks and crannies. Use the hottest water you can stand, and scrub for several minutes.

8. Insecticides. Certain insecticides can be used to control bed bugs. However, only a few are rated to put on mattresses. Make sure you carefully read the label on any chemical you buy.

Recommended insecticides:

Diatomaceous earth: this is a natural, dusty substance that wears away the waxy cuticle on the outside of insect bodies. This causes the insects to dehydrate and die (imagine crawling through a bunch of razor blades–that’s what happens to the bugs). However, it’s safe for human exposure and consumption, so can be used on mattress, clothing, etc. Dust any areas you find bugs. Reapply as necessary. Incidentally, diatomaceous earth is effective for killing most insects, including cockroaches, ants, aphids, and fleas, so it’s really a useful substance to have around the house.

Raid, Hot Shot: This stuff is nasty, but contains several different chemicals rated to kill bed bugs. This is not at all safe for humans, though, so you need to keep it away from anything that will come in contact with you or your family. Use the spray stuff to spot treat infested areas, and get a full house or room bomb to treat an entire room. Remove any food and clothing before treating the room, and do not use on the bed. Wash all dishes after you treat the kitchen. You should be able to get either of these products at hardware stores.

9. Seal cracks and holes. As you inspect each room, seal up any cracks, crevices, holes, or dings that you may find. Bugs can move from apartment to apartment in a building along wiring and pipes, so seal everything you can find. Also tighten down plugs, phone jacks, and light switch plates.

10. Professional Pest Control. Many pest control companies have specialists certified to treat bed bug infestations. This can be costly, however, and will introduce hard core chemicals into your house (which you may not want). If you have a bad infestation, this may be your best option. Double check that the company you choose has bed bug expertise, and get references and recommendations. Also make sure the company thoroughly inspects your property and offers follow up inspections.

11. Surveillance. Once you have finished all the inspection and treatment steps, spend the next two weeks on the look out for more bugs. Remember that adults lay eggs in 15 day cycles, so you may experience another surge two weeks after your initial treatment. If you see more adults, treat the area as stated above.

Step 3: Prevention

Once you have erradicated the bugs, or if you don’t have an infestation yet, you should take steps to prevent a new infestation.

1.Create a “clean” island out of your bed
. Move the frame away from the wall (to prevent access to the bed from the wall) and keep all bedding off the floor. Wrap your mattress and box spring in a mattress cover (if your just trying to prevent an infestation, you don’t have to use the vinyl ones, which may be uncomfortable. Try Natural Allergy mattress covers. They are made to feel like cotton and move with you) to keep bugs from getting in there. Place the legs of your bed in small bowls of mineral oil to prevent access via the legs. Wash your sheets and blankets in hot water and dry in a hot dryer at least weekly.

2.Vacuum frequently
–at least every other day if you fear an infestation. A few times a week is fine if there are no bugs in the building. Incidentally, frequent vacuuming also controls fleas.

3.If you have visitors that may have been exposed to bed bugs, have them wash their clothes and luggage
(remember you can freeze luggage or put it in the dryer instead of washing it. You can also dust it with diatomaceous earth). Have them keep the luggage in their room, preferably away from the bed, and wash their bedding daily. Vacuum their room daily as well. Once they leave, do a general cleaning of the room, including a thorough vacuum of the floor, mattress, and drapes. Wash all fabrics, and dust base boards and any cracks with diatomaceous earth. If you happen to find adult bugs, treat it as a full blown infestation and follow the steps outlined above.

Sources

19 thoughts on “Bed Bugs! (How do we control these bastards?)”

  1. Hello!

    A couple of points– in many cities, including NYC, landlords are responsible for paying for bed bug treatment.

    Although people may want to go private and pay on their own, this can backfire. Neighbors may have bed bugs and be sending them over and have NO idea (Dr. Michael Potter estimates that as many as 50% of people with bed bugs don’t react allergically to bed bugs–no marks, no itching).

    If someone in NYC was going to have a HPD inspector come in and force the landlord to treat, OR if someone (anywhere) was going to call a pest control operator to treat, it’s really important they do not actually clean or treat their home before having the PCO inspect. Many people do this, and then call someone in, and no evidence can be found at that point, while bites continue.

    I am not in the pest control field, nor an entomologist, but I run a bed bug blog: bedbugger.com. And I hear a LOT of bed bug stories.

  2. You know nobugs–these are some really great points. People do need to be careful when cleaning then brining in professional help. It’s kinda like waiting to go to the doctor until all the symptoms are gone. Thanks for the heads up!

  3. thank u very much for the advices,it is a very good guide how to rid of this bastards!

  4. I hear it can take several treatments to get rid of bedbugs due to eggs left behind. Are there any treatments that get the eggs also?

  5. Facts/Details. The water temperature you quote is “1200 F”, don’t you mean 120 F? Other sites say it takes 140 F to kill the suckers. It’s all in the details. Ortho Home Defense Max kills the bugs too, and is “safer”. I am allergic to either the bed bug bites or the spray, first was the bites, later a rash (like prickly heat) now I’ve got hives. I’ll keep searching, good luck!

  6. Don’t mess with bed bugs. Bed bug treatment really requires an expert and even the experts are requiring two or three visits (or more for a serious infestation). Be careful with the Hot Shot and use only as labeled. Also, you didn’t mention active mattress liners as a mattress cover alternative for beds. Unlike encasements, active mattress liners (derived from the millions of bed/malaria nets used over the past 50 years) have published field data (see this month’s PCT magazine), kill bed bugs and actually have the potential to kill bed bugs missed in the initial treatment. Also easy installation (like a fitted sheet) makes this nearly foolproof for consumers and professionals alike. Active mattress liners also have shown excellent dustmite prevention as published in peer reviewed journals like the Journal of Medical Entomology 2002 Sep;39(5):755-62.

  7. Excellent informative post. Bed bugs…Uggh! They are so gross and yet they are so common. Thanks for all the great tips on keeping those bed bugs away and how to keep a mattress fresher longer.

  8. I also wanted to say something that worked for me: vinegar. After we had a friend over to stay from New Jersey, our mattress became infested with bed bugs. To kill them, I took off and washed the bedding and slowly poured white vinegar into the top of the mattress until the entire mattress was soaked, then washed the floors around and under it. My husband and I slept on an inflatable mattress in the living room for two nights until it dried completely, but that’s a small price to pay for sleeping itch-free.

  9. Freezing bedbugs will not kill them. In order to kill them they must be kept at below zero for a long time.

  10. my bedbugs are back in force. its so bad yhat when iam inmy class ill pull out a notebook and theresone running across thepage i squished it and there was blood all over the paper

  11. I was excited to uncover this great site. I want to to thank you for your time for this particularly fantastic read!

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  12. having a clean island around your bed will not prevent bedbugs. they do travel and have seen adults scurrying across carpet towards a bed.

  13. also just because you have been infested doesnt mean your cleanliness is lacking.yes we got infested and have battled them for a long period. at a couple occasions we thought our problem was over just to see it rebound. we have tried many different avenues of erradications and some work for a short period but the one that lasted the longest was heat. which entails heating the entire house up to 130 degrees for 4-6 hours. this is good and bad because you have to make sure all aerosols are removed.( i actually had a flea bomb explode in the house since we thought we had fleas biting to begin with.) also any candles,pill bottles,medicines,etc anything that can melt needs to be removed.furniture like couches and beds will have to be turned over as the bugs will go for cover to escape the heat. i turn my couch 3 times in the 6 hours and each time found more adults looking for a hiding place away from the heat. but i watched them do a death dance when exposed to the heat and within seconds they quit moving.(no RIP just die sucker) problem is within a few weeks it needs to be done again because the hidden eggs are hatching.if you have pets these bedbugs will hitch a ride to other parts of the house as well.also if the heat isnt circulated through the house the bugs will search for cool areas. so you have to take temperature readings in every room and adjust air flow to make sure even heating throughout.myself i used a propane heater and had cool outside air sucked in through it so it wouldnt shut down . again this isnt something anyone can do. i am trained in propane and firefighting so i know what to watch for and still had some problems. so my best advice is to contact a exterminator that is familiar with the high heat extermination.

  14. I have used Diatomaceous earth, It does NOT WORK! not on bedbugs OR fleas! or spiders or anything else, all it did was RUIN my vacuum, and make it very hard for us to breath.. You also forgot to mention if they are going to try Diatomaceous earth Make sure it is FOOD GRADE it’s the ONLY one that is safe around humans and animals! I got rid of the bed bugs in my sons room (I got them because I stupidly brought in a bed frame I got off the internet for free- will NEVER do that again) by scrubbing everything in his room down with a mix of Rubbing alcohol and water All dressers – removed clothes swept it out and washed it with the mix, inside and out , under and over! I left no ”stone” unturned, I scrubbed the baseboards, window sills,TV stand, desk door jams and door frames along with the doors, and sprayed a bedbug spray I bought from walmart (small bottle blue lid also is for lice) all over his carpet, and mattress, and his mattress has been in a vinyl zip up cover for many years(he’s a bed wetter) but I soaked his mattress with the spray, sat it out in the freezing cold (it was winter time) for 2 days, then put his clean mattress cover back on it (it’s washable and I washed/dried with HOT water and the highest heat temp my dryer has). I didn’t even know we had bedbugs for many months, He was being bitten but it looked like flea bites went to the doctor several times never once did they say bed bugs, and I was seeing NO bugs until about 6 months later when I went in to put something in his room I saw one crawling on his bed frame! that is when I went into killing mode. His room has been bed bug free for a few months, he got no more bites the 1st night after I scrubbed his entire room down and sprayed the bug spray from walmart. about 3 months later my daughter started getting bit, then I found all the signs of them on her bed! I’ve done the same thing in her room, and now she’s clear and free, but now they’re in my living room so I have to do it again.. How Do I know Diatomaceous earth doesn’t work. because I had been using it for about 8 months for fleas (my cats had them when I brought them home and I didn’t know it!) and even though I put it thick on the floors and around beds and even on the box springs and left it there for days – actually the box springs have been thickly covered for about 2 months. I leave it on my floors for about a week before I use the vacuum to clean it up , I still ended up with a bed bug infestation and I still am battling the fleas!!!! and it has blown up a perfectly good new vacuum and every time I turn it on, even though I have had it taken to my brother in laws, and it was fully blown out using his air compressor and I have scrubbed all the washable parts and got all the dust off it, Every time it’s turned on (even when there is no Diatomaceous earth on my floors) it blows the dust from the Diatomaceous earth out into the room and and all over my vacuum and within 5 seconds my vacuum looks like I never washed it , cleaned it or emptied it! it’s covered in Diatomaceous earth dust and won’t pick anything up off the floors! If you catch these bugs early enough you can get rid of them w/out the Diatomaceous earth and just use store bought pesticides and use some home remedies.. but If you don’t you will have to use a exterminator and it’ll need to be done more than just a couple times! they are like roaches they HIDE and reproduce very fast!

  15. I have been fighting with this blood sucking last nerve bedbugs for a couple of years. I am like others..thought they were gone..and bam back for more. I cant seem to get rid of them. Don’t know where there coming from or how I am supposed to get rid of them. I wash, heat, dry, frozen and I still have these stupid things. I have even went as far as replacing every bed in my home and have covers on them from exterminators companys…and guess what yep still have them….and now in my personal home..I am fighting fleas and the small gnats. I cant win for losing. I also think I have spiders also. And I don’t live in NY. So if anyone else has any other solutions, I am all ears. I have tried sprays, rubbing , heat, washing every 3 days, but I cant seem to win. Honestly I am really tired of fighting them.

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