Bedbugs: An A to Z Primer

The Seattle Times
Sunday, August 28, 2011

Bedbug reports have sent people scurrying for relief.

Some are snapping up bug killers targeted at the nighttime marauders. Others are researching do-it-yourself methods on the Internet. What they hope to find is a fast, inexpensive fix.

But don't count on it, bedbug experts say. Unfortunately, there is no easy remedy for most bedbug infestations.

"It is very, very difficult for an untrained individual to get rid of bedbugs unless they have caught it at a very, very early stage," said Susan C. Jones, an urban entomologist at Ohio State University and an authority on bedbugs. And infestations are rarely discovered until they've passed that stage, she said.

That's frustrating for many people, because the only viable option for a serious infestation is treatment by a professional pest control company, the experts say. That can involve multiple visits and can cost $1,000 or more.

Bedbug eradication works best with a variety of approaches, including chemicals, monitoring and nonchemical methods, said Donald Baumgartner, a bedbug specialist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region 5. "Unfortunately, there's no single answer," he said.

So why are bedbugs so hard to get rid of?

Largely it's because no single insecticide that's permitted for indoor use can kill bedbugs, entomologist Dini Miller writes in one of the fact sheets she's developed for the state of Virginia, where she is the state's urban pest management specialist and a widely recognized authority on bedbugs. The government limits what kinds of pesticides can be used indoors because of the potential for harming people and pets, explains Miller, who also runs the Dodson Urban Pest Management Laboratory at Virginia Tech.

Bedbugs are also hard to treat because they're so good at hiding, she said. Their hiding places can be many and difficult to pinpoint, and they often include places that can't be treated with insecticides.

Bedbugs can move easily, which makes control especially problematic in shared housing, such as apartment buildings.

Few lay people know enough about bedbug biology and behavior to control the pests effectively, said Tim McCoy, a research technician in Miller's lab. What's more, they don't have access to more concentrated products and other methods pros can use.

The products the public can buy - legally, that is - are minimally effective, Jones and McCoy said.

Many use pyrethroids, a class of insecticides to which modern bedbugs have become highly resistant. Others are made from natural ingredients that are generally regarded as safe, so they're exempt from federal regulation, Jones said. The natural products don't have to undergo safety testing, she said, and their manufacturers don't have to prove they work.

Most products available to consumers have no effect at all once they've dried, "and that's the downfall," Jones said.

The products are often labeled "contact kill," "kills on contact" or some similar wording. That means the product will kill a bedbug only if it's sprayed directly on the insect, Jones said.

But bedbugs come out at night, and even then, only in limited numbers. At any one time, the majority of bedbugs are in hiding, Jones said. There's no way to kill them all with a contact insecticide without staying up all night, every night, for a month or more.

What's more, those products are no more effective than spraying a bug with soapy water or squashing it with a tissue, she and McCoy said.

Products made in other countries can be purchased online, but Miller points out that they're not subject to the same testing as U.S.-made insecticides and are illegal to use. "While most of these products may not be overtly dangerous, we have no way of knowing what the exposure risk might be if these products are used in the indoor environment," she writes.

Other do-it-yourself remedies pose a whole different set of problems. Some of them, such as boric acid, just don't work. (Bedbugs don't eat it; they feed on blood instead.) Others, such as rubbing alcohol, carry too much risk. Jones noted that fires in the Cincinnati area have been linked to the use of alcohol or products that contain the flammable substance.

With do-it-yourself remedies, "you can make matters much worse than bedbugs," she said.

So what does work?

Education and vigilance, the experts say.

Know how to keep bedbugs out of your home in the first place, they advise. And in case the pests do get in, know how to spot them early.

Itchy welts from bedbug bites might be your first sign. Another might be bloodstains from crushed bugs or rusty or dark spots of excrement. Jones said box springs are the first place you're likely to see signs, so check those regularly, along with mattresses, bed clothes and even walls.

If you suspect you have bedbugs, get a sample bug identified, if possible. You don't want to go through the bother and expense of treatment if bedbugs aren't the culprit, Jones said.

Here's the good news: If you catch bedbugs early enough, getting rid of them may be a much simpler - and cheaper - process.

Enclosing the mattress and box springs in encasements made specifically for bedbugs can help in a minor infestation, McCoy said. Jones suggested vacuuming or scrubbing the mattress and box springs first, spraying them with a contact pesticide or treating them with a steamer. Work very slowly, covering about 12 inches every 30 seconds.

Another approach is to put the legs of the bed on insect interceptors such as ClimbUps, dishlike devices that capture bugs trying to climb onto or off a bed.

McCoy said dusting the area around the bed frame with diatomaceous earth can also help, because it dries up and kills bedbugs. Be sure to use only food-grade diatomaceous earth, he said, because the kind used for pool filters can cause lung disease. Check for it in agricultural feed stores, and apply it with a bulb duster, a device used for applying insecticide dust.

Heat kills bedbugs, so dry bedding, clothing and anything else that can go into a clothes dryer for at least 30 minutes on high heat or 90 minutes on medium heat. A dryer with a removable shelf can be used for items that can't be tumbled, such as leather shoes, handbags, knickknacks and books.

Or take advantage of the summer's heat by simply placing everything in trash bags and putting them in a hot car for a couple of hours, McCoy suggested.

But if the bugs persist, get help, the experts say.

It's a problem you just can't tackle yourself.

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Bedbugs ride into your home on things, such as clothing, furniture and suitcases. Here are some tips for keeping bedbugs out:

- Inspect used goods such as furniture and books before bringing them into your home.

- Avoid renting furniture or storing other people's furniture.

- Don't buy refurbished mattresses or old couches.

- After helping a friend move or transporting someone else's belongings, inspect your vehicle. Bedbugs probably won't survive the heat of a car in hot weather, but they can thrive in cool weather.

- If you buy a new mattress, transport it yourself. Often the same trucks used to deliver mattresses are used to haul old ones away.

- Don't pile guests' coats on a bed.

- When traveling, inspect the hotel room for signs of bedbugs. Pay close attention to the mattress and box springs, including their seams and the underside of the mattress, and inspect the luggage rack. If possible, pull the bed away from the wall and inspect the back of the headboard, particularly the holes for set-in screws and the plate that allows the headboard to hang from the wall. Use a flashlight to inspect the closet.

- Keep your suitcase on the luggage rack, not a spare bed. Keep your belongings in it rather than unpacking and putting them in drawers.

- When you get home, unpack in a place other than the bedroom, such as the garage, bathroom, basement or mud room. Launder all clothing and dry in the dryer, or put everything in a garbage bag and leave it in a hot car for a few hours. You can do the same with your suitcase if you have reason to believe it has encountered bedbugs.

- If you can't treat your suitcase with heat, put a NoPest strip in the bag to fumigate it.

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WHAT ARE BEDBUGS?

Bedbugs are parasitic insects that feed on blood, preferably human blood. Adults are brown to reddish-brown, a little less than a quarter-inch long, with a flattened, oval shape.

The bugs hide during the day in dark, protected sites, such as mattress seams, bed frame crevices, window and door frames, baseboards and wall hangings. They feed mostly at night on sleeping humans, often leaving itchy welts.

They are not known to transmit disease, but they can cause anxiety, stress and insomnia in their victims.

Bedbug populations were greatly reduced after World War II by the widespread use of insecticides such as DDT, but they've made a comeback in the last decade. Changes in pesticide use and the rise of international travel and commerce are believed to be responsible.

Although clutter can give bedbugs more places to hide, infestations usually aren't a reflection of poor hygiene or bad housekeeping.