Bed bugs have recently made a resurgence to become one of the most difficult indoor pests to control today. They are appearing increasingly throughout homes, hotels, college dormitories, hospitals, schools and daycares and other facilities regardless of socioeconomic status or cleanliness. Homeowners are continually searching for solutions to what kills bed bugs. If an infestation of bed bugs appears to be localized in one room or home, then an in-home self treatment can be effective; however, if the infestation is extensive or in an apartment or condominium, a collaborative treatment by a pest control company is necessary. Here are some inspection tips and answers to what kills bed bugs.
Why they are Difficult to Control
Bed bugs are nocturnal insects that are less active during the day and can be difficult to notice. They are also parasitic, or blood feeding, to humans and other mammals and are likely to be found in close proximity to where humans sleep, including narrow crevices and seams in mattresses, box springs and tiny spaces. Bed bugs are notoriously difficult to eradicate because they are incredibly resilient and can live for months without feeding. According to University of Kentucky Extension Entomologist Michael Potter, in environments that are consistently less than 55degrees, they can live up to a year without a meal. They are very adaptable and can travel fast and far from their dwelling, including to neighboring apartments or rooms, in order to feed. They are also efficient hitchhikers and can easily be transported in human possessions.
Identification and Inspection of Bed Bugs
The first step is to correctly identify the insect with which you have an issue. Bed bugs can commonly be mistaken for carpet beetles, ticks, cockroaches or other small insects. Adults are 1/4-3/8 of an inch long, flat, brownish in color and oval shaped insects. Immature bed bugs are 1/16 of an inch, flat, translucent, and oval shaped. Though they tend to be found near human sleeping areas, it is possible to find them in other areas of the home if left untreated. Approximately 70% of all bed bugs in the typical infestation are located on the mattress, box spring and bed frame. If bed bugs are noticed, make sure to thoroughly inspect every room in the home. Adult bed bugs, molted skins, eggs, and small, reddish/brown stains indicating excrement should all be included in the search. Other possible hiding places to examine include:
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- Cracks and crevices in the bed frames and head boards
- Seams and creases of mattresses and box springs
- Behind electrical switch plates
- Along and behind baseboards
- Inside drawers of dressers and chests
- In the folds of curtains and drapes
- Along the edges of carpets and underneath rugs
- Between cushions and in seams of upholstered furniture
- Underneath chairs, couches, beds, and other furniture
- Behind pulled wallpaper, paintings, and other wall hangings
- Inside cracks in plaster
- Inside telephones, radios, clocks and other objects in the home
What Kills Bed Bugs?
There are a variety of methods that can be used to kill bed bugs. Depending on the degree of the infestation, some methods are much more effective than others. It is imperative that, regardless of the treatment, you are thorough and do your best to ensure that you are covering all areas of the home that have bed bugs. Here are a few of those techniques and some advantages and disadvantages to using each of them.
Temperatures of 120-130 degrees are lethal to bed bugs and eggs. There are a couple ways to use heat to kill the bugs.
- Washer and Dryer
If you are using a different method to eradicate the infestation in the rest of your home and are looking to kill the bed bugs in your clothes, curtains, shoes rugs and bedding, you can use hot water and a dryer to be sure that those are clean. Washing machine temperature should be 122 degrees for 20 minutes to kill all life stages. Then, place the items in the dryer for at least 30 minutes. This method allows you to rid the bugs in your fabric items without covering them with insecticides; however, a secondary method is absolutely necessary for the rest of the home.
- Heat Treatment
If you are planning on using a heat treatment as your primary method of eradication you can use portable heaters and fans inside your home to get the inside of your home to lethal temperature. Remove heat sensitive items such as plants, medications, and aerosol cans. Place portable heaters and fans in the infested areas and turn on. With heat treatments, bagging fabric items for the washer is not necessary since these items will be heated this way. The infestation can be eliminated in one day with this method, but it tends to be more expensive than insecticides or other treatments.
Temperatures below 0 degrees are also lethal to all bed bug life stages if they are subject to it for 7-10 days. Objects can be placed in a freezer or outdoors in the winter time if temperatures are cold enough. This method is inexpensive compared to other treatments; however, it is difficult to ensure that the temperature inside seams or crevices of the furniture will be as low as the air temperature. You also cannot ensure that the air temperature does not fluctuate above the necessary fatal temperature.
Many of the insecticides available in over-the-counter products and methods used by residents are not effective in controlling bed bugs. They show some resistance to insecticides such as DDT and can be difficult to manage if using certain products. Make sure that store products clarify that they are for bed bug treatment and carefully read the labels before use. Here are a few insecticides that may be used. For more information on pesticide use, see the EPA Consumer Alert on pesticides and bed bugs.
- Diatomaceous Earth (DE)
This dust essentially dries out the bed bugs when they come in contact with it. This is a method that can be used by pest control companies. Make sure that the DE you buy is for insect control and not for swimming pool filters and that it is for indoor use. DE is fairly inexpensive and can be purchased online or at garden centers.
- Contact Sprays
SteriFab and Bedlam are some examples of low toxicity contact sprays. These only kill bed bugs on contact and are not very effective in treating infestations.
- Pyrethroid Sprays
These sprays are stronger and longer lasting than many other insecticides that are available. Spraying should occur when children are out of the area and contact with these should be avoided.
Alcohol and soap-based sprays are not completely effective in treating a bed bug infestation. Once dry, these sprays provide no residual treatment and can allow re-infestation to occur. Alcohol will not kill the eggs, so repeated treatment is required.
It is not typically necessary to dispose of mattresses, box springs and clothing. If they are discarded and replaced it can be expensive and re-infestation is a possibility if the treatment was not thorough enough. Purchase bed bug-proof encasements to slide your mattress and box spring in. These provide a tight seal to keep all life stages from escaping and cause them to eventually die. They must cover the mattress and box spring for at least 6 months until the bed bugs have all died off. Encasements are available for purchase through retail stores or pest control companies.
*** Foggers, “bug bombs” and contact sprays are the most ineffective method for controlling bed bugs. Since bed bugs hide deep in crevices and cracks, many are able to avoid coming in contact with these aerosols. It is not recommended to use these for complete infestations in homes. Here is a fact sheet on the Limitations of Home Insect Foggers.
Take Home Message
Bed bugs are extremely difficult insect pests to eradicate and if they are not properly treated after their first appearance, it is very possible that a re-infestation could occur. Traveling is a major pathway for bed bugs to make their way into your home. Make sure to check the mattresses, linens, and behind wall decor for bugs and blood stains when you stay in a hotel, dormitory, or other public facility. Although all of these techniques can kill bed bugs, prevention is the most effective method and the proper steps should be taken to keep bed bugs from making their way into your home.
Potter, Michael F. 2013. Bed Bugs. University of Kentucky College of Agriculture Food and Environment Department of Entomology http://www2.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef636.asp
Hahn, Jeff; Kells, Stephen A.. 2014. Prevention and Control of Bed Bugs in Residences. University of Minnesota Extension. http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/insects/find/bed-bugs-in-residences/
Gangloff-Kaufmann, Jody; Schultz, Jill. 2003. Bed Bugs are Back! An IPM Answer. New York State Integrated Pest Management Program. http://johnjay.jjay.cuny.edu/extra/bed_bug.pdf
Merchant, Michael. 2014. Bed Bugs: Do-It-Yourself Control Options. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. http://citybugs.tamu.edu/factsheets/biting-stinging/others/ent-3012/