SRI Blog

Bed Bugs: The Science and Costs of Infestation

Our relationship with bed bugs is intimate. They share our beds, they feed on our blood at night, and they disappear by dawn, often leaving nothing more than a raised welt on our skin, a token of last night’s encounter.

Therein lies the problem—their cryptic nature makes detection and control very difficult. 

Bed bugs don’t fly or jump. We are solely responsible for their spread.

Bed bugs are flat, so they can hide in cracks and crevices—their harborages—where you sleep. They have grappling hooks at the end of their feet, enabling them to navigate the geography of your bed and body.  

Small, flat, flightless bugs? So why is it so hard to prevent and control them?

There is more to solving the problem than you would expect. There is a disparity between the extremely negative and almost phobic public perception of bed bugs and the industry’s response. Why don’t we have better control strategies?

First, let’s look at efforts to control bed bugs through insecticides. Studies from the University of Kentucky have found widespread resistance to pyrethroids, a commonly used insecticide class, in bed bugs across the United States. That means we need new chemistries and modes of action to avoid problems with resistance. But it’s easier to tweak existing chemical architecture than to design novel chemistries.

That’s why we don’t see new insecticides: the investment is too great, the risk too high, and the time-to-market too long.

Insecticide toxicity is another concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) documented 111 cases of bed bug-related insecticide misuse from 2003 to 2010. These illnesses were the result of excessive insecticide application. In one fatal case, the husband of a woman suffering from hypertension and depression applied a lawn-and-garden insect killer to their mattress and box springs, followed by nine cans of an insecticide fogger in the same day. Two days later, they reapplied insecticide to the bedroom and nine MORE cans in the house. On that day, the woman also applied insecticide to her arms, chest, and hair. She died 11 days later.

Heat treatment is another, less toxic option for controlling bed bugs. Heat treatment is basically “cooking” a room or furniture with steam or air heated to 120oF to 140oF for up to 4 hours. While heat treatment is effective at killing bed bugs in a room, it might also force bed bugs to migrate into adjacent rooms. Heat treatment can be expensive —up to $1,000 per treatment—and has no residual activity (that means it kills whatever is there at the moment but will not prevent a re-infestation.) Heat treatment can also melt candles, warp CDs, and kill your houseplants.

A third control option is a very fine, silica-rich dust that’s used as an abrasive in toothpaste, an absorbent in cat litter, and a binding agent in dynamite. Diatomaceous earth, or DE, as it’s also called, is an effective insecticide for bed bugs and other domestic pests. The silica absorbs and abrades the wax layer on an insect’s exoskeleton, and the insect dies of dehydration. However, DE leaves obvious white dust, advertising that you have a pest problem, and it could take weeks to kill an infestation.

Even with these three different control strategies (toxic chemicals, heat, or silica dust), infestation rates are rising.

Why is this the case?

Pesticides used to treat infestations of pests that carry diseases harmful to humans only account for less than 2% of global pesticide sales. And bed bugs aren’t vectors!

Because bed bugs make up such a small share of the overall market for pesticides, and they don’t qualify for vector biology funding by the NIH, there’s not much financial incentive to control them.

Until earlier this year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provided funding for housing authorities to control bed bugs. That program has been eliminated, and local housing authorities need to creatively budget for bed bug control within existing funds.

But bed bugs incur hidden costs. Most cities prohibit the disposal of infested furniture in those regular green dumpsters we’re familiar with. Furniture can only be discarded in a special municipal or construction dumpster, which costs thousands more to purchase, register, and maintain. If an apartment complex can’t afford a construction dumpster, then tenants may discard the infested furniture on the street where—no surprise—someone else will pick it up and start a new infestation.

Remember, bed bugs don’t fly or jump. We are their vectors.

Problems and misconceptions with pesticides, expensive treatments, and funding bottlenecks at the federal level reveal that there’s more to the bed bug problem than meets the eye — or the mattress.

Finally, our understanding of bed bug biology is about 50 years behind our understanding of mosquito biology, so we really need to catch up. At SRI, researchers are working on improving infestation detection. Once we detect them, we still need sustainable control strategies that are targeted, effective, and nontoxic to other organisms. We have a long way to go, and like so many other aspects of this insect, details remain cryptic.

29 Comments

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philmarz

I am from the Philippines. When i was a young boy, some of the bedbugs were brought from the movie houses which were very popular then. Our way of fighting bedbugs were: 1. Goats: the smell of the goats, i think are very offensive to the bedbugs, they just vanished. 2. Leftover jack fruit: after eating, we wipe it on our wooden benches. 3 Sunlight to expose your bedding, furniture to the sun if possible, the whole day, full of sunshine. Try those that are applicable to you. Thank you.

Lou

Bed bugs also crawl and get into places on their own. A problem in multifamily housing, for example. Regarding tarsal claws, there is also the fossula spongiosa on distal tibial surface. Many reduviids, for example, have highly modified one; not all cimicids possess the structure. See movies on YouTube under lougentpix site and see how engorged males climb up glass.

Anonymous

‘The Bed Bug Survival Guide’ has probably the best advice on how to avoid bed bugs and get rid of them.

Anonymous

what can i do if there is a 2 month old baby in the house?

Anonymous

Great article! It was supposed to be about how to control bed bugs; yet, it articulates all the methods that don't work opposed to what does work. Just Great! Keep up the great work.

Anonymous

In communicating with the non-specialist public, please avoid such jargon as "vectors." I assume you mean "transporters." If bedbugs find the diatom powders you mention to be repulsive because of their dehydrating effect, perhaps an inexpensive low-tech alternative might be the menthol body and foot powders sold in dollar stores. If an abrasive effect is the missing key to penetrating the insect's protective wax layer, use some ingenuity.

Anonymous

why do people not air their beds with the covers thrown off.
why do they not put the bedding on the washing line or
over the balcony like they do abroad. Open the windows
air the mattress. I wonder if this would make a difference.

num

we found that buying a small steam cleaning machine, now much more widely available for the domestic market , and steaming with some pressure all the possible hiding places,then sealing and closing as many possible hiding places as possible with silicone,or acrylic sealer and at the same time using bug spray, but not in ridiculous quantities about every few weeks on a mission really helped the problem... eliminating the hiding places, cracks between wooden beds ,the joints where wood meets wood and regular steam cleaning is the key. sealing between floor boards, or where the skirting board meets the floor,. check behind light fixtures and plug sockets on the wall (obviously dont steam these areas).. things like that they love dark cracks even 1 mm is enough ,seal up everything.. its a mission but works.. i think that steam , its like 100ºc, more or less, helps kill the eggs... if you see litte black spots like the size of these ....... ..... ..... this is the faeces a good clue that they have a hiding place near by... good luck be vigalent.. dont let your guard down and you can sort it out... can't ever say 100 % i think but you can get close and thats enough.. dont give tham places to hide num

Robert Mierisch

STEAM, STEAM and STEAM. A small device the size of a steam iron will kill bed bugs in crevices of mattresses and skirting board areas. Live steam kills them in less than one second. Follow up with Diatomaceous earth seems a good idea.
Use a caulking gun to fill as many crevices as possible around the affected rooms and adjacent areas. Then when you repeat the treatment, some days later, you will eliminate all bed bugs.

Remember to treat all bedding, clothes, shoes and bags before you bring them into your house. Treat any library books, new books and old books by placing them in plastic bags and then into the freezer overnight. This works for almost all bugs if your freezer works well, colder than minus 15C (5F).

Dahai

There are 2 choices. The first choice is to kill some bed bugs but feed survived bed bugs with your blood and let them lay up to 300 eggs per bug. The killing vs. laying egg competition may never end. All of well known DIY methods encourage you selecting this choice.

The second choice is not killing and not feeding bed bugs by sleeping on center of a bed sized bed bug trap. Not killing means you easy job is to sleep as a lure. Not feeding means no more bite forever. You may click “Show more” in the video to know how to prove by yourself that bed bugs starve within 3 months (average 6 weeks) and why it is a misleading that bed bugs can live for one year and why you can solve bed bug problem immediately no matter how many bed bugs in your room now.
The first choice fails if you kill 99% bed bugs after your hard work. The second choice immediately succeeds even it traps 0% bed bugs after your one-time effort. That is the efficiency difference. Don’t be misled that it is difficult to get rid of bed bugs.

Diane

Has anyone tried freezing the critters? If it works, a mattress could be placed in cold storage to kill them.
Or, maybe the bugs go into hibernation when they get cold. I think it is worth a look.

Robert Burke

The article does not appear to state what if any diseases are carried by bed bugs. "They share our beds, they feed on our blood at night, and they disappear by dawn, often leaving nothing more than a raised welt on our skin, a token of last night’s encounter."

A bite and a welt, presumably itchy, are annoying. One every now and then is tolerable, and one every night would call for doing something. Are there any more serious results of a bed bug bite?

Satheesan Kunnummel

I have experienced bed bug infestation when I was a kid. These bugs are nasty. They leave a trail behind on the bed and sheets and smells nasty. We did many things to get rid off them with no success. Finally my dad sprayed every nook,corner,cracks and gaps with some pesticide that took care of it. It was a big job. I can't believe we don't have a simpler solution to deal with this problem in this age. Obviously there isn't much money in it in the long run. So nobody is ready invest money to come up with a solution

Chad

I was just reading an article about a local University finding bed bugs in their library books. They ended up freezing the books which of course took care of the problem. But it goes to show that bed bugs will travel long distances and can end up just about anywhere.

Annette Grimm

Great reading! We should eliminate them first before they invade our houses. We must take time to clean and look for the bedbugs for the safety of the family members.

Reynolds Pest Management, Inc

Great post, we are encountering bed bugs more frequently in Florida.

Anonymous

I have been infested with bedbugs since 2011. i live in public housing in NH. i was ignored for 6 months and had to go to city -- insp. cleared in mar 12 and return of them in may ...cleared again by dog on sept 12 and i currently gave my notice to move and there's activity again noticed by their worker. I asked for them to remove the furniture 2 beds 2 couches and a chair. I threw everything away but wrapped in plastic n taped,i lost 70 percent of my things. They want to move someone in asap and offered me a steam b4 leaving which i refused because it wont kill the eggs. I'm asking for furniture removal, heat treatment and the canine dog which i feel is warranted in this case. They are willing to heat treat n hire a certified tech to look, won't get the furniture out b4 heat which benefits me and next tenant cuz less places to hide also increase their eggs. Am i wrong? Can you possibly tell me of a site that i can bring to them that this is best and their responsibility to take care of properly due to the constant recurrence.

mathan

Thanks for sharing this useful information.
Regards..
Mathan

Marlene Garcia

Bug infestation is a major problem in homes and apartments and the irony is that it takes a lot to get rid of these. Talk of the money or talk of the efforts, its a tough job needed on a regular bases that too.

Anonymous

This is really useful information. Thanks for sharing this article.

Anonymous

I have been told that by putting toothpaste
around the seems of a bed is a deterrent against
Bedbugs.....is this true?

ABHA CHAWLA MOHANTY

BEDBUGS NEED BIOLOGICAL PREDATORS RATHER THAN CONVENTIONAL PEST CONTROL MEASURES...

Charles Sever

Could you just name one? I have thought of immunization. When they take up our blood, they would transport it to their colonies and infect them and they die.

Charles Sever

I have been fighting these little creature for about a half year. I have tried different things, to no avail. I have removed everything in my home. carpet, furniture. The only thing I have now is my couch, which I sleep on and relax in my living room; if you call that relaxing. I wash my sheets every 2 or 3 days. My couch or bed can be tore down to the wood frame and springs. I spray it down with a bed bug spray I buy at a local store. I feel I'm getting a grip on them, but every so often I'll find one, but it's not like it was. This coming winter I'm going to try an freeze. I have a way to drain my water lines, this I hope finish them off. They are a very tenacious bug, I'll take fleas or any other pest any day. I also have my couch legs in cups filled with that bed bug spray, I have the feeling they are crawling up the legs from who know where. Thanks for letting me tell you what I have done and what else I'm going to do. Wish me luck.

Mary Evergreen

I live in a building for low income on disability. Bedbug infestations occur regularly in the building, and seem to occur repeatedly to the same people. Their rooms get "treated", their clothes get put in plastic bins and go somewhere to get "cooked". A line of diatomaceous powder gets applied to every doorway (reminds me of the line of salt 'magic practitioners' use to protect from 'evil spirits').
I don't have any bedbugs, (knock on wood). I have my theory that it is passed from room to room by visitors, who pick up the bugs, or eggs, or larvae, on the shoes, or on their pants, their butts where they sit, then bring it into another's room, sitting on their couch, and depositing the bugs. The same tenants have them return again and again, it seems the de-bugging treatments aren't effective, and they visit each other's rooms.
I am a recluse, have never had anyone from my building into my room. I have two friends who live elsewhere that visit.
I don't step into any other tenant's room either. I visit with them outside the building, or at the community lunch at the local church.
The local library has cushioned seats to sit and read in, and they had just had to deal with bedbugs on those, I think that was last year. I'm pretty sure there's so bedbugs at the library anymore!
Goes to show how easily bedbugs can spread.
It is my theory that the bugs or the extremely small larvae can hitch a ride on someone who sits for some period on a couch used for sleeping or sitting on the edge of the bed.
I've had to alter my social behavior, in the sense of not inviting anyone ever to my place, and declining politely their invites. I am learning about having personal boundaries, and that it's ok to say no. The diplomacy required to reduce the chances of bed bug infestation has sharpened my skills of interpersonal relations.
I would like to learn more of how these critters live, and finding their weak spots in order to eliminate a recurrent infestation in an apartment block.
I have moth balls in drawers, and rolled within a small persian rug I have stored. Maybe the slight naphtalene smell repels them. I also have red cedar.
Can they walk along ceilings? and if they do, would a line of strong smell essence spread around the periphery of my room's ceiling reduce the chance of an interloper bug, maybe full of eggs, making a kind of bedbug migration, in the hopes of establishing another bedbug empire...
Today the manager went from room to room, doing a "bedbug inspection". After he left, I immediately vacuumed the floor where he walked, and lifted my foamy part of the bed.
I realized that by going from room to room, he might spread more bedbugs. He should have carried a box of disposable slippers they use in hospitals, and worn a new one over his shoes for every suite he inspected.
I wish I thought of that before today.
Well, that's my two cents about bedbugs.
Thanks for the article, and the chance for my input.

John Henry

Your experience is really great about bed bugs and your suggestions are very good. Bed bugs are very common pests and these pests effect the beauty of nature badly but your all methods are very effective to remove bed bugs easily. Your post is increase my knowledge about bugs removal so I am very thankful to you for sharing of this wonderful blog.

Anonymous

I have experienced the problem of bed bugs for long. 100% removal is extremely difficult, but its possible. if your room is infected with bed bugs n causing you sleepless nights, please spread a sufficiently large cellophane sheet on your bed that hangs out on the sides of the bed. its a good tactic since the slippery surface of the cellophane sheet doesn't allow the bedbugs to climb up on the sheet. but you need to ensure that the cellophane sheet is hanging from all sides of the bed otherwise the bed bugs (relentless as they are) will find a way to climb up and reach you. also ensure that your bed is not touching any wall or furniture as the bugs may climb up from the furniture or wall. If your mattress is also infested with bed bugs then spread the cellophane sheet over the mattress.
secondly, you can use detergent water to kill bed bugs. it works efficiently. you may use the detergent water left after washing your clothes. but you may not be willing to use it on your couch. expose your furniture to heat like placing it under direct sunlight when it is very hot. the heat kills the bugs.
I was not under any budget constraint. so I got my entire room painted, applied varnish on all wooden furniture and tried out the above mentioned methods. but I did it all within a single day because I believe bed bugs are like cancer. even if one bed bug remains in your room then it will spread fast.
Also, please keep your room clean and dry always. bedbugs grow quickly in dirty n damp areas. its been a few months now but now I am totally bug free. I have even removed the cellophane sheet from my bed as it is not required anymore.
I wish you all the best and hope you are able to make your home bug free

Anonymous

While heat treatment is effective at killing bed bugs in a room, it might also force bed bugs to migrate into adjacent rooms.

jeunesse luminesce

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