[From the Summer issue of the UC IPM Retail Nursery & Garden Center News]
Don't let the bed bugs bite? That's easier said than done, it seems. Bed bugs (Figure 1) continue to be important household pests globally, driving a growing sector of the pest control industry. Professionals have access to effective insecticides and specialized techniques, such as heat treatments, to control bed bug infestations. These services, however, can be expensive: a recent survey revealed the average cost of professional insecticide treatments and heat treatments to be $425 and $1,400, respectively, (see complete survey results.) Many people faced with infestations cannot afford these treatments.
Fig 1. Adult and nymph bed bugs. (D.-H. Choe)
You could be looking for do-it-yourself (DIY) ways to manage bed bugs, and see that many stores may carry dozens of products claiming to provide cheap and easy bed bug control. Research has shown, however, that bed bugs are very difficult to eradicate, even for knowledgeable professionals equipped with advanced pest control methods. So how can you be successful?
Know Your Rights as a Tenant
Owners and managers of rental properties are required to maintain housing that is safe and habitable. If you are a tenant in a rental housing situation, you should report infestations to the landlord or property manager. In cases where landlords refuse to help, there are regional tenants' rights groups that can help find justice for suffering tenants.
Fig 2. Fecal spots and shed exoskeleton are useful signs of bed bugs. (D.-H. Choe)
Identify the Problem
Bed bugs cannot be confirmed by dermal symptoms (“bites,” wheals, or rashes). The bugs themselves or their signs; such as cast skins, fecal spots, or eggs (Figure 2); must be recovered to positively identify the problem and move forward with pest management. For help identifying a bed bug infestation go to the UC IPM Pest Notes: Bed Bugs.
You can confirm a bed bug infestation by using bed bug monitors. Many models exist, though the most effective may be “interceptors,” pitfall traps that can be placed under the legs of beds and other furniture items (Figure 3). For more on bed bug monitors, read the ‘Pests in the Urban Landscape' blog article entitled “Bed Bug Monitors.”
Promote Nonchemical Tactics
Many times, small bed bug populations can be significantly reduced or even eradicated without using insecticides. Household washers and dryers used at the hot setting will kill all bed bug life stages within bedding, clothing, and other household items. Dissolving laundry bags will enable you to easily transport and wash infested items without spreading bugs around. Clutter management is crucial when battling bed bugs, since bugs can hide and breed within household clutter such as stacks of paper and piles of clothes. Purchase storage and organizational products to help manage clutter.
Fig. 3 Interceptor monitors can help you detect where bed bugs may be present. (D.-H. Choe)
Mattress encasements (Figures 4a. and 4b.), fine-mesh cloth covers for mattresses and box springs, help to prevent bed bug establishment by eliminating cracks and crevices and can also be used to trap bed bugs within; they will eventually die of starvation. Vacuums are very effective at removing exposed bed bugs; ensure a HEPA filter is in place to minimize airborne allergens.
Consider Insecticides Carefully!
Insecticides can be dangerous when used incorrectly. Every year, people are injured while trying to control bed bugs. Total-release foggers, or “bug bombs,” are especially dangerous since they may contain flammable propellants. In addition, most retail insecticides simply don't work for bed bugs. Most liquid or aerosol products are “contact insecticides” that only kill bugs that come into contact with the spray or wet residue. Bed bugs only come out of hiding for minutes at a time while seeking their hosts and feeding, so you are unlikely to have opportunities to directly spray them.
Fig 4a. Mattress encasements can help prevent bed bug establishment. Cover both mattress and box spring for better protection. (D. Gouge)
Desiccants such as silica gel and diatomaceous earth may work better for a DIY approach; these powders absorb the waxy cuticles of bed bugs, causing them to die of water loss. Desiccants should be applied to cracks, crevices, and void spaces where bed bugs live and breed. They should never be applied liberally in the open where they can be breathed in; this may cause respiratory irritation.
Finally, your local store may carry products that claim to repel bed bugs, but almost none of them have been proven to work by research-based science.
Hopefully this information will help you control bed bugs if you decide to do it yourself. Please note, however, that professional services are almost always required to eradicate large infestations.