Bed bugs are small, brownish, flattened insects that feed solely on the blood of animals. The common bed bug, Cimex lectularius, is the species most adapted to living with humans. It has done so since ancient times.
Bed bugs are increasingly being encountered in homes, apartments, hotels, motels, dormitories, shelters and modes of transport. International travel has undoubtedly contributed to the resurgence of bed bugs in this country. Changes in modern pest control practice - and less effective bed bug pesticides - are other factors suspected for the recurrence.
Adult bed bugs are about 1/4 inch long and reddish brown, with oval, flattened bodies. The immature bed bugs (nymphs) resemble the adults, but are smaller and somewhat lighter in color. Bed bugs do not fly, but can move quickly over floors, walls, ceilings and other surfaces. Female bed bugs lay their eggs in secluded areas, depositing up to five a day and 500 during a lifetime. The eggs are tiny, whitish and hard to see without magnification (individual eggs are about the size of a dust spec). When first laid, the eggs are sticky, causing them to adhere to substrates. Newly hatched nymphs are no bigger than a pinhead. As they grow, they molt (shed their skin) five times before reaching maturity. A blood meal is needed between each successive molt. Under favorable conditions (70 - 90° F.), the bugs can complete development in as little as a month, producing three or more generations per year. Cool temperatures or limited access to a blood meal extends the development time. Bed bugs are very resilient. Nymphs can survive months without feeding and the adults for more than a year. Infestations therefore are unlikely to diminish by leaving premises unoccupied. Although bed bugs prefer feeding on humans, they will also bite other warm-blooded animals, including pets.
Bed bugs are active mainly at night. During the daytime, they prefer to hide close to where people sleep. Their flattened bodies enable them to fit into tiny crevices - especially those associated with mattresses, box springs, bed frames and headboards. Bedbugs do not have nests like ants or bees, but do tend to congregate in habitual hiding places.
Characteristically, these areas are marked by dark spotting and staining, which is the dried excrement of the bugs. Also present will be eggs and eggshells, molted skins of maturing nymphs and the bugs themselves.
Another likely sign of bed bugs is rusty or reddish spots of blood on bed sheets or mattresses. Heavy infestations are sometimes accompanied by a “buggy” or sweetish odor, although such smells are not always apparent.
Bed bugs prefer to hide close to where they feed. However if necessary, they will crawl more than 100 feet to obtain a blood meal. Initial infestations tend to be around beds, but the bugs eventually may become scattered throughout a room, occupying any crevice or protected location. They also can spread to adjacent rooms or apartments.
Bed bugs usually bite people at night while they are sleeping. They feed by piercing the skin with an elongated beak through which they withdraw blood. Feeding takes about three to 10 minutes, yet the person seldom knows they are being bitten. Some people develop an itchy welt or localized swelling, while others have little or no reaction. Unlike fleabites that occur mainly around the ankles, bed bugs feed on any bare skin exposed while sleeping (face, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, etc.). The welts and itching are often attributed to other causes such as mosquitoes. For these reasons, infestations may go a long time unnoticed and can become quite large before being detected.
Bed bugs are often carried in on luggage, clothing, beds, furniture, etc. Outbreaks can often be traced to international travel from countries where the bugs are common, such as Asia, Africa, Europe, the Caribbean or Central/South America. This is a particular problem for hotels, motels and apartments, where turnover of occupants is constant. Bed bugs are small, cryptic and agile, escaping detection after crawling into suitcases, boxes and belongings. The eggs are almost impossible to see when laid on most surfaces. Purchase or rental of secondhand mattresses, box springs, and furniture is another way that the bugs are transported into previously non-infested dwellings.
Once bed bugs are introduced, they often spread room to room throughout a building. Unlike cockroaches that feed on filth, the level of cleanliness has little to do with most bed bug infestations. Pristine homes, hotels and apartments have plenty of hiding places and an abundance of warm-blooded hosts. Thus, they are almost as vulnerable to infestation as are places of squalor.
Bed bugs are challenging pests to control. They hide in many tiny places, so inspections and treatments must be thorough. In most cases, it will be prudent to enlist the services of a professional pest control firm. Experienced companies know where to look for bed bugs and have an assortment of management tools at their disposal. Owners and occupants will need to assist the professional in important ways. Affording access for inspection and treatment is essential and excess clutter should be removed. In some cases, infested mattresses and box springs will need to be discarded. Since bed bugs can disperse throughout a building, it also may be necessary to inspect adjoining rooms and apartments.
Bed bugs can live in almost any crevice or protected location. The most common place to find them is the bed. Bed bugs often hide within seams, tufts and crevices of the mattress, box spring, bed frame and headboard.
Bed bugs infest only a small proportion of residences, but they should be suspected if residents complain of bites that occurred while sleeping. The bedroom and other sleeping areas should be carefully examined for bed bugs and signs of bed bug activity. Folds and creases in the bed linens and seams and tufts of mattresses and box springs, in particular, may harbor bed bugs or their eggs. They may also be found within pleats of curtains, beneath loose areas of wallpaper near the bed, in corners of desks and dressers, within spaces of wicker furniture, behind cove molding and in laundry or other items on the floor or around the room. Sometimes, characteristic dark brown or reddish fecal spots of bed bugs are apparent on the bed linens, mattress or walls near the bed. A peculiar coriander-like odor may be detected in some heavily infested residences. Adhesive-based traps used for sampling insects or rodents are not particularly effective for trapping bed bugs.
A thorough inspection requires dismantling the bed and standing the components on edge. Things to look for are the bugs themselves, and the light-brown, molted skins of the nymphs. Dark spots of dried bed bug excrement are often present along mattress seams or wherever the bugs have resided. Oftentimes, the gauze fabric underlying the box spring must be removed to gain access for inspection and possible treatment. Successful treatment of mattresses and box springs is difficult, however, and infested components may need to be discarded. Cracks and crevices of bed frames should be examined, especially if the frame is wood. (Bed bugs have an affinity for wood and fabric more so than metal or plastic). Headboards secured to walls should also be removed and inspected. In hotels and motels, the area behind the headboard is often the first place that the bugs become established. Bed bugs also hide among items stored under beds.
Many areas besides beds, however, can harbor bed bugs. Nightstands and dressers should be emptied and examined inside and out, then tipped over to inspect the woodwork underneath. Oftentimes the bugs will be hiding in cracks, corners, and recesses. Upholstered chairs and sofas should be checked, especially seams, tufts, skirts and crevices beneath cushions. Sofas can be major bed bug hotspots when used for sleeping.
Other common places to find bed bugs include: along and under the edge of wall-to-wall carpeting (especially behind beds and furniture); cracks in wood molding; ceiling-wall junctures; behind wall-mounts, picture frames, switch plates and outlets; under loose wallpaper; amongst clothing stored in closets; and inside clocks, phones, televisions and smoke detectors
The challenge is to find and treat ALL the places where bugs and eggs may be present. Bed bugs tend to congregate in certain areas, but it is common to find an individual or some eggs scattered here and there. Persistence and a bright flashlight are requisites for success. Inspectors sometimes also inject a pyrethrum-based, “flushing agent” into crevices to help reveal where bugs may be hiding. A thorough treatment of a home, hotel or apartment may take up to several hours.
Bed bugs were treated years ago by wholesale spraying of beds, floors, walls, furniture, etc. with DDT. This practice is no longer permitted. Thoroughness is still important, but treatments today are generally more targeted and judicious.
Infested bedding and garments will need to be bagged and laundered (120°F minimum) or discarded since these items cannot be treated with insecticides. Smaller items that cannot be laundered can sometimes be de-infested by heating. Individual items, for example, can be wrapped in plastic and placed in a hot, sunny location for at least a few days (the 120°F minimum target temperature should be monitored in the centermost location with a thermometer). Bedbugs also succumb to cold temperatures below 32° F, but the chilling period must be maintained for at least two weeks. Attempts to rid an entire home or apartment of bed bugs by raising or lowering the thermostat will be entirely unsuccessful. Vacuuming can be very useful for removing bugs and eggs from mattresses, carpet, walls and other surfaces. Pay particular attention to seams, tufts and edges of mattresses and box springs and the perimeter edge of wall-to-wall carpets. Afterward, dispose of the vacuum contents in a sealed trash bag. Steam cleaning of carpets is also helpful for killing bugs and eggs that vacuuming may have missed.
While the former measures are helpful, insecticides are important for bed bug elimination. Pest control professionals treat using a variety of low-odor sprays, dusts and aerosols. (Baits designed to control ants and cockroaches are ineffective). Application entails treating all cracks and crevices where the bugs are discovered or tend to hide.
Eliminating bed bugs from mattresses and box springs is challenging. If there are holes or tears in the fabric, the bugs and eggs may be inside, as well as outside. There also are restrictions on how beds can be treated with pesticides. For these reasons, pest control firms often recommend that infested beds be discarded. If disposal isn’t an option, encasing the mattress and box spring will be helpful if bugs are still present. (Allergy supply companies sell zippered bed encasements for dust mite prevention). Some pest control firms treat seams, tufts and crevices of bed components, but they will not spray the mattress surface, bed sheets, blankets or clothing. Vacuuming will further help to remove bugs and eggs from mattresses and box springs that cannot be discarded. Some pest control firms also treat beds with portable steam machines. The technique is useful, but does not kill bugs or eggs that are hidden inside the box spring or mattress. Fumigation is another way to de-infest beds and hard-to-treat items, but the procedure is not always available. In extreme cases, entire buildings have been fumigated for bed bugs. The procedure is costly though, and involves covering the building in a tarp and injecting a lethal gas.
Mattresses may be treated with Steri-Fab®, which is one of the few products registered for treating mattresses. It has no residual properties so, when used, you must be sure you treat every seam and tuft thoroughly. Otherwise, any bed bugs you do not contact will survive the treatment. Generally, it is easier and better to get rid of the infested mattress, without spreading the bed bugs. However, since Steri-Fab is non-residual, it must be sprayed directly onto the bugs to be effective. Even then, bed bugs have increasingly become unaffected by such products. It is believed that no safe insecticide, however, will kill the eggs.
The cryptic, mobile nature of bed bugs limits their prevention. Avoidance is especially challenging in hotels, motels and apartments because occupants and their belongings are constantly changing. This affords many opportunities for the bugs to be introduced. Householders should be wary of acquiring secondhand beds, bedding and furniture. At a minimum, such items should be examined closely before being brought into the home. When traveling in countries where bed bugs are prevalent, it might be prudent to examine the bed and headboard area for signs of the bugs and elevate luggage off the floor. Although incidence of bed bugs in the United States is increasing, they remain rare in comparison to most other pests. Familiarity may help to avoid infestation, or at least prompt earlier intervention by a professional.
Some states have seen a 40% increase in bed bug infestation since 2010 because they are becoming resistant to common insecticides. Because of this resistance, interception devices are now often used - placing furniture and bed legs into these devices to trap the bed bugs trying to climb up the furniture legs. Pesticides have no effect on the bed bug eggs. Ultra high and ultra low temperatures are increasingly used by professional pest control operators. Steam at at least 180 degrees is also often used to kill both the bugs and the eggs.
Most of this information was obtained from the University of Kentucky Department of Entomology.
Steri-Fab® kills bed bugs. However, some bed bugs have become resistant to all insecticides including Steri-Fab.
Non-Chemical Methods (from the EPA):
- Put bedding and clothing in the dryer at high temperatures for 30 minutes to kill bed bugs (just washing will generally not kill bed bugs).
- Heat infested articles (e.g., furniture, luggage, other items that can't go
in a clothes dryer) and/or areas (i.e., a room in a house or apartment, or a whole
house) to at least 120 ºF (approximately 49 ºC) for 90 minutes to ensure
that eggs are killed.
- The higher the temperature, the shorter the time needed to kill bed bugs at all life stages.
- This is often done using a heat-generating device or in a specially constructed heating unit, some of which are portable.
- Cold treatments (below 0 ºF for at least 4 days) can eliminate some infestations.
- The cooler the temperature, the less time needed to kill bed bugs.
- Home freezers may not cold be enough to reliably kill bed bugs. Always use a thermometer to measure the temperature.
- Read more at EPA’s Using Freezing Conditions to Kill Bed Bugs
- Use mattress, box spring, and pillow encasements to trap bed bugs and help detect infestations.
- Use monitoring devices to ensure that the bed bugs have been truly eradicated.
- See EPA’s “do-it-yourself” steps for more details on methods to reduce and control bed bug populations.