Probably due to evolving pesticide resistance, the news is full of bed bugs creeping out from coast to coast, hitching rides in unsuspecting suitcases, filling entire apartment buildings with their maddening itch. In New York City, reported infestations rose from 500 in 2004 to 10,000 in 2009: twenty-fold in just five years! In every state, bed bugs are back — and they are making themselves at home.
How can we evict our unwelcome houseguests? Many call the exterminator in despair, even those of us who cringe at the thought of poisonous fumes filling the sanctuaries of our homes. As the bed bugs become immune to more and more chemicals, afflicted households may try toxic spray after spray without success. This tiny insect, not even known to spread disease, causes mighty cities to tremble in fear. Whether or not we’ve been directly affected, many are losing sleep.
Take heart — there are safe, sane approaches to reclaiming your sleeping space and freeing yourself from this uncomfortable obsession! First, let’s separate bed bug fact from fiction. Then we’ll move on to outline the basics of some simple nontoxic alternatives that work (and those that don’t).
What do I need to know about bed bugs?
- Brownish and oval in shape, adult bed bugs grow to 4-5mm with segmented abdomens. Nymphs are smaller and may appear translucent.
- Bed bugs are mostly active at night, with peak feeding times during the hours before dawn. You will rarely see one crawling in the open during the day, though they will emerge at any hour if hungry.
- Bed bugs cannot jump or fly, and must crawl to transport themselves. They are not adept at climbing slick surfaces such as shiny metal or hard plastic, but find fabric, wood, and most walls easy to navigate. They travel about one meter per minute.
- As indoor pests, bed bugs know no season, and can be found any time of year.
- Bed bugs can survive up to a year without food, so simply isolating an infested room to starve them is not a wise tactic. They are more likely to find their way to the rest of the home or simply wait it out.
- They will feed on dogs and cats if necessary, but humans are their preferred hosts. Pets are not believed to transport bed bugs or cause infestations. Bed bugs will not willingly remain on any warm body longer than necessary to feed, preferring to nestle in the folds of items further removed from our body heat, including bags, shoes, and coats.
- If you live in a multi-unit building such as an apartment or condo, you will need to involve your building’s management in any bed bug infestation. If you have this problem, it is extremely likely at least some of your neighbors do too, though they may not know it. If you only treat your own unit, re-infestation is almost inevitable. In many cases, the management is legally responsible for getting rid of the pests, but their methods may not be safe or even effective, and many landlords and managers try to evade paying for treatments which tenants seek independently.
- Contrary to myth, bed bugs are just as interested in a sparkling clean home as an unsanitary messy one (though reducing clutter makes eradication easier). The only reason they may become more troublesome in low-income housing is lack of funds for effective treatment.
- How do bed bugs get into my home? Bed bugs can stow away in bags or luggage, the folds or pockets of clothing, on furniture, bedding, or even library books. They can be found in almost any public space, including movie theaters, buses and trains, restaurants and retail stores.
How do I know if my home is infested?
- You may see an actual bed bug, though in light infestations they are seldom seen. If you find one, keep it for conclusive identification, as many other insects look similar. Discarded insect shells may also be a clue.
- You may notice small (grain of sand to grain of rice sized) brown or red stains on bedding or walls, caused by insect feces or blood. The eggs are tiny (1 mm) and white, and can occasionally be discovered in mattress crevices.
- Bed bug bites can be small itchy red spots or larger welts, often appearing in a line along the skin. Especially in children, the skin may be broken from excessive scratching. Unlike flea bites, bed bug bites do not have a red dot at their center.
- If you suspect an infestation but aren’t sure, try using indicator traps to confirm their presence.
- In larger infestations, an unpleasant musty smell from the bugs’ scent glands may be noticeable. Some describe the smell as “rotting raspberries”.
Natural, family-friendly treatment options
This is no “fringe” natural remedy: Diatomaceous earth (DE) is thoroughly scientifically validated and promoted by mainstream public health sites. Even professional pest-controllers, armed with an arsenal of chemical products, are increasingly turning to safe and reliable DE for bed bug control. The dust should be applied lightly but thoroughly to all cracks (between floorboards and in furniture for example) and any hidden recesses in which an insect could evade a vacuum or wiping cloth. Try to think like a bed bug: they are experts at seeking out crevices and tiny holes.
IMPORTANT: Be sure to use the DE specifically labeled “insect-control” DE or “food-grade” DE, and NOT the “pool grade” DE marketed for swimming pools, which is hazardous to inhale. The insect control DE uses a different size of diatoms, not considered to pose a health risk.
How does DE work? Essentially, it’s a desiccant: it dehydrates the insect to death. The dust adheres to the bug’s body and destroys the waxy layer which retains necessary moisture. The powder is long-lasting and works mechanically, not chemically, so the bugs can’t become resistant. There’s no poison involved — you can feel comfortable using DE around your children and pets.
Safe, eco-friendly bed bug spray
We like the Stop Bugging Me! Bed Bug Spray as a combined approach with diatomaceous earth. The spray can be used to treat hard-to-penetrate areas on your mattress. Make sure to be thorough in your application, and allow plenty of time for drying before you sleep on it. The ingredients are all plant-based and biodegradable, and it has been tested and approved by the EPA and FDA. Use this on luggage when traveling to deter bed bugs for up to 2 weeks.
When you’re not sure if you have a problem, the First Response Bed Bug Monitor Trap will give you answers. It uses a combination of heat, CO2, and pheromones to attract bed bugs — once the insect comes in contact with the trap it is stuck fast to the adhesive surface. This is an essential for hotel stays if you want to be sure you’re not bringing home any unwanted souvenirs. Monitor traps are easy and safe to carry in your luggage and absolutely simple to use.
There are a few verified methods of using heat to destroy bed bugs and eggs on individual items. For clothing and other soft items such as pillows and duvets, one option is 30 minutes in a clothes dryer set on “high”, or 30 minutes washing in very hot water (at least 120F).
A less energy-intensive alternative in warmer climates or summertime weather is solar heat-treatment: place up to 7 pounds of clothing, bedding, or small pieces of furniture into a black plastic bag, with the opening tightly sealed. Bed bugs die at 115F, but the temperature in the bag must be even hotter to ensure the heat penetrates into all of their hiding places. Place the bag outside in direct sunlight until the internal temperature reaches 115F for at least four hours. On a sunny 95F day, this can be accomplished in a single afternoon; you can also try a car parked in the sun with all of the windows up. Use a thermometer to verify your results.
Yes, both bed bugs and their eggs can be frozen to death. This is rarely the best choice for large-scale decontamination, unless you live in an extremely cold climate and are able to completely abandon your house during the winter for a sufficient length of time (the internal temperature would need to be verified during your absence: this is rarely a practical solution). Clothing, pillows, bedding, or soft toys can be placed in a deep-freeze for four days to destroy the insects and eggs. Use a thermometer to verify that your freezer is operating consistently at below −12 °C (10 °F), and don’t open the freezer during the treatment time.
Prevention is the best medicine
If they haven’t yet taken up residence, now is the time to strengthen your bed bug defenses. —
- Be prepared when traveling with monitor traps and safe spray for your bags.
- Use luggage racks and avoid leaving bags on the floor or on upholstered hotel furniture.
- If you buy used clothing or other fabric items, make sure they go directly from the store into a hot wash and dry cycle.
- Keep your bedroom as clean and clutter-free as possible to minimize hiding places and aid in early detection.
What doesn’t work:
“Bug bombs” (aerosol foggers)
These simple-to-use air-dispersed insecticides may seem tempting: after all, how could a bug escape a poison dispersed throughout the air? In the case of bed bugs, very easily. Bug bombs work on bugs which are out in the open at the time of use; bed bugs are generally very well protected in deep recesses where the chemical will not penetrate. These are hazardous tactics and not recommended against bed bugs. In addition to unwanted chemical exposure, bug bombs have caused explosions and fires.
Though sometimes recommended for pest-control use, boric acid is generally discredited for use on bed bugs because they do not groom, and grooming is the general route of ingestion of boric acid.
Over-the-counter bug-killers such as sprays and roach traps
Again, pesticide resistance has guaranteed that most drug-store insecticides do more harm than good. Even if potent, the chemical simply cannot reach the bugs’ hiding places, and is often inert once dry. Any spray not specifically developed for bed bug use is likely to be useless.
Lawn and garden sprays
Never use pesticides marketed for outdoor use in your home. Pesticides should never be applied to bedding, clothing, or electronics: these products can often be safely treated with heat. NEVER spray any pesticide directly onto a person or animal.
Before you attack the insects, pre-treat your bedroom.
Give yourself a safe sleeping situation, and set yourself up for success.
- Thoroughly vacuum all crevices of your mattress and box-spring, as well as the entire room and all furniture, inside and out. When you’re finished, take the vacuum cleaner outside, remove the bag and dispose of it so the bugs cannot escape back into your home.
- Treat all bedding using high heat as recommended above.
- Enclose your mattress AND box-spring in bed bug-proof encasements. These can be bought at major chain stores that sell beddings or online — make sure the encasements are specifically labeled for bed bug use. Check online reviews to verify that the encasement you are buying works: a good one should keep any bugs accidentally trapped inside the mattress from escaping.
- Treat your bed frame thoroughly by cleaning and dusting all crevices with diatomaceous earth (see above). If your current bed does not have four legs (platform bed or futon, for example), consider replacing your bed frame. Simple metal frames are inexpensive and easy to find at furniture stores.
- Use interceptor cups to prevent bugs from climbing onto the bed, and as an indicator of the ongoing presence of bed bugs in your room. Monitor these cups and clean them at least weekly, or as needed.
- Move your bed away from any walls or furniture and eliminate any clutter around the bed. The bed should be touching only the interceptor cups. If you follow all these steps thoroughly, with luck you will be able to sleep bed-bug-free even while continuing to treat the room.
- Don’t abandon your bed to sleep in a different room — chances are, you will just entice the bugs to follow you. It’s possible the problem is confined to the bed room — try to keep it that way.
- Keep your room as clean and clutter-free as possible to help your treatment work more efficiently. You may wish to discard low-value upholstered furniture or other potential habitats to make your job easier. Ensure furniture will not be inadvertently re-used, allowing infestation to spread to other homes.
- Returning from a trip? Do not bring your luggage into the bedroom (or on the couch). Unpack your luggage in an outdoor storage are such as the garage. Bedbugs are often imported to your home via your luggage, since hotel rooms commonly harbor bedbugs.
Let’s all take a few deep breaths. Bed bugs are annoying, but they don’t pose a serious health risk — unlike many of the pesticides deployed to eradicate them. In many cases, the panic of an infestation (real or imagined) has led to rash overuse of pesticides causing hospitalization or even death. Not all homemade remedies are safe, either: even essential oils in inappropriate concentrations can be harmful.
More and more consumers have turned to the internet to research natural remedies for bed bugs. There is no shortage of advice offered — from the useful, to the wacky, to the fascinating-but-impractical. Some intriguing ideas, like using kidney bean leaves whose tiny spines impale and immobilize bed bugs, sound great until the obvious challenges become clear. Where would we find enough kidney bean leaves to cover our bedroom floor every night? In developing nations, where farming communities use this tactic, the leaves are spread nightly, then gathered up in the morning and burned outside. For many of us with busy lives in urban or suburban neighborhoods, this daily bean-leaf bonfire is not a viable option.
Elimination of bedbugs takes diligence, patience, and an eye for details. This is a great excuse to cut down on clutter and make time for that deep-cleaning routine. Remember, you are smarter than those slow, reclusive bed bugs! It’s just a matter of working systematically, isolating your bed, and then getting into the nooks and crannies. Natural pest control can and does work. Good luck and sleep well!