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Extension > Garden > Insects > Prevention and control of bed bugs in homes

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Prevention and control of bed bugs in homes

Dr. Stephen A. Kells and Jeff Hahn

Adult bed bug

Importance

Bed bugs, Cimex lectularius, have become a very important pest of the 21st century, as they invade mainly urban areas. We had a 30+ year "vacation" from this pest, as bed bugs were almost completely removed from North America due to mass treatments with older, highly toxic insecticides that are no longer in use.

Recently though, bed bugs have found ample opportunity to increase in numbers and spread. Their success is a result of people traveling more often, improved treatment methods that specifically target other insects and do not impact bed bugs, and a lack of public awareness.

In addition to homes and hotels, bed bugs are also found in schools, retail facilities, office buildings, libraries, and other public areas.

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Identification

Bed bug before and after a blood meal

It is critical to have suspected bed bug specimens properly identified by an expert. The "Let’s Beat the Bug" campaign at the University of Minnesota found that 76% of samples submitted for identification are not bed bugs.

Adult bed bugs are oval, flattened, brown, and wingless insects approximately 1/4" to 3/8" long (5-9 mm). They are similar in appearance to a wood tick.

After the bug has taken a blood meal, its color will change from brown to purplish-red. Also after feeding, it is larger and more cigar-shaped making it appear like a different insect.

Young bed bugs are much smaller, 1/16" (1.6 mm), when they first hatch, and nearly colorless except after feeding, but resemble the adult in general shape.

You may also find cast skins, which are empty shells of bugs as they grow from one stage to the next. After a blood meal, bed bugs deposit fecal spots (composed of digested blood) in areas adjacent to the feeding site or back at their hiding places.

Bat bugs

Bat bugs have longer hairs near their heads.

Another bed bug species that can be found in homes is the bat bug, Cimex adjunctus. They can be common, but they are not encountered as often as bed bugs. Even when they are present in a home, they are reported to bite people much less frequently.

Bat bugs can be identified by the longer hairs along the lateral edges near the head. A specialist should examine the sample for proper identification. Bat bugs live in attics and eaves associated with bats, so inspection and control measures must be expanded to include areas where bats may be found.

Less frequently encountered bed bugs

There are other species of bed bugs that may be encountered in Minnesota but are much less common. The chimney swift bug, Cimexopsis nyctalis, and the swallow bug, Oeciacus vicarius, feed primarily on birds. However, they can occasionally be pests in houses when host birds are nesting in the home (including the attic and eaves). Like bat bugs, these other species will also feed on humans when their normal hosts are absent.

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Life cycle

Bed bug nest

Reproduction

After mating, females lay white, oval eggs (1/16" long) into cracks and crevices. An individual bed bug can lay 200 to 250 eggs in her lifetime. The eggs hatch in about 6 to 10 days and the newly emerged bed bug nymphs seek a blood meal.

Immature nymphs molt five times (they shed their outer exoskeleton in order to grow) before reaching adulthood. There may be three or more generations per year. All ages are found in a reproducing population. Under normal circumstances, adult bed bugs will live for about 2 to 4 months.

Feeding

They need to feed at least once before each molt, although they could feed as often as once a day. Newly emerged nymphs can survive without a blood meal for days up to several months. Older nymphs and adults can survive longer without a blood meal from months up to a year under favorable conditions.

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Avoid bringing bed bugs into your home

Traveling

The greatest risk for encountering bed bugs is while you are traveling. Regardless of the type of lodging you stay at, it is a good precaution to check your room.

For more information see Inspecting your hotel room for bed bugs.

Used furniture

Used furniture is another potential source of bed bugs.

For more information, see How to prevent bed bug from your entering your home.

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Signs that you have bed bugs

Bed bugs on a backpack

Bed bugs along a mattress seam

Bed bugs on the underside of a box spring

Bed bugs on a metal bed frame

Look where you sleep

Bed bugs typically cluster together in out-of-the-way areas. However, some bed bugs will live by themselves, away from the rest of an infestation. The best way to determine if you have an infestation is to look for bed bugs where you sleep or rest.

In bedrooms, look particularly on and around:

While bed bugs are most commonly found in bedrooms, infestations can occur in other rooms, including bathrooms, living rooms and laundry rooms.

Look for spots or smears

Dark blood spots on sheets and bedding may indicate bed bug feeding. Bed bugs will sometimes excrete while they are feeding. This results in darker (dark reddish or brownish) spots or smears found on bed sheets, pillowcases and mattresses, or in nearby areas.

This material is composed mostly of digested blood and the stains are very characteristic. In severe infestations, bed bugs may be more noticeable. The accumulation of bugs, cast skins and fecal spots will be very apparent upon close inspection.

Do a close inspection

Remember these insects are small (1/16" to 1/4") and very flat, so they can move into very tight corners and cracks. In some infestations, they have been found under picture frames in between the glass and the frame and behind electrical outlets and other wall plates. Be prepared to do some close inspection and, when in doubt, consider having the inspection done by a pest control service provider (exterminator).

If you find a bed bug, stop inspection and begin control activity. Do not continue with the inspection alone as bed bugs will move from their hiding places once disturbed. Further inspections must be accompanied by control measures.

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How to get rid of bed bugs

Professional control

We highly recommend that you seek assistance from a professional pest control company (exterminator).

Controlling an infestation requires very detailed work, moving furniture and taking it apart, and specialty equipment. Careful inspections must be completed along with non-chemical controls such as heat treatments, vacuuming and steam treatments, and insecticide treatments.

The insecticides used are commercial products requiring special equipment and training. Over-the-counter insecticides and home remedies are not effective in controlling bed bugs.

Pest control services use heat treatment, which requires specialized equipment to raise the temperatures in target areas to 118°F and then maintain that temperature for at least 70 minutes. All stages of bed bugs are killed when this is done properly. While very effective, heat treatment does not prevent bed bugs from being brought back into a home and reinfesting it.

It is important to cooperate with a pest control service. However, it should not be necessary to move or throw away your furniture and your belongings, especially from an apartment or condominium. Sometimes furniture is removed and heat treated in a container but it would be rare to actually need to throw items away.

For additional information about control measures, see Bed bug control in residences on the U of M bed bug site.

To find a professional belonging to the National Pest Management Association, go to the Pest World website and type in your zip code in the search box under "Find a Professional."

What a resident can do to help control an infestation

When working with a pest management company, there are some additional things you may be asked to do to help get rid of bed bugs.

Using heat

You can use your washing machine and dryer to kill bed bugs infesting clothes and other washable items. Clothes laundered in hot water and/or dried in temperatures hotter than 122°F for 20 minutes will kill all stages of bed bugs. This is typically the medium-high setting. If you are not sure what temperature your drier can reach, ask a professional to test it for you. You can also heat curtains and other fabrics, rugs, shoes, backpacks, stuffed animals, toys and similar objects by drying them at medium-high for about 30 minutes for a full load.

For more information, see Laundering items to kill bed bugs.

Using cold

Cold temperatures can kill bed bugs if they are exposed to it long enough and at temperatures that are cold enough. All stages of bed bugs will be killed on objects left in a freezer at 0°F for 3 days.

Putting infested furniture outdoors during winter when it is cold may kill some bed bugs, but there is no guarantee that you will kill all of them.

Although there is no guarantee that outside freezing temperatures will kill all of the bed bugs infesting an object, you can use the cold treatment to immobilize bed bugs until you decide what to do with the object.

For more information, see Using freezing conditions to kill bed bugs.

Encasements

An encasement is a fabric covering that looks like a very large sack with a zipper and that completely fits around a mattress or box spring, creating a barrier to prevent bed bugs from escaping. Although the encasement can become infested itself, the infestation is easier to detect and contain.

They are useful when you want to protect a mattress you know is free of bed bugs (it has been heat treated or you have purchased a new mattress). You can also use encasements on infested mattresses and box springs to trap the bed bugs inside them; you can keep using your bed as long as the encasements are not ripped or torn.

Make sure you buy encasements that are specifically designed for protecting against bed bugs. You can buy encasements from professional pest control services or retail stores.

Bed bug interceptor

Bed bug interceptors

Bed bug interceptors are small plastic trays with an inner and outer ring. You place them under the bed legs. Bed bugs that attempt to climb up from the floor to the bed become trapped in the outer well. Any bed bugs that try to climb down will become trapped in the center well.

Bed bug interceptors not only help to reduce the number of bed bugs that can reach the bed but also act as a monitoring tool to help determine whether bed bugs are present.

You can buy bed bug interceptors online, from pest management companies, or from retail stores.

Insecticides

Don’t try to treat bed bugs yourself. The insecticides available in over-the-counter products are not effective in controlling bed bugs.

Bug bombs, also known as total release foggers, are not effective when treating bed bugs. These products throw insecticide into the air and very little, if any, comes in contact with bed bugs hiding in cracks and behind and under objects. Unfortunately, it is easy for people to misuse or overuse bug bombs, which can result in unnecessary pesticide exposure. Bug bombs are potentially flammable if used incorrectly.

Caution: We strongly discourage you from trying to treat bed bugs yourself. But, if you decide to use a pesticide, it is very important to carefully read and understand the label before using, and to follow all label directions. The product you use should be labeled for bed bugs.

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Visit the U of M bed bug website for more information
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