A customer recently told me that they had always thought bed bugs were a myth – something maybe to scare naughty children with, and we’ve all heard the old saying, ‘Sleep tight, and don’t led the bed bugs bite!’
This customer has been unlucky enough to discover that not only do bed bugs exist, they also bite and bite at night when we are sleeping. Acting like little vampires, they come out of hiding during the night and head straight for the nearest warm body, to gorge themselves on blood! You can even tell that a bed bug has eaten recently because their colour changes from a translucent tan-colour to an opaque dark red. That dark red colour is of course, the blood of their helpless victim. Bed bugs are incredibly stealthy and they can be living and feeding for months, even years, before people finally realise something is attacking them during the night, with some people’s bodies reacting to the bites with a nasty red welt of various degrees of size and severity. With other people, there isn’t much evidence at all of the nocturnal sorties of these apple-seed sized insects.
Obviously finding bites on your neck, shoulders or legs and arms will raise suspicion of insect bites but to really confirm, the first places to check are on the bed sheets, mattress covers and mattresses at the head of the bed. Wooden frames with slats provide ample harborages, as do headboards etc. The bugs excrete blood after a meal and this will leave characteristic small dark brown – black spots. Sometimes just lifting a mattress and looking at the bed frame will reveal groups of bugs hiding together. But it must be stressed that the absence of faecal spots or actual bugs does not mean you do not have bed bugs. The are absolute experts at hiding. They can slip behind skirting boards, wallpaper, bedside tables etc, lamps, electrical sockets, blinds and curtains, wicker baskets…..The list is endless but keep in mind they are most likely to be near where they feed. So if your ankles get the bites, think that end of the bed etc. Mostly they will be near the head of the bed. They can hide away without feeding for as long as A YEAR, possibly deep, deep inside your mattress and this is one of the reasons that bed bugs are very time-consuming to eradicate. One single pregnant female bug can lay as much as 500 eggs over her life, so if left untreated, you do the math!
Cimex Lectularius, to give them their scientific latin name, have existed alongside mankind for thousands and thousands of years. Whilst they can feed on some other animals, it’s us Homo Sapiens-Sapiens (Humans) that are the preferred food source for this particularly creepy creepy-crawly. Bed Bugs have mouth parts which they use to penetrate our skin then inject saliva containing an anti-coagulant (blood thinner, like warfarin) plus an analgesic to prevent pain alerting the victim to the fact they are being fed upon. People rarely wake up during bed bug biting and feeding, only realising later when they notice a small mark on the skin that may itch or even be a little painful. Thankfully, bed bugs are not known to transmit diseases to humans.
A full life-cycle of the bugs can be around 2 months and from hatching out of eggs, they will go through 6 moults, increasing in size with each one until they are fully grown. A rule of thumb is that an adult bug is around the size of an apple seed.
Bed bugs were all but eradicated in developed countries by the middle of the 20th century but a number of factors have contributed to a comeback to rival a Beatles reunion tour! The banning of insecticides such as DDT and the building up of resistance to the contemporary ‘go-to’ family of insecticide chemicals in use today called ‘Pyrethroids,’ along with our lifestyles of regular foreign holidays, and hotel/B&B stays, the bugs have benefitted from our modern jet-setting lifestyle. A good tip is when travelling and checking into a hotel. Put all your luggage in the bath when you enter your hotel room initially, then check for signs of bed bugs before you get comfortable! If you suspect any bugs are present, have a discreet word with the staff and ask to change rooms. Probably a room as far away as possible from the suspect room because in places like hotels, bed bug infestations can spread along, up and down floors! The staff will appreciate discretion and the tip-off of a problem that can be terrible for the hotel reputation; would you book a hotel that was known to be infested with bed bugs? Also, hopefully early warning for the hotel means they can get pest control out immediately to halt the spread and work toward eradication.
Frankly, bed bugs are tricky pests to eliminate. Their ability to hide away for long periods means they can be physically out of the reach of applied insecticides, waiting out of the active life of the chemical which will lessen in potency over time. Add to that the fact they have a pretty hardy exoskeleton, which takes time to properly penetrate with insecticides. In the right conditions they can multiply quickly and if you think about the fact that if an eradication treatment programme doesn’t kill all the bugs present, they may soon enough build their numbers and you are back to square one!
This is why it is vital to take bed bugs seriously. The amount of work involved by both the customer and a pest control technician to control bed bugs is simply unavoidable. There is absolutely no quick-fix. You may be just lucky enough to have caught an infestation very early on, with only a few bugs to kill. In that instance, the DIY approach may work. There are products available to the general public that are for the treatment of bedbugs but I would caution that only the smallest and localised of infestations is likely to be able to be controlled. And, if you do succeed in killing a few adult bugs, are you sure there are no eggs waiting to hatch? Or did you miss some bugs that were hidden away, happy to wait for months before coming out again? Will you notice quickly enough if that does happen?
We give our bed bug customers a printed copy or email of a detailed list of instructions for them to carry out prior to each treatment application. It involves quite a lot of work, depending on the property size and how much furniture and junk etc occupies the rooms. We ask the customer to sign a copy of the instructions too, because the likely success of the treatment will depend in part on the preparation they do before we arrive. It is a lot of hassle, especially for a large or busy family, but it is unavoidable. Bed Bug treatments must be thorough and prepared for seriously, to achieve the outcome we all wish for.
We ask that people de-clutter as much as possible, and wash or dry clothing and bedding at 60 deg C for an hour to kill off any bugs or eggs. Anything thats been treated by washing should then be quarantined away from other clothes etc. We need to be able to apply insecticide to many objects and structures – far more than we would to control say, beetles. Again this is because of the variety of places the bugs may hide. Beetles and suchlike will be mostly confined to floor level their whole lives but bedbugs can be almost anywhere; walls, blinds, wicker chairs, picture frames, desks….the list is endless. So while we cannot apply insecticide to absolutely everything, the more the better, especially in and around beds (or sofas, as people can be bitten when sleeping on a couch etc) and we must utilise the fact that the bugs, if not living within the bed structure itself, they are likely to be quite closeby, and importantly, the bugs will have to travel from their hiding place to the person sleeping on the bed. The idea being that the bugs will come in contact with insecticide as they travel over the floor and onto beds themselves. For beds that have legs, various traps exist that exploit the fact bugs may have to climb the bed’s legs and the traps sit under the bed legs and will trap the bugs as they attempt to climb the legs.
Bed bug treatments should never consist of a one-off spray. 2 or more applications separated by several weeks is required, ideally using different products to help come at the bugs from more than one directions, so to speak, as some resistance to certain insecticides has been recorded in some species of bed bugs so reliance on one chemical isn’t wise. It’s all-out warfare, throwing everything you have at them – they are a formidable enemy and should not be underestimated!
There are some non-chemical methods that can help too. Vigorous vacuuming is always helpful with insect infestations. Vacuuming can remove lots of insect eggs, larvae and adults too. Always empty the vacuum cleaner bag immediately afterwards, and outside of the home. Insects can and do escape from the inside of the vacuum cleaner! Diatomaceous Earth (also known as Fuller’s Earth) is a powder made up of millions of crushed microscopic shells. These tiny shell shards have razor-sharp edges and will cut into the body of an insect that crawls across them and this in turn leads to the insect losing its’ moisture content, this will cause the death of the insect. Fuller’s Earth is not harmful to humans but when it is being applied, a dust mask should be worn to prevent inhalation.
Other quite hi-tech treatments are available, such as heat-pod treatments. Simply put, this involves placing furniture inside a tent that is heated up for several hours. Insects will not survive this heating but one of the drawbacks is that not every potential hiding place can be treated this way, leaving the possibility of surviving insects that can re-infest a property later.
Bed bugs really are probably one insect problem that requires professional help. Eradication is not easy, it takes knowledge, experience and equipment as well as time. Most people are so horrified by a bedbug infestation that they simply won’t risk the DIY option. I tend to agree.
Gordon Mackay, Aberkil