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Basics of Bed Bug Control


Before we start talking about specifics, I'd like you to take a few moments to embrace one of the most basic concepts of bed bug treatment, namely, that we always start our treatment in the least infested areas, and finish our treatment in the most infested areas. That may seem counter intuitive. Most people want to attack the problem at its source by starting in the most severely-infested place. That's perfectly understandable. It's also perfectly wrong, and it's one reason why most do-it-yourself bed bug treatments fail.

You see, here's the problem: Bed bugs have legs. That means that they can walk, which in turn means that when you start turning their world upside-down and waging warfare on them, they're going to want to run away. If the rooms they can run to haven't been treated year, they may just take up residence there -- or at least hide out for a while. By treating the least-infested areas first, we help reduce the chances of that happening. Those areas will already have been treated, making their whole world the bed bug equivalent of a mine field.

Another problem with starting in the most-infested areas would be that we'd increase the chances of carrying bed bugs into the less-infested or uninfested areas. This is especially true during the preliminary vacuuming step. If we started in the most-infested rooms, we'd be carrying bed bugs inside the vacuum cleaner bag into the uninfested rooms, and some of them could possibly escape.

Determining Whether You Have a Bed Bug Problem

Another thing you'll want to do before planning a do-it-yourself bed bug control treatment is to make sure that you actually have bed bugs. That may seem obvious, but a lot of people wind up wasting a lot of time and money treating a problem that they don't have because they assume that the rashes they have were caused by bed bugs. So let's discuss some ways to know for sure that you actually have a bed bug problem.

Bed bug fecal stains on wooden furniture, probably a bed frame

The most obvious sign of a bed bug problem is if you actually see the bed bugs or their shed skins. In those cases, that's all the evidence you need.

Another telltale sign is blood spots on the bedding, which may be red or brown in color depending on how long they've been there. If you go to bed with clean sheets and wake up with sheets that have tiny blood spots, then you probably have a bed bug problem.

Another sign that you have a bed bug problem is the presence of droppings like those shown in this picture. These are called fecal stains, and they're basically the bed bugs' poop. In heavy infestations, there may also be a dank, putrid odor in the room.

Fecal stains may be found on the mattress, box spring, other furniture, bedding, carpeting, baseboards and trim, picture frames, draperies, or pretty much anyplace else in the room. You may have to turn the items upside-down to find them.

Another effective method of confirming that you have a bed bug problem is to use bed bug traps. Install them in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions and give them a week or so to work. If there are no bed bugs in the traps within 10 days after you set them out, it's unlikely that you have a bed bug problem.

You can also find additional information about identifying different stages of bed bugs here and here, or you can take a picture of suspected bed bugs or stains and request an ID on the Bedbugger Forum. If you do that, please be patient and polite. The people on that forum are unpaid volunteers.

Once you're sure that you have a bed bug problem, the next step is to plan your treatment approach. The goal is to completely eradicate the bed bug population. Total elimination of the infestation is essential lest the survivors repopulate the room(s).

Preliminary Steps of a Bed Bug Control Treatment

The biggest reason why so many do-it-yourself bed bug treatments fail is lack of proper planning and preparation. This is actually why a lot of professional bed bugs treatments fail, too. When customers fail to prepare properly, pest control technicians can't do their best work. So let's take a few moments to look at the process.

Step One: Plan Your Bed Bug Control Job

The first step in planning a bed bug control treatment is narrowing down the infestation. Most bed bug infestations are centered around the bed room(s), but they're also commonly found in other areas of the home, especially living rooms or family rooms if they have upholstered furniture. Try to localize your infestation using clues like sightings, odors, and fecal stains. I also strongly recommend that you place bed bug traps in every area of the house for at least a week to make sure that you're not overlooking bed bugs in any of the rooms.

One thing to bear in mind is that unlike lice or fleas, bed bugs typically do not live on their hosts. They live nearby their hosts -- usually as close as possible. Beds are common places for them to live, but so are other upholstered furniture items like sofas and recliners because people sit on them. If you don't have any furniture at all and sleep on the floor, then they'll live somewhere near where you sleep, such as in a crack under the baseboard. They want to be close to you so they can feast on your blood when you've nodded out. That means that they can be anywhere that you spend a lot of time, especially sleeping.

Once you've narrowed down the infestation, do a detailed inspection of the infested room(s), using a bright flashlight and a magnifying class. Peer into every crack and crevice in the room, from top to bottom, looking for fecal staining or shed skins. Pay special attention to baseboards and other trim and the areas around electrical boxes and fixtures. What you're trying to determine is whether the bed bugs are living in the structure itself rather than just in the bed and furniture.

Take notes while doing this inspection. Many professionals actually make a rough floor plan and note the severity of the infestation in various areas. This helps paint a picture of the problem. Once you have an idea of the relative bed bug populations in the various rooms, start planning your attack, working from the least-infested to the most-infested areas.

Step Two: Set a Date For the Treatment

There are a number of things you'll need to do in the days preceding the treatment, so you're actually setting aside several days. Bed bug treatment ideally should be performed when all family members and pets can be out of the house except for the people doing the treatment. You'll need two people to do the treatment properly, so make to choose dates when your helper will be available.

Step Three: Remove Any Clutter from the Infested Areas

You will need unobstructed access to the walls and furnishing in the infested room(s) to proceed with the steps that follow, so remove any clutter from those areas. Ideally, you will want everything out except for the bed and other furniture.

However, because most of the things in the room may potentially be infested with bed bugs, you don't want to just move them to another room. You might spread the bed bugs if you do. Everything you remove, whether you're going to treat it or throw it away, should be double-bagged and sealed tight in plastic trash bags before you remove it from the infested rooms.

Step Four: Clean or Treat Clothing and Personal Belongings in the Infested Areas

You will need to clean and/or treat all the clothing and other items in the infested areas, and store them in a bed bug-free area until after the treatment. Keep only the bare minimum clothing and fabric items that you need in the room(s) that are to be treated. Ideally, as previously stated, there should be nothing at all in the room except the furniture.

There are specific instructions for treating clothing and other belongings on this page.

Step Five: Treat All The Carpeting in the Entire House

Obviously, if you have no carpeting in the house, you can skip this section.

This step should be performed about three days prior to the treatment. Starting in the least-infested rooms and finishing in the most-infested rooms, treat all the carpeting in the house with a bed bug carpet cleaning powder.

Most of these products contain either silica gel, boric acid, or diatomaceous earth. Some may also include a natural or synthetic insecticide, and a few contain perfumes to make your house smell like a bordello. Whether or not the product you use contains an insecticide, I urge you to wear a pesticide respirator with a dust filter while working with the powders. All of these powders are irritating to the lungs and respiratory passages. Under a microscope they look like broken glass. So wear a respirator.

Read the label for the product you choose for the exact application instructions. Most of the time, however, the basic process consists of sprinkling the powder on the carpets, brushing it in, and vacuuming it up. You'll need a powerful vacuum with a bag. It's too difficult to clean the bed bugs out of a bagless vacuum cleaner.

When you're done vacuuming, while still in the infested room, remove the bag (and the HEPA filter, if the vacuum has one), double-bag them in plastic garbage bags or big zipper-type bags, seal them tightly, and dispose of them in an outdoor garbage can. Leave the vacuum cleaner itself in the infested room. It may contain live bed bugs and you don't want to spread them. They should be dead by the next day due to the powder than you applied.

On the next day (two days before you treat the infested rooms), vacuum all the carpets again. You don't need to re-apply the powder this time. Just vacuum the carpets. Again, start from the uninfested areas and finish in an infested room; and again, dispose of the vacuum cleaner bags and HEPA filters as you did before.

Step Six: Shampoo the Carpets

One full day before you treat the infested rooms, shampoo all the carpets using hot water or steam, a carpet shampooer, and a good carpet shampoo. This step is to remove any dead bed bugs, their shed skins, and their droppings; to loosen and remove as many bed bug eggs as possible; and to help remove the bed bug odor, if there is one.

This is a very important step because bed bug eggs are very difficult to kill. The more of them that you can remove with the shampooer, the better your chances for a successful bed bug treatment. Shampooing will do a better job than dry vacuuming because the hot water and detergent will loosen the glue, free the eggs from the fibers, and wash them away into the tank. They also will help remove fecal stains, which is just good hygeine. I mean, really, who wants bed bug poop in their carpeting?

When you're done, flush the water in the shampooer down the toilet or drain and rinse the collection tank thoroughly to remove any bed bugs, eggs, fecal matter, and odor.

Step Seven: Pre-Treat the Rooms Bordering the Most-Infested Areas

This step should be done immediately before the bed bug treatment in the infested rooms, either the night before or the same morning, before you treat the heavily-infested rooms. What you'll be doing is treating the areas next to the most-infested rooms so that any bed bugs that try to escape run into a residual insecticide barrier.

Even if you want to use non-chemical control in the bed rooms themselves, I suggest that you strongly consider treating the adjacent areas with an insecticide. The easiest way is to use a liquid residual insecticide labeled for bed bugs, like Harris Bed Bug Killer or EcoRaider Bed Bug Killer. I prefer liquids for this step because dusts are messy for this application, and aerosols are tedious to apply.

Use the pin-stream setting on the spray nozzle to apply the insecticide directly into cracks and crevices under and behind the baseboard, trim, etc. Be very thorough: You need to get the insecticide into every crack that you can fit your finger nail, a grocery store key chain loyalty tag, or a thin guitar pick into. Once you've done that, use the fan-spray setting on the spray nozzle to spray a band of insecticide about six to eight inches (15 to 20 centimeters) along the baseboards and trim, as well as the thresholds leading to hallways or adjacent rooms.

Caution: Do not use liquid sprays near electrical outlets, switches, or other electrical fixtures. You could electrocute yourself and die. That would be sad.

Treating the Infested Rooms

On the final day of your bed bug treatment, you will be treating the infested rooms, the beds, and any other furnishings in the infested rooms. Those topics each have their own pages, so please click on the preceding links to learn more about them, starting here.