A lot of people are finding themselves battling an insect they’ve only heard about until now: bed bugs.
Once a common problem across the country, the insects were virtually eradicated when DDT was innocently used as an insecticide, and an entire generation has never even had to think about these pests.
But DDT was found to be a seriously problematic chemical, both environmentally and in how it affected human health and development, and its use in human habitations was banned some time ago.
The bed bugs were waiting, and now they’re back, resistant to many of the less potent chemicals we have in our newer, safer arsenal. Given how difficult they are to eradicate, many people are asking themselves how to avoid the problem in the first place—how do I prevent bed bugs from entering my home?
Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese military strategies stated to know your enemy, you must become your enemy. How does this have anything to do with bed bugs? Well, to get rid of these pesky critters, you’ve got to understand how they act, their feeding habits, and their life cycles. Once you understand their habits and behavior and can identify them, THEN you can look at how to prevent them from entering your house.
Basic Bed Bug Biology Facts
Before you create a plan to prevent bed bugs from entering your home, you’ll need to know a bit more about how these insects live and breed, and why they have been such a persistent problem throughout human history.
Bed Bug Life Cycle
Assume some bed bugs come into your home. Maybe somebody in your family was on a trip, and had the misfortune of staying at a hotel with bedbugs—an occurrence that is becoming more frequent as bed bugs proliferate around the country.
These intruders could be in any of the three stages of development, from eggs to adults.
When eggs are laid, they have a sticky coating that helps them cling to whatever article they’re deposited on—helpful to a bug that oftentimes has to live in what we might consider an inconvenient space. Unfortunately, also ideal for safe and secure transport via luggage, furniture, and other objects.
The young hatchlings and adults are mobile, and can scurry into small cracks and crevices at a moment’s notice.
So it’s likely that if bed bugs have settled into your home, you have bed bugs-in-waiting (eggs), baby bed bugs (hatchlings), growing bed bugs (molting stages), and adult bed bugs.
The reason this is important is because bed bug treatments are usually effective at one stage of growth or another. One chemical that kills adult bugs will not affect eggs, for instance. That’s why bed bugs are so hard to eliminate from a structure, and several treatments over time are usually necessary.
As you can imagine, this gets expensive. And the more bed bugs there are in a home, the more extensive and expensive the treatment must be. So it’s well worth it to prevent bed bugs from entering your home in the first place.
Bed Bug Feeding Habits
Bed bugs feeding behavior is called “cryptic”, meaning hidden. They venture out to feed on their warm-blooded hosts when they sense inactivity and carbon dioxide. Darkness helps them feel more secure about this sneakiness, but bed bugs will feed in the light if they’re hungry.
Once they’ve had a meal (anywhere from 3 to 15 minutes, depending on age), they scurry back to their hiding place to digest. Fortunately, along the way they often evacuate (poop), which is one of the tell-tale signs that bed bugs are in the home.
They like to feed roughly every 5-10 days…although they can survive for up to a year without feeding. This toughness is just one of those special qualities that makes bed bugs a challenge to eliminate from homes and buildings.
Incidentally, although bed bugs gravitate toward human hosts because of the ideal environment found in bedrooms and such, they will feed on pets or wildlife found in houses (like bats or birds). That’s important because many people go to a lot of trouble to make their living quarters inhospitable to the insects, only to find the little buggers just move to other areas of the home not normally considered viable.
How to Identify Bed Bugs
Contrary to popular belief, bed bugs can be seen. But you have to be thorough and determined to find them when you undertake a search of any premises.
Since we know that bed bugs‘ ideal habitat is in the bedroom, that’s the room to focus on initially. Remember that they will travel the least distance possible for a meal, but they are capable of a pretty good hike if necessary.
You would start with the bed itself. An adult bed bug is as thin as a credit card until it gorges itself, at which point it gets a bit bloated. Since the bugs will typically feed in the early-morning hours, that’s a good time to begin your search—sometime between 3 and 5 a.m.
Remove your bedding and put it in transparent plastic bags, and seal them. That will trap any bugs that were caught out in the open when you got up. You can let them stew in the bag while you continue to search.
Inspect your bed painstakingly. The best thing to do is to disassemble it—the mattresses, frame, box spring. Peel the muslin fabric back from the spring so you can see inside.
You’re looking mainly for eggs and the shell casings left by molting (growing) young bed bugs. They will tend to be concentrated in little clumps, because the bugs typically do all their non-feeding activity in a congregation. There will likely be several congregations, so you’re not necessarily looking for a needle in a haystack.
Eggs are white, and pretty tiny. Each female lays between one and 12 eggs per day, though, so there should be a good, visible clump of eggs if they are present.
Once hatched, the bug is about the size of a pinhead, and very light-colored and translucent. That will make them difficult to see as well, so use a flashlight if you need to. After a feeding, however, the bright red blood in their body will help them stand out. At each of the five moltings on their journey from hatchling to adult, the young bed bugs become progressively larger and darker. Adults reach a size about the same as the numbers on a credit card. As mentioned, they are very flat and oval-shaped until they feed. Once engorged, they will look like round, elongated O’s.
Remember that even though they should have eaten at this point, they are still capable of cramming themselves into very tiny cracks. Consider that one good hiding place for a bed bug is the recessed head of a wood screw. Look carefully at any joints, ledges, or crevices that something that size could fit into. Even tiny unsealed cracks in a wooden bed frame or headboard—such as grain lines that were missed by varnish—can hide one or more bugs.
If you don’t find any bugs in the bed itself, turn to furniture and other items near the bed. Nightstands (and all the objects on them) should be examined just as closely. Make sure you look under, behind and inside all furniture like this.
Pictures or mirror frames on the wall above the bed could hide bed bugs, as could drapes or window frames. Peeling wallpaper and the space between baseboards and the wall are other excellent places to look. If you have wooden floors, inspect the cracks between the planks.
If you’re striking out, expand your search to the ceiling, light fixtures, electrical outlet plates, and under the carpeting at the edges of the room.
Finally, check the bedding in those plastic bags—the bugs should be visible on the plastic by now if they exist.
If you’ve examined your bedroom carefully, and you have no other evidence of the bugs (such as bites or the marks of their spoor on your sheets or pillowcases), then congratulations! You can probably safely say your home is currently bed bug-free.
So know that you know how to identify bed bugs, how can you actually prevent them from entering your home?
You’ll probably find our comprehensive What Are Bed Bugs article helpful — there’s quite a bit of information on bed bugs, what they look like, and how to identify them.
How to Prevent Bed Bugs from Entering Your Home
Now that you’re sure you aren’t already dealing with a bed bug problem, you can take steps to reduce the chances that you will be in the future. Since 2000, bed bug calls have increased 81%, according to a 2010 survey of pest control companies. The numbers are projected to rise until an effective chemical defense is found that is safe for humans.
Unfortunately, you need to know that it’s nearly impossible to “prevent” bed bugs from entering your home. There is no effective bed bug repellent—they simply don’t respond the same way as other insects to products designed to keep them out.
In addition, they are notorious hitchhikers. They travel into homes, hotels, and all public spaces by hiding in luggage, packages, carts, bags, and sometimes on clothes. Any person who enters your home could be bringing bed bugs with them (whether they know it or not): guests, pets, delivery and service people.
Consider this—one person chronicling her family’s bed bug fight figured out the bugs entered when she had a new mattress delivered. The bugs were on the old mattresses in the truck, and climbed aboard the tags of the new mattress packaging.
So preventing bed bugs from entering your home comes down to common-sense practices of inspection and monitoring. Here are some tips:
Travel “Bed Bug” Smart
Travel exposes us to bed bugs, whether from public transportation, or hotels, or the houses of our friends and relatives. You need to take special precautions whenever traveling and also when returning home.
- Set your luggage in the tiled bathroom or counter until you’ve had a chance to inspect the room. Bed bugs are unlikely to be in the bathroom, especially if it’s mostly hard, non-porous surfaces.
- Carefully inspect drawers (pull them out and look beneath and above) before storing clothes in them. If you can manage it (for short stays, light packing), don’t use the hotel furniture at all to store clothes. Just leave them in the luggage, on the luggage rack.
- Inspect the bed for bed bugs, and pull it away from the headboard, which is usually mounted on the wall.
- The headboard is a prime source of bugs in hotels. They’re usually mounted in such a way that you can slide them up along the wall, and then either tip forward or remove completely to check behind and along edges. If you have trouble, ask for help from the hotel staff.
- Don’t forget to check the linens and any upholstered furniture in the room, too.
- Unpack directly into the washing machine when you get home. Wash and dry on hottest settings.
- Inspect all your luggage and bags. Steam clean if possible, or put them in the dryer on high heat.
And of course, it’s always a good idea to Search Our Global Bed Bug Registry to see if any hotel/hostel you stay at has had a bed bug infestation reported. If it has, you can take extra care to watch for bed bugs if you stay at that hotel.
One extra note about bed bugs and hotels: if you find bugs, please let the management know immediately, and ask for another room not bordering the suspect room in any direction. Hotels have no more control over what people bring into the building than you do your own home, and most have taken serious inspection and monitoring schedules. But guests play an important role in detection as well, if only because they spend the most time in each room.
Buy a Mattress Encasement
Available from pest control companies or over the internet, a bed encasement is a cover for the mattress and box spring together, reducing the number of places bed bugs can find to hide in a bed. They are also light-colored, so signs of new bed bugs are easier to spot.
If you can’t afford a whole-bed encasement, even using one for the box spring will reduce the amount of time you need to check the bed for bugs in your future monitoring.
Invest in Interceptors
These are wells that are placed under your bed’s legs to trap some percentage of bugs climbing up or down the furniture. If you don’t have many bed bugs, this could be a semi-effective way to control the population, but interceptors are mainly a monitoring device so that you can see if bed bugs are in your home.
Do Furniture inspection
Before bringing any new or used furniture into your home, carefully check it for bugs. Used furniture is an obvious case, but as in the example above with the new mattress, any furniture should be treated as a possible bed bug transport.
Monitor For Bed Bugs
Nobody wants to hear it, but the reality of bed bugs in our lives is that we’ll have to inspect and monitor diligently to find bed bugs so that we can control them quickly if they do appear.
De-cluttering your bedroom and living room (or wherever family members tend to spend time reading, watching TV, or just generally relaxing) will help a lot in your monitoring efforts. For one thing, we tend not to clean as well or as often when there is “stuff” in the way. For another, fewer small objects means fewer places for bugs to hide out.
You might also contract with a pest control company to make periodic inspections. New tools and techniques are being developed all the time to detect the presence of bed bugs, and some of these could save you loads of time and anxiety. If you want more information, you can check out our other Prevent Bed Bugs Article.
What If Bed Bugs Have Already Invaded My Home? If this is the case, you’ll have to take some active steps to get rid of the infestation (bed bugs won’t go away on their own). Read our Bed Bug Treatments article for steps on how to deal with the problem.