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Bed Bugs - Biology and Control

Michael Waldvogel and Charles Apperson, Entomology Extension Specialists
Insect Note - ENT/rsc-#31

Bed bugs have become a common problem across the country. They have been found in homes, hotels, college campuses, businesses, and other places. Many people associate bed bugs with unsanitary conditions, as often is the case with pests such as cockroaches. However, bed bug infestations can occur to anyone regardless of their income (although the cost of controlling bed bugs can make it more difficult for people who lack the financial means to hire a company to help fix the problem.

Why have bed bugs becoming a bigger problem? Some experts attribute the increased problem to a number of causes such increased travel & tourism, changes in the methods we use to control other pests such as cockroaches, and an increasing resistance by bed bugs to the most commonly used insecticides.

Our primary concern is with the “common” bed bug, Cimex lectularius.   Another species in the bed bug family (Cimicidae), Cimex hemipterus, is usually found in more tropical areas and may show up particularly for people who travel frequently overseas. There are other species found more commonly with birds and bats but on occasion they will invade homes.  

bed bug adult on a person's skin

Bed bugs adults are reddish-brown, oval, flattened insects about 3/16" long and up 1/8" wide. Engorged (blood-fed) adults are swollen and dull red. Though wingless, adult bed bugs do have small wing pads.  The dark-colored eyes stand out and the sides of the collar-like pronotum curve slightly around the head and is covered with long hairs.  The nymphs (immatures) resemble the adult but are smaller in size.  Newly hatched nymphs are almost colorless whereas engorged (blood-fed) nymphs are reddish and swollen.  Bed bug eggs are white, oval egg is about 1 mm long.

Life Cycle and Habits

Although humans are the preferred host, bed bugs feed on many warm-blooded animals including rats, mice, dogs, cats, poultry and other birds.  Bats, swallows and chimney swifts may serve as hosts and may be responsible for causing infestations in or around buildings but they are more typically fed upon by other species in those situations.

There has been no scientifically-based evidence showing that bed bugs transmit diseases. Our major concern is more about the affect of their feeding. Bed bugs do not bore into the skin.They insert their mouthparts into the host's skin and suck out blood. As bed bugs feed, they inject saliva which may produces an allergic reaction that often causes slightly delayed swelling, itching, and irritation that can persist for a week or more. Large infestations of bed bugs may have a noticeable "sweet" odor.

mattress seam with fecal stains and a live bed bug (shown with arrow)
Bed bug and fecal smears on mattress

Bed bugs can feed and breed year round when they have favorable conditions. They typically hide during the day in mattresses or cracks and crevices. The picture above shows a bed bug and fecal stains in a mattress seam. Under favorable conditions, each female lays 200 to 500 eggs. When the insects feed regularly, eggs are laid in batches of 10 to 50 at 3 to 15-day intervals. Maximum egg laying occurs when the temperature is above 70°F (21°C). Eggs are typically not deposited when temperatures drop below 50°F (10°C). The eggs are coated with a sticky substance that dries after the egg is deposited and causes the eggs to adhere to the object on which they were deposited. Eggs and the eggshells are found, singly or in clusters, in or near the crevices bed bugs are hiding. At temperatures above 21°C (70°F), eggs hatch in about 10 days. At lower temperatures, hatching may take as long as 28 days.

Bed shed skins at the base of bed headboardNewly hatched bugs feed at the first opportunity. They molt five times before reaching maturity and require at least one blood meal between each molt. Immature stages can survive more than two months without feeding; however, most nymphs usually develop into adults within 2 to 6 weeks. Indoors, three or four annual generations may be produced and you will find all stages of bed bugs in an established infestations. Bed bug adults can survive up to a year or more without feeding, which means that infestations may continue to survive even if a house was left vacant for several months.

Bed bugs cannot fly or jump and do not normally crawl long distances. Their primary means of dispersal is through human activity, i.e., people move them from one place to another in luggage, laundry, etc. Animals, particularly birds and bat, may be involved in bed/bat bug dispersal. Piles of cast nymphal skins often accumulate in bed bug hiding places. The picture at the right shows piles of shed skins at the base of bed headboard.

Eliminating Bed Bugs

Controlling bed bugs is not a simple matter of spraying a pesticide. It requires a thorough understanding of bed bugs and their behavior. Fixing the problem starts with an inspection followed by selecting the best approach to eliminate the bed bugs. We strongly discourage "do-it-yourself" approaches to bed bug control. Using a pest maanagement professional will provide the best results.

Step One - confirm that you do have bed bugs. Bed bug bites often leave reddish slightly swollen welts that can resemble mosquito bites but they typically last longer. Some people do not react as severely and in some cases, the bites may not become visible for 2 or more days.. The bites may be in a pattern of 3-4 in a row (depending on the number of bed bugs present and how a person lies on a mattress). However, a bed bug problem cannot be reliably identified strictly on the basis of bites or other what may seem to be insect-related bite marks. It is critical to find actual evidence of the bed bugs: actual insects, shed skins, fecal spots, etc. as shown in the pictures above.

Most of our infestations have been true bed bugs, but on occasion we have had bat bugs and swallow bugs which are difficult to distinguish without a microscope or high magnification lens. A pest control service may be able to help you or you can contact your local county Cooperative Extension Center. If you do have bat bugs, check attics, eaves and roof overhangs for signs of bat. If you have bats roosting in your attic, contact a pest control company or wildlife damage control company in your area for assistance. Most of our bed bug problems are not associated with birds or bats, but it is always a good idea to confirm that what you found are bed bugs.

Pest control inspector checking a mattress and bed frame for signs of bed bugs

Step Two - Locate all of their hiding places:

Inspect the undersides of chairs for bed bugs Furniture - Bed bugs are going to be found where people spend most of their time. Surveys have shown that close to 75% of bed bugs are found in/around the bed. However, bed bugs may crawl 10-20 feet; so don't limit your search only to the bed.

  • When possible, dismantle the bed for easier inspection and possible treatment. Inspect the mattress and box spring thoroughly. Be sure to check the holes or slots where sections such as the sides, head and foot boards attach.
  • Check under and behind other pieces of furniture, particularly chairs and couches that are used frequently. Don't forget to inspect dressers, nightstands, closets, etc.
    • Pull out dressers drawers, inspect them carefully and check the interior of the dresser before reinserting the drawers. -
    • Check the undersides of lamps, clocks, radio, phones and other objects that might be on nightstands.
    • Pull back the dust covers on the undersides of chairs and couches and check particularly around the legs and frame.
  • Remove and inspect objects, such as pictures, mirrors, curtains, etc., that are hung or mounted on walls.
  • Check obvious cracks and crevices along baseboards.
  • Remove the covers on electrical outlets and switches and inspect the boxes for signs of bed bugs.
  • Inspect torn or loose wallpaper and decorative borders.
  • Check all clothing and other items stored in areas where bed bugs have been found.
  • If you have traveled in the last few months, inspect your luggage as well as the entire closet/storage area (and its contents) where you store your luggage.

  • Some pest control companies use specially-trained dogs to detect bed bugs. We are not endorsing their services specifically, but they can be very cost-effective particularly for large multi-unit properties (apartment buildings, hotels, assisted-living facilities, dormitories, etc.). As with any pest control service, make sure you understand the terms and any guarantees before you sign any contracts. The dog handler or his employer must be licensed by the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.. Be a smart consumer and ask about how the dog was trained (e.g., was the training conducted by someone qualified for training dogs in such detection work).

Step Three - Control

Effective control, whether it’s using chemical and/or non-chemical methods, requires access to the bed bugs and that’s where your cooperation is important.  Clutter prevents thorough inspection as well as proper (and safe) treatment.  Take steps before the treatment begins to make sure that all areas are accessible.  For information on preparing your home for a bed bug treatment, see “Preparing Your Home for Bed Bug Treatment”.

Chemical Control
mattress encasements keep bed bugs off of a mattress and box springThe next step is to treat bed bug hiding places and this requires a lot of work on your part. There are many products available for bed bug control and again we strongly recommend using a professional pest control service. Many people prefer to use less toxic "natural" products; however, most of these chemicals work strictly as contact insecticides, i.e., they must be applied directly to the insects in order to kill them and there is no residual effect meaning that once the chemical dries it will not affect other bed bugs that come into contact with it. Other insecticides leave a residual that remains active for weeks or months after they’re applied. If you are going to attempt control on your own, make sure you READ THE PRODUCT LABEL TO MAKE SURE YOU UNDERSTAND HOW THE PRODUCT WORKS. Some products are applied as surface sprays (to exposed surfaces) while other treatments are applied only as "crack and crevice" to gaps around baseboards and other such areas and items where bed bugs hide. Insecticidal dust formulations such as diatomaceous earth, silica gel, and more common dust insecticides provide longer residual in these locations. Not all dust products are available to the general public and care is needed when applying them to avoid inhaling the product while applying it. Dust products should not be applied to exposed services where people and pets can come into contact with them. Pesticide (liquids or dusts) applied to furniture, particularly mattresses, should be limited (and perhaps best left to a pest control professional).

Many pest control services now recommend (or require) that treated mattresses and box springs be placed inside sealable casements (shown at right) that prevent bed bugs from escaping the treatment and also keep other bed bugs from re-infesting the items. When treating furniture for bed bugs make sure you use only products that are labeled for application to these items. You can click on the following links for examples of pesticides available to the general public and pest management professionals. Always read the label and follow directions and safety precautions. Here are some important reminders about using pesticides:

  • Never use insecticide products that are intended for outdoor use only or for agricultural use. These chemicals pose a serious risk to your health.
  • Never apply chemicals at higher rates (amounts or concentrations) or more frequently than what is listed on the product label.   Overapplying pesticides will not improve control but it can endanger your health.
  • Foggers (total release aerosols) will not control bed bugs particularly when the bugs are hiding in cracks and crevices or under/inside furniture, luggage, etc. 
  • Seeing live bed bugs 1-2 days after treating does not necessarily mean that the insecticide is not working. It takes time for the bed bugs to move about and contact the chemical.
  • In most situations, a single application does not seem to give complete or immediate control.  Additional treatments may be needed in 7-14 days (depending on the product).  In some cases, a third or fourth treatment may be needed particularly if all infested sites have not been identified or if becomes apparent that the bed bugs are resistant to the chemical(s) being used.

Trailer fumigation of infested furniture

For extreme or difficult infestations, fumigation may be used (picture at right). Fumigation is not the same as using a "fogger" (total release aerosol). Foggers are not effective in eliminating bed bug infestations. Fumigation uses a toxic gas and you must either seal the entire house (or entire apartment building) or place furniture and other items into an isolated container (e.g., a panel truck or steel storage container) and sealed for treatment. Fumigating an entire house (or apartment) may require that the entire building be covered with a tarpaulin (or completely sealed) in order to treat it. Fumigation will kill all of the bed bugs and is an alternative to other insecticide applications if an entire house is infested; however, it leaves no residual (killing) insecticide.

Non-Chemical Control

Mattress next to dumpsterSome people prefer to dispose of infested mattresses and other furniture rather than deal with treating them. It is important to dispose of these items properly. First, you must wrap the items in plastic sheeting before carrying it outdoors so you bed bugs do not crawl onto you or drop off indoors unseen which may further spread the infestation. Second, whether you live in a house or an apartment building, never put infested furniture at the curb or next to a dumpster (if allowed) without first rendering it unusable (e.g., cutting the fabric). Otherwise, someone may take the items which only spreads the bed bug problem further. If you replace infested items, do not bring them into the house until you know you have the problem under control or else these new items will become infested. Clothing and some other items that are infested (or suspected of being infested) can be washed in hot water (or follow the tag on the article); however, washing alone will not always kill bed bugs and their eggs. Heat (drying in clothes dryer on ‘High’ for about 30 minutes or until dry) will kill them. Other items may require dry cleaning which can become an expensive option. Simply isolating clothing or other infested items in trash bags may work but remember that bed bugs can survive for more than six months without feeding.

Physical barriers such as double-sided tape on the legs of beds can help keep bed bugs from crawling onto the frame. There are also commercial traps available online that claim to stop bed bugs from moving onto beds from surrounding areas. However, none of these barriers will help unless you keep bedspreads, blankets, etc. from touching the floor and keep the headboard away from the wall so that these items do not provide bed bugs with an "alternate route" onto the bed. Keep in mind that these physical barriers help but they are not a fix for bed bug infestation.

Heat treatment in a bed bug infested apartmentMany pest control companies offer freezing and/or steam treatments for some types of infested furniture such as mattresses and box springs. Another control method that has proven to be effective is heat treatment. This requires that all of the suspected items or in many cases the entire living area be sealed and heated for several hours to >120°F (picture at right). Heat treatments are not simply a matter of raising the air temperature. The heated air must penetrate all areas of the room/house in order to kill bed bugs that are hiding in household articles, in furniture or clothing, or even in walls. Excessive heating can damage furniture, electronics, and other items and may even start a fire if not done properly

The best approach to dealing with bed bugs combines both chemical and non-chemical methods in order to provide a greater likelihood of control. However, even with the use of fumigation, heat and/or conventional insecticides, there is currently no treatment method that can prevent bed bugs from being reintroduced into and reinfesting a home or any other building..

Protect Yourself From Infestations
When staying at hotels, store luggage on shelves away from beds or the floorYou never know when and where you might pick up bed bugs. Higher priced hotels or vacation rental properties are no less vulnerable to getting bed bugs from a visitor, but they often have budgets that accommodate more proactive approaches. Despite the best preventive efforts, almost any property can become home to these hitch- hiking pests. Here are some measures you can take to reduce the likelihood of a problem:

  • Check your room carefully, particularly looking for signs of bed bug activity on the mattress or headboard.
  • Keep luggage off the floor and check shelves before placing luggage on them. You can keep your luggage inside a trash bag during your stay. Put the contents of your luggage in trash bags and open them in an area where you contain any problems.
  • Upon returning home, empty your luggage in your garage or bathtub on sheet so you can check items carefully (and then immediately wash and dry the sheet and any infested items.).
  • Be careful about furniture and other items picked up at yard sales. Avoid buying used mattresses and/or box springs unless unless they have a tag showing that they were sterilized by a state-certified bedding sanitizer.
Click HERE for additional advice on dealing with bed bug infested items

Information and the bed bug image used in this publication were taken from Insects and Related Pests of Man and Animals
(AG-369, North Carolina State University).
Picture of mattress of encasement courtesy of Rick Cooper, Cooper Pest Solutions, Lawrenceville, NJ

Pest information and control recommendations presented here were developed for North Carolina and may not be appropriate for other states or regions. Any recommendations for the use of chemicals are included solely as a convenience to the reader and do not imply that insecticides are necessarily the sole or most appropriate method of control. Any mention of brand names or listing of commercial products or services in the publication does not imply endorsements by North Carolina Cooperative Extension nor discrimination against similar products or services. All recommendations for pesticide use were legal at the time of publication, but the status of pesticide registrations and use patterns are subject to change by actions of state and federal regulatory agencies. Individuals who use chemicals are responsible for using these products according to the regulations in their state and to the guidelines on the product label. Before applying any chemical, always obtain current information about its use and read the product label carefully. For assistance, contact the Cooperative Extension Center in your county.

Distributed in furtherance of the acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914. North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, sex, age, or disability. In addition, the two Universities welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation. North Carolina State University, North Carolina A&T State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and local governments cooperating.

Updated November 2010

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