Extension educator says education is key in bedbug control

Bedbugs are a pest that have been around for thousands of years.
Bedbugs are a pest that have been around for thousands of years.

Bedbugs. Just saying the word is enough to make anyone's skin crawl. The one-fourth- inch long reddish brown insect likes to come out at night and feed on your blood while you are sleeping.

To make matters worse, getting rid of them can be tough and expensive. However, if proper measures are taken at the first sign of bedbugs, managing the problem can be successful.

"This is a problem in our society that is not going to go away anytime soon," said Barb Ogg, UNL Extension educator in Lancaster County. "Education is key because detecting them early is helpful in getting them under control as quickly as possible. Infestations that go undetected for longer periods of time will be harder to control and, in the meantime, can spread to other locations."

Bedbugs have been around for thousands of years, Ogg said. Many scientists believe the insects long ago originated from bat-bugs that inhabited caves with early man. Over time, the wingless creatures adapted to feeding on humans who eventually transported them across the globe.

After the end of World War II, long-lasting insecticides were used to virtually eliminate the pest from homes in the U.S., Ogg said. However, for over the last 20 years bedbugs have resurged, making news most recently from showing up in posh hotels in New York City to apartments and college dorm rooms across the country, including UNL.

"There is no boundary to where a bedbug will or won't go," Ogg said.

Bedbugs hide in cracks and crevices of mattresses, box springs, sofas and chairs, Ogg said. Females can lay one to seven eggs a day, and the white eggs about the size of a pinhead can be difficult to see.

Usually people don't know they have a problem with bedbugs until after they have been bitten, Ogg said. The nocturnal bugs crawl out of hiding places and feed on sleeping humans. The bite is painless but the result for most people is red, swollen, blotchy skin that will itch for several days.

Another factor making bedbugs difficult to detect is that about 20 percent of the population doesn't react to the bites, she said. In addition, some people do not react to bites until several days after being bitten.

It can be especially difficult to remove bedbugs in multiple-unit buildings, such as hotels, apartments and dorms, where the bugs can be brought in by one person and affect nearly everyone, crawling from unit to unit.

Bedbugs usually don't move from place to place on their own. They usually are brought in. They can be picked up anywhere from a motel to a movie theater to someone's home. They can crawl into suitcases, backpacks or used furniture, and then be taken into homes or other buildings.

Ogg said she even saw a case where a begbug was hiding in a cell phone and another case where a bedbug was found in someone's wallet.

A bedbug's life cycle consists of five immature stages of growth and an adult stage, Ogg said. When food is abundant and temperatures are warm, a bedbug can reach adulthood in one month. However, if food is limited, they can go without food for three to six months.

During growth, bedbugs rely on blood as their only food source.

"They use heat-seeking thermal receptors to locate humans to feed on at night, as well as carbon dioxide we exhale," she said. "Bites most often occur on the neck, arms and shoulders but can be found other places as well. Bedbugs probably don't bite through nightwear, but only on bare skin."

Ogg said research has never shown bedbugs transmit disease or pose other serious health threats to humans. However, many people experience psychological stress and insomnia after dealing with bedbugs.

"The real problem comes with the 'ick factor' of being bitten at night," Ogg said. "Nobody wants to go to sleep with the thought that bugs will be feeding on them during the night."

During the day, bedbugs retreat to cracks and crevices or tight spaces close to the bed such as bed coverings, mattresses, springs or bed frames where females lay eggs, Ogg said.

"It can often take a couple months before bedbugs are noticed," Ogg said. "But with the warm, favorable conditions of a house and unlimited food (sleeping people), thousands of bedbugs can be produced in four to six months if no control actions are taken."

Bedbugs leave behind tarry black spots or smears. Although these spots are most commonly seen near the bed, they also can be found in other places near where bedbugs hide, Ogg said.

Because they live in small cracks, bedbugs can be hard to control with do-it-yourself techniques, Ogg said. In addition, research has shown that most bedbugs are resistant to most over-the-counter products. The good news is there are more effective commercial products available to pest control companies.

To get rid of bedbugs most efficiently, it is helpful to hire a pest control company that uses the proper products and application tools, Ogg said. Professional treatment may be costly but is more likely to eliminate the problem.

Ogg recommends a few simple steps to prevent and control bedbug problems:

— When traveling, inspect hotel and guest rooms. Check cracks and crevices where bedbugs are most likely to hide during the day and areas around the mattress and headboard.

— Don't place luggage on the floor. Use a luggage rack instead to keep items out of bedbugs' path.

— If you find bedbugs when traveling, ask for a different room far away from the infested one.

— If you believe you may have encountered bedbugs when traveling, take precautions when you get home to prevent bringing bedbugs into your home.

— Do not bring your luggage inside, but unpack outdoors. Run all clothing through the dryer for 30 minutes on medium to hot heat. Inspect toiletries carefully before bringing them inside. Inspect and vacuum luggage or use heat or cold temperatures to kill bedbugs. Bedbugs die at 120 to 130 degrees F almost instantly. Freezing them is harder, but some studies have shown they die at 23 degrees F when maintained for five days.

Ogg has done 56 requested bedbug programs in the last 14 months. Ogg will be presenting at a public meeting at the Lincoln Lancaster County Health Department, 3140 N St., April 19 from 7-9:30 p.m. The focus is landlords, but Ogg said anyone is welcome. Spots the bedbug sniffing dog also will be there.

For more information about bedbugs, go to http://lancaster.unl.edu/pest/resources/bedbug263.shtml.

— Sandi Alswager Karstens, IANR News Service