Bed Bugs: We’ve Learned a Thing or Two

Bed Bugs: We’ve Learned a Thing or Two

Over the past 15+ years, the pest management industry has become much better at controlling bed bugs. Here’s what to expect going forward.

It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 15 years since bed bugs made a comeback in North America. The cryptic pests were virtually wiped out by improved sanitation and use of pesticides like DDT in the 1940s and ‘50s. They began reappearing in the late 1990s and early 2000s at popular tourist destinations and hotels catering to business travelers in major cities. 

Within a decade, bed bugs were a widespread problem afflicting multi- and single-family housing, college dormitories, health-care facilities, public transportation, office buildings even laundromats.

And while their reintroduction likely was due in part to increased international travel, immigration, changes in pest management practices and resistance to existing pesticides, people also were to blame.

“A general lack of public awareness is largely responsible for the unbridled spread of bed bugs throughout the United States,” writes Dr. Richard Cooper in the Mallis Handbook of Pest Control, 10th edition. Cooper, who is vice president of BedBug Central and technical director of Cooper Pest Solutions, a Terminix company, says the pest’s secretive behavior and public ignorance meant infestations weren’t detected for months, which gave bed bugs an opportunity to spread.

And it wasn’t just the general public who was caught unawares. Most pest management professionals had never seen bed bugs before either. The industry pretty much had to learn from scratch how to control the pests, starting with how they behave and why.

Biology and Behavior Matters. Bed bugs are nocturnal insects that feed primarily on human blood, which is required for them to develop and reproduce. A bed bug needs a blood meal in each of its five instars, or immature stages, during which it molts and eventually becomes an adult. Males even seek out recently fed females with whom to mate.

Mated females lay two to five small, cream-colored eggs at a time and will deposit 200 to 500 eggs in their lifetimes. The eggs hatch in six to 10 days. Up to four generations may occur in a year. The pests tend to live in aggregations near the bed, as well as in upholstered furniture where people rest. With large infestations, bed bugs may be found in less predictable areas, such as in books and electronic equipment.

From egg to egg, the bed bug life cycle takes four to five weeks when relative humidity is 75 to 80 percent and the temperature is 83 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (28 to 30 degrees Celsius). The life cycle timeframe may lengthen when temperatures are reduced or blood meals are limited.

Getting More Strategic. Ongoing research and development have helped PMPs become much more successful in controlling bed bugs.

“Bed bugs jumped on the scene and it took us a while to figure out what to do about that,” says Chelle Hartzer, technical services manager at Rollins in Atlanta. “Now after 20 years we know that this is going to be an ongoing issue and we have the research and the information to really provide some great services,” she said.

More effective tools also have helped PMPs gain the upper hand. “I think the materials are much, much better now,” says Bart Foster, technical and training manager at Bill Clark Pest Control in Beaumont, Texas. Early bed bug treatments relied on tools available at the time. “We had some success but there was room for a lot of improvement,” he says.

Since then manufacturers have introduced products specifically for bed bug control and that reduce the risk of the pests developing insecticide resistance, a very real threat.




Bed Bugs by the Numbers

1 mm – the size of a bed bug egg

2-5 – number of eggs laid at a time by a mated female

200-500 – number of eggs laid by a mated female during her lifetime

6-10 – number of days it takes a bed bug egg to hatch

4-5 weeks – typical bed bug life cycle from egg to egg

75-80% - optimal relative humidity for bed bug development

83-90 degrees F – optimal temperature for bed bug development

1 – minimum number of blood meals needed during each instar

5 – number of instars, or immature stages, before becoming an adult

316 days – typical life of a bed bug


Source: Mallis Handbook of Pest Control, 10th edition; University of Tennessee