Paradigm Shift: Why Complaint-Driven Programs Fail

Bed Bug Supplement - Bed Bug Supplement

It’s a fact: Complaint-driven bed bug programs fail. PMPs need to have a comprehensive program for determining infestation levels. Here’s how.

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Often, pest management professionals who acquire contracts in multi-unit housing use complaints received from tenants as an indicator of the severity and extent of bed bug infestations. Yet, research shows that relying on complaints to assess and control bed bugs in multi-unit housing actually leads to larger infestations and increased spread to neighboring units.1

We have inspected more than 3,000 housing units and have been involved in more than 800 cases concerning habitability issues in California. Certainly, the final decision on what level of service that is contracted for is made by the owner and/or property manager. Still, we find that PMPs engaging in complaint-driven programs for multi-unit housing are creating a potential situation where they enter a contract to eliminate an infestation for which they don’t realize the scope. When this happens, the profit of the PMP and/or the quality of the service suffer, and very often the problem is not solved.

PROACTIVE EFFORTS NECESSARY. Complaint-driven bed bug programs are destined to fail. Programs that rely on the residents to complain to management assume that residents (1) can recognize low-level infestations and (2) are willing to report infestations once they know they have them. But this is demonstrably not the case.

Some individuals may not report a bed bug infestation for fear of repercussions by management. Both authors have personally experienced cases where tenants reported this concern. They may fear eviction, rent increases or other consequences. Others may have social reasons for not reporting an infestation of bed bugs, such as embarrassment or emotional distress. Either way, this can lead to chronic infestations in the building. These infestations may continue to feed surrounding units and create a persistent problem.

The ability of bed bugs to spread in a building also highlights one of the reasons why the standard of care for bed bug control in multi-unit housing is to inspect surrounding units whenever bed bugs have been identified. Distribution studies show that bed bugs easily and rapidly move from unit to adjacent unit. One study by Dr. Richard Cooper and others revealed that bed bugs from one unit migrated into one or more neighboring units two-thirds of the time over a period of about two weeks.2

This behavior by bed bugs necessitates that surrounding units be inspected immediately when an infestation is identified. The authors have found that this standard is often ignored in buildings that have complaint-based programs, as they are likewise relying on the neighboring units to report bed bug activity, rather than the PMP to proactively inspect the units.

In addition to the lack of willingness to report, another problem is the ability of residents to recognize low-level infestations. Certainly, with availability of images on the internet (and hopefully materials provided by management) bed bugs and signs of bed bug infestations can be identified by some people with larger infestations. Yet, low-level infestations are much more likely to go undetected by a tenant. In fact, studies have shown that 50 percent or more of residents in multi-unit housing are unaware of present infestations in their unit.1,3

Bed bugs are generally active at night. If the infestation is low, and the bed bugs are harboring in areas such as behind the headboard, or in the box springs, they may not be seen and thus go undetected. Bite marks are not a reliable indicator for residents either as they may think the marks are just scratches or perhaps injuries from other arthropods, such as mosquitoes.

Reactions to bed bug bites also vary greatly among individuals. Different cutaneous responses include general redness, a raised bump or a rash-like appearance. For some, the reaction is delayed, making them perhaps less likely to see a connection to a bite occurring while sleeping. For yet others, there may be no reaction at all.

Immunological response also differs between age groups. Dr. Michael Potter found that 42 percent of victims of bed bug bites who were 65 years old or older reported no bites or skin irritation, even though bed bug infestations existed in the victim’s living space.4 This may potentially contribute to an even lower number of identified units in elderly housing communities with complaint-driven programs. Indeed, research has shown that higher levels of infestation often exist in multi-unit housing with elderly and disabled residents.5

Not knowing the extent of an infestation in a building makes eliminating infestations significantly more problematic. It also can create further inconveniences for residents and expose them to additional pesticide applications. When infestations are caught in the early stages, they are far easier to eradicate, and sometimes this can even be done with non-chemical methods. However, in a complaint-based program, infestations persist. They grow larger and spread to other units, making control much more difficult and costly.

HAVE A PLAN. To avoid these situations, PMPs who work in multi-unit housing should have a comprehensive program for determining infestation levels. When bed bugs are identified in a unit (or units), it is not only essential that all surrounding units be inspected right away, but a full building assessment also should be done as soon as scheduling allows. Researchers from Rutgers and Purdue demonstrated the importance of this practice in a study using a building-wide bed bug IPM program.6 They achieved elimination in 96 percent of the infested units in just 2½ months. The study authors noted a key factor in the success of the program was the speed with which all infested units were identified and treated.

As the service continues, building-wide inspections should be conducted at specified, appropriate intervals. This will help ensure new introductions are caught quickly and that low-level infestations do not persist. Finally, it is also advisable for PMPs doing bed bug work in multi-unit housing to perform proactive inspections prior to entering a contract.


  1. Cooper, R., Wang, C., & Singh, N. (2015). Evaluation of a model community-wide bed bug management program in affordable housing. Pest Management Science, 72(1), 45–56.
  2. Cooper, R., Wang, C., & Singh, N. (2015). Mark-release-recapture reveals extensive movement of bed bugs (Cimex lectularius L.) within and between apartments. PLOS ONE, 10(9).
  3. Wang, C., Saltzmann, K., Chin, E., Bennett, G. W., & Gibb, T. (2010). Characteristics of Cimex lectularius (Hemiptera: Cimicidae), infestation and dispersal in a high-rise apartment building. Journal of Economic Entomology, 103(1), 172–177.
  4. Potter, M. F., Haynes, K. F., Connelly, K., Deutsch, M., Hardebeck, E., Partin, D, & Harrison, R. (2010). The sensitivity spectrum: human reactions to bed bug bites. PCT, 38 (2), 70-74, 100.
  5. Wong, M., Viadyanathan, N. & Viadyanathan, R. (2013). Strategies for housing authorities and other lower-Income housing providers to control bed bugs. Journal of Housing & Community Development 70(3), 20–28.
  6. Wang, C., Saltzmann, K., Gondhalekar, A., Gibb, T. & Bennett, G. (2014). Building-wide bed bug management. PCT, 42(3), 70-74.
  7. Lipman, J., & Miller, D. M. (2018). Bed Bugs and Law in the USA. In C.-Y. Lee, D. M. Miller, & S. L. Doggett (Eds.), Advances in the biology and management of modern bed bugs (1st ed., pp. 385–395). essay, Wiley-Blackwell.