[Tech Talk] My Thoughts on Common Bed Bug Questions

Columns - Technically Speaking

Despite what your grandma may have told you, “Don’t let the bed bugs bite” is a misleading phrase (and other fun bed bug facts!).

June 25, 2013

I was recently reminded of a particular entomological fact as I read my latest Google alerts for bed bug mentions: Despite the old saying that we heard our parents and grandparents say time and time again as we readied for bed — “Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite” — bed bugs don’t bite. They suck.

Sure, I know we all think having an infestation is unfortunate, and you might have heard a frustrated tenant or homeowner at their wits’ end say that bed bugs “suck.” And I think most of us agree that having an infestation of blood-sucking ectoparasites invading the innermost sanctum that is our bedroom really stinks.

But I’m speaking very technically about what happens when a bed bug feeds. Insects of the order Hemiptera, to which bed bugs belong, have piercing/sucking mouthparts and inject a straw-like proboscis into our skin through which they suck blood, in contrast to insects with chewing mouthparts that actually bite. They probe around for just the right spot; it’s capillary blood that they ingest, initially with an assist by our own blood pressure, and then a little pump in their head takes over and does the rest. So the next time you tuck your little ones into bed, remember that a bed bug does not truly bite — it sucks.

And yet, “Oh yuck, don’t let the bed bugs suck,” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it...

Does it Hurt?
Another often-asked bed bug question that needs some clarification: Does one feel bed bugs when they are biting?

My answer is yes…if there are lots of them. What I mean is, if I have a jar full of hungry bed bugs and I place it on my skin (which I have, perhaps shamefully, done) to let them feed through the mesh that covers the opening, I do indeed feel many of the bites. Perhaps not all of them, but many, and it’s hard to describe the feeling. There is certainly a small element of pain involved — but is it enough to wake you if asleep? I’m not sure about that, but I’d hate to think of the poor soul who has to share their slumber time with dozens (or hundreds) of Cimex lectularius, sometimes known as the vampires of the insect world.

An Achilles Heel? Hig­h temperature extremes seem to be the closest thing to a “silver bullet” available to the industry at the moment for the control of bed bugs. Treatments widely referred to as “thermal remediation” are frequently used to control bed bug infestations. Research indicates that eggs and live insects die almost immediately at 122°F.

The goal of a thermal remediation is to raise the temperature in the treatment area to a level above the fatal temperature and below the temperature at which damage to furniture could occur. Care must be taken to ensure than any items that could succumb to heat, such as medications, candles, make-up, aerosol cans, corked wine, and more, are placed in an area where they will be unaffected by the heat. One great advantage of thermal remediation is that little prep work is required. Fans are used to circulate the heat around and to concentrate it into well-insulated areas or gaps, cracks and crevices. Some heat treatments are enhanced with a limited chemical treatment. This often involves the use of dusts in wall voids and around receptacle and light switch covers. Cracks and crevices under baseboards are often treated with a liquid or aerosol product.

This protocol is often very effective against populations of bed bugs that are difficult to control with pesticides alone. It requires little preparation on the part of the tenants. Bed bugs emerge from cracks and crevices where you didn’t even know they were hiding. They come out, run around erratically and soon die in their tracks. Many dead bed bugs are vacuumed up, equipment is removed, the resident returns to a bed bug-free dwelling without side effects, other than that it may look as though gale force winds blew through their unit.

But what happens if that call comes in a few days later that the bed bugs are back?

In order to answer this you must first examine what happened upon your arrival the morning of the heat treatment. Were you met at the door by the resident who had bed bugs clinging to his clothes as he left for the day? Was there a wheelchair or walker that the resident needed to be able to exit the unit? Remember that everything that leaves is a potential source for reinfestation. So if you don’t have a way to ensure that everything that leaves is bug free, you are asking for trouble and another callback. The take-home lesson is that you need to be as careful with the things that leave as you are with the things that stay behind.


W. Wayne White is a Board Certified Entomologist and director of technical services for American Pest, Fulton, Md., and is chair of Copesan’s Technical Committee. As a senior entomologist and vice president, he’s involved in all aspects of operations, including analysis of problem pest accounts, sales and development of pest management programs, and employee training. He also served as part of a U.S. Dept. of State training team conducting IPM seminars in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America.

Copesan is an alliance of pest management companies with locations throughout North America. To learn more, visit www.copesan.com.