When Pests and Wildlife Intersect: How to Identify and Treat for Bat Bugs

Columns - From the Field

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At some point in your career you are going to be asked if you suspect that your client may have bat bugs and not bed bugs. There are a number of ways you may find or suspect bat bugs. You or your technician may have been servicing the home for what “appear” to be bed bugs, Cimex lectularius, and the issue just isn’t getting resolved. A thorough home inspection may have identified bats in the attic, soffits or other gaps and after evicting the bats there are now bat bugs moving into the living spaces of the structure. The client may even divulge that they currently have or recently had an issue with bats in the home. The client may be stressed and/or concerned as they have heard odd rustling and high-pitched chirps and/or squeaks in the early hours of the night. Regardless of how you get to the thought that your client may have bat bugs, there are several steps you need to take to resolve and control the pest.

BEHAVIOR & IDENTIFICATION. One of the first indications that you may be dealing with bat bugs can be discovered through a conversation with the client. The recent or current presence of bats and the location of the bugs can help guide you toward a decision. Other tell-tale signs of bat bugs include: 1. Seeing them along wall/ceiling junctions, in draperies, or around ceiling light fixtures and air vents along walls but not in beds and/or upholstered furniture. 2. No one in the home is reporting being bitten. This second point is important as there are 92 species of Cimicids. Cimex lectularius is the only cimicid that commonly occurs in the United States and uses humans as its primary host (food source). There are several cimicids that use animals as their primary host: the Eastern, C. adjunctus; and Western, C. pilosellus, bat bug species are the two most commonly encountered in structure. These two conditions while not enough for confirmation, should lead you to strongly suspect bat bugs rather than bed bugs.

Left: Bat bug. Notice the the hairs on the pronotum, which are longer than the width of the eye. Right: The bed bug has much shorter hairs. (Photos: Richard Naylor, The Bed Bug Foundation)

While the behaviors and presence of bats can indicate that the client has bat bugs, the key to developing all pest management strategies is to confirm the identification of “it.” Bat bugs and bed bugs look nearly identical to the naked eye as they have similar color, shape and size. The best way to confirm if “it” is a bed bug or bat bug is to get a close-up photo of the pronotum, located immediately behind the head. Look at the hairs on the pronotum. If they are longer than the width of the eye then you have bat bugs. It may sound difficult to get a photo from the field that can help confirm identification. Today’s technology and advances in cellphone cameras and the inexpensive portable or digital microscopes make it easy to get a great photo and confirm identification. Collecting samples is strongly encouraged, so a proper ID can be made if the photos are not sufficient for positive identification, especially if the bugs are neither bat bugs nor bed bugs but instead turn out to be another species.

BAT EVICTION. Bat bugs are intimately tied to bats and preventing bats from entering the home or business is the key to preventing bat bugs. Many bat species are listed as endangered or threatened by federal, state and/or local agencies. Harm, accidental or intentional, to endangered or threatened species can result in heavy fines and potentially a negative public impression for your company and brand.

In most states, one-way bat cones and/or bat netting to evict bats and prevent them from getting back in can be used in September and October. This tight window is to protect maternity roosts prior to September and hibernating bat species post October. Always check with your local wildlife biologist for laws and regulations regarding maternity roosts, exclusion and hibernating bat species in your state and to assist with identification of any bats you may find in a home or business.

Identification of bat entry/exiting points is key to bat eviction. Prior to installing bat cones and/or netting, openings that are ¼-inch or larger that are not being used to enter or exit the structure should be sealed. This will help prevent bats from relocating into the structure after exiting through the cones and/or netting.

After ensuring the bats are out of the structure, bat cones and/or netting should be removed and the openings sealed. Disinfection of the roost should be included as part of the bat eviction service. In many cases insulation will need to be replaced due to bat guano and the concern for histoplasmosis. Make sure you or your subcontractor have the right license for removal and replacement of insulation and follow CDC guidelines around histoplasmosis and potential spores.

BAT BUG CONTROL STRATEGIES. In cases where bats already have been evicted and excluded you can go straight to controlling the bat bugs. Use a vacuum to physically remove any visible bat bugs. Apply a liquid residual and/or dust (in accordance with manufacturer label directions) in areas where bat bugs are active. Pesticide applications are very effective in reducing bat bugs that may leave the bat roost, as resistance to pesticides is not common among bat bugs. A follow-up inspection and service should be scheduled for a week or two after the initial service. This will help ensure that the bat bug population is controlled.

CLIENT COMMUNICATION. In this mix of pest control and wildlife services you may have multiple pieces to coordinate. Juggling the scheduling of a subcontractor or individuals from different service lines to perform all the services can be challenging. We can’t forget about the customer. Develop a clear communication plan for the client that informs them about laws and regulations of bats and the steps for treatment, eviction, clean-up, exclusion and disinfection. Include links or contacts for a local wildlife biologist for follow-up regarding bats. There may be times when you cannot evict the bats for several months and having a local wildlife biologist provide additional support will help you and the client. Application of pesticides will help reduce bat bug activity until bat eviction and exclusion can be achieved.

SUMMARY. Bat bugs are a fairly easy insect to prevent and control when identified. The complexity occurs when bats are present and it is during the maternity roosting or hibernation times of the year when eviction and exclusion can result in federal and/or state fines. Developing a clear communication strategy for your client and a relationship with your local wildlife biologist can help navigate the conversation about timing of service.

The author is a technical service manager for Terminix International. She provides technical support for residential, commercial and inter-national clients. She has degrees in wildlife biology, natural resources and environmental sciences, and entomology from Kansas State University.