Bed Bugs: Assured Destruction

Because our infestation consisted of a relatively small number of bed bugs, our primary goal was to prevent any instars from reaching maturity and breeding. The secondary goal was to eliminate any existing adults, one of which seemed to be an egg-laying female.

An ordinary house, ours included, presents an essentially infinite number of harborages suitable for bed bugs. Despite what the references will tell you, it’s impossible to remove / seal / stuff all of the cracks and crevices in which bed bugs may reside between meals. We didn’t make extraordinary efforts along those lines.

On the other hand, here’s a simple truth that I haven’t seen anywhere in the literature: The numbers are on your side! To wit:

  • You have many opportunities to kill any given bed bug during its progression from egg to adult

Each of the five instar stages must have at least one blood meal before molting to the next stage. If you have only a 50% chance of killing the bug at each feeding, only 3% of the eggs will reach maturity: 0.031 = 0.55. That’s still too many, but if you’re 75% effective at killing the bug that just bit you, you can reduce the odds of having an adult bug to essentially zero: 0.001 = 0.255.

You do that by:

  • Making your floors inhospitable
  • Isolating your furniture
  • Calling down the angelfire every single time you get bitten

Bed bugs may crawl on walls as well as floors, but most of your furniture stands on the floor. Spreading diatomaceous earth along the floor, covering a few inches from the baseboard, ensures that bed bugs will pick up a lethal coating of sharp dust particles. This won’t kill them immediately, but it’s cumulatively quite effective. Best of all, diatomaceous earth isn’t poisonous to you.

With all of your furniture isolated from the floor, using cheap and effective home-brew traps that I’ll discuss later, you know that the bed bug that just bit you is in one of two places:

  • on the furniture
  • on you

Sterilize both locations and you’ve most likely killed the bug.

Repeat as needed.

Because bed bugs inject an anesthetic while they withdraw blood, you probably won’t feel a thing during the bite. Indeed, you probably won’t feel an early instar crawl along your skin, even though you’d swear you should. We generally notice the itching sensation shortly after the bite, while we’re still sitting in the same position. If you don’t react to bites, this technique won’t work.

At that point, we stripped down, put all our clothes directly into trash bags without letting them touch the floor, sealed the bags, and took a thorough shower. Bed bugs prefer living in clothing to living on skin, but a smaller instar may not have made the leap and you want to be certain you got rid of it.

You then wash your clothing and run it through the dryer to be certain you killed the bug.

During one particularly trying day, I took four showers. This will be rough on your skin and your clothing, but … consider the alternative.

You must then make a decision: try to disinsect (a new term to us, too!) the furniture or discard it. After reading the process required to kill insects in upholstered furniture, we chose to discard (after acquiring bites while sitting on each item) a pair of rather old Barcaounger recliners, the living room couch (which is currently isolated and abandoned in place, pending a spring pickup), three office chairs, and sundry other bits and pieces.

While we were not certain that those furniture items contained bugs, nuking them from orbit was the only way to be sure the bug wouldn’t grow up and reproduce.

Our living room furniture currently consists of a rocking chair, a footstool, some straight chairs (one serving as a desk chair), three pole lamps, a table, two desks, and very little else. What remains is easily sterilized, offers few harborages, and can be (is!) isolated from the floor.

I told you this would be expensive.

You must be certain you kill the bug that just bit you and we think there’s no other way to make that happen. Spreading the type of insecticide required to kill bed bugs all over your furniture seems neither practical nor desirable. You could bag the furniture up and wait for a year until the bugs die from natural causes, but that’s simply not practical.

Repeat as needed. With any luck, you will run out of bugs before you run out of furniture.

Then there’s what we did to our bedroom. But, first, I must digress into pesticides.

  1. #1 by smellsofbikes on 2010-11-10 - 12:38

    You’re obviously a good person to ask about this. I’ve been told that bedbugs can’t survive heat over 120F, so bagging furniture and then heating it up should work. Any opinions?

    • #2 by Ed on 2010-11-10 - 13:34

      Yup, that’ll work, but you must get the interior temperature up to 120 F and hold it there for maybe an hour without roasting the exterior. You should put the thing-to-be-debugged into a heated environment so the bugs don’t abandon ship (or, if they do, they jump into the fire).

      The catch: where you gonna find an oven big enough for a couch?

      An upcoming post will describe a homebrew hot box suitable for things up to about 3x2x2 feet (not all at once), which we use with what passes for religious fervor around here.

  2. #3 by hexley ball on 2010-11-10 - 13:00

    Speaking of, ahem, debugging techniques reminds me of my first job offer. I had just returned to the farming community where I grew up, with a shiny new E.E. degree from a far-away institute of higher learning. A member of the ham radio club sought me out, and said he’d like to talk to me about a secret project for which he needed help. It turned out to be an r.f. beam o’ death that was to be aimed at a flow of newly-harvested wheat, destroying any hidden bugs.

    I passed — graduate school looked more promising — but sometimes wonder if the bug zapper project ever made it to production.

    • #4 by Ed on 2010-11-10 - 13:39

      A Death Ray!

      Given that it’s a thermal kill, I wonder what the absorption is for

      • a fresh grain o’ wheat
      • a juicy little bug

      Methinks there’s not much difference: if you can heat a bug enough to kill it, you’ll heat the adjacent wheat enough to cook it. Not a desirable outcome…

      Guy I worked with had a story about rattlesnakes and wheat combines that I gotta tell sometime…

    • #5 by smellsofbikes on 2010-11-10 - 14:27

      I have a coworker who does something similar. He scrapped a microwave and has the transformer/magnetron set up with a very long extension cord and a switch on the remote end of the extension cord. When he has a problem with an antpile he sets it magnetron-down on top of the antpile, plugs it in from 100 feet away, turns it on, and leaves it for an hour.
      (I think starting a fire on the top of the pile might be significantly cheaper…)

      • #6 by Ed on 2010-11-10 - 16:36

        a fire on the top of the pile

        Or an element from an electric stove.

        I’d want to do a bit of excavating after the microwave treatment. No, come to think of it, I’d want to read about the excavation…

        Sheesh…

      • #7 by Hipstor on 2011-04-21 - 14:20

        Easy Thermal kill for an ant hill.
        1. Get a BIG pot (as big as you can safely lift and carry when full)
        2. Fill it with water.
        3. Heat water to boiling.
        4. Using extra hot pads, carry the water to the ant hill.
        5. Pour water on & in ant hill. Be careful not to scald yourself.
        Note this works for small ant piles in one shot. larger ant hills will need 2-3 applications.

        • #8 by Ed on 2011-04-24 - 18:43

          I’m not convinced; the depth of the tunnels suggests that no water actually penetrates into the nest. After all, ants have been surviving torrential downpours for longer than we’ve been around.

          For ants, we use a live-and-let-live guideline, with the occasional ant bait when the encroach indoors.

          Sort of like mice: perfectly fine when they’re outside, not welcome in the attic!

          • #9 by Hipstor on 2011-05-20 - 02:56

            I live and let live too. I’ve only used this technique when I find indoor invaders. I may never know for sure if I got the queen or not. (thus killing the hive.) But the 2-3 inches of boiling mud generated seems to have been an effective deterrent. The 3 different times I tried this. The surface hill was nuked and never reopened. At least not in that location. And more importantly no further invaders in the house. YMMV. It’s non-toxic to try at least.

            • #10 by Ed on 2011-05-20 - 07:49

              2-3 inches of boiling mud

              That may be what shuts it down: they must tunnel out around the edges, which takes long enough that nobody notices them. From what little I know of ants, the big ones bury their main chambers a foot or two underground, which protects them from nearly everything except maybe asteroid strikes…

              We often unearth shallow ant nests in the garden, so obviously they don’t all go deep. We still feel somewhat bad about disturbing them; they’re just trying to make a living like everybody else…

  3. #11 by William Riley on 2010-11-10 - 14:28

    This is fascinating stuff, keep it coming. My mother manages nearly 100 apartments and is having major issues with bed bugs. Fortunately nuking a small apartment from orbit is fairly easy to do. :)

    • #12 by Ed on 2010-11-10 - 17:37

      nuking a small apartment from orbit

      The problem is that you must also treat the adjacent apartments in all directions, because it’s entirely likely that population pressure has pushed the bugs into new territory. Upstairs, downstairs, across the hall: it’s all the same to the bugs.

      From what I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot), however, doing multiple apartments is impossible: tell your tenants that you’re treating their apartment because bedbugs are loose next door and, the next thing you know, they’re headed for the horizon.

      Not a good situation at all.

  4. #13 by david on 2011-07-10 - 05:12

    I really would like to hear that ‘rattlesnakes and wheat combine’ story sometime :)

    (Did I mention how much less fun this bedbug nonsense is when one is cursed with (a) wall-to-wall carpet to provide infinite hiding spaces and (b) a cat to handily vector them around any traps? Still no signs of infestation here, yet, but…)

    • #14 by Ed on 2011-07-10 - 07:04

      ‘rattlesnakes and wheat combine’ story

      It goes better with dramatic pauses and gestures, but … I’ll do the best I can. Gimme a while…

      Still no signs of infestation here

      You do not want to appear before the slumlandlord and report that your apartment has this little problem…

  5. #15 by Eric S on 2012-10-04 - 23:06

    I just want to thank you for these postings. It makes a much needed antidote for the masses of hysteria one inevitably finds researching bed bugs on the net, which are almost guaranteed to freak out anyone with a bed bug infestation or who worries that may have seen signs. It’s easy to fall into all-or-nothing thinking and despair of being able to combat them. It’s easy to get caught up in thinking of them like a contagion, and start imagining that anything that has touched anything that has not been sterilized, however briefly, is a danger. It’s good to be reminded that this is a game of probability, like most things, and to see that the actual odds aren’t so bad after all. Not that they should be treated lightly, nor that a touch of anal-retentiveness when dealing with them isn’t a good thing, but it’s easy for that to get out of control. Anyway, thanks, reading this significantly lowered my blood pressure when I first found it!

    • #16 by Ed on 2012-10-05 - 07:42

      the actual odds aren’t so bad after all

      Unless, of course, you’re in an apartment building that can provide unlimited reinforcements. [sigh]

      I suspect if you discover (or admit you have) an infestation only after the bugs have built up huge numbers, then you can’t make any headway with our simple techniques. Given a few dozen egg-laying females, there’s no way you can eliminate the population by taking out a few bugs at a time.

      it’s easy for that to get out of control

      Got the T-shirt, right here…

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