Bed Bugs: Lures

In general, you cannot solve a bed bug problem by attracting and trapping bugs: there are simply too many bugs that are breeding ahead of their losses. We had (presumably) brought very few bugs home in our luggage, so every one we trapped was one less bug in the room. In any event, the number of bugs caught in the traps would give some idea of how much trouble we were in.

The bottom line: we trapped one or two bed bug instars and no adults.

Anything labeled for use against bed bugs carries a staggering markup and considerable smoke-and-mirrors marketing, but if you go back to the original sources (see the references in the first post), you’ll find out what actually works, which is quite different from what’s advertised.

The study by Wang, et. al., tested carbon dioxide, heat, and chemical lures. Tested singly: CO2 is pretty good, heat is OK, chemical lures definitely come in last. Basically, I think there are way too many significant figures in their results, but under idealized test conditions in a small arena, they collected about 80% of the bugs after six hours.

One key number: the CO2 flow rate was about 170 ml/min, roughly that produced by an adult human.

Another interesting number:

The visual inspections found ≤23 bed bugs in each apartment and they were considered as low levels of infestations.

CO2 mug and powder trap
CO2 mug and powder trap

Based on that, we decided to build some CO2 traps, which led to those observations. Our version of a dry-ice trap used a huge insulated mug filled with dry ice, perched atop an inverted dog food dish. We deployed two traps like that.

The dog dish has a cloth skirt (so the bed bugs can get traction on the way in) and a layer of talcum powder inside (so they can’t get any traction on the way out). The gas flow rate was in the right ballpark.

After several days, we had collected exactly zero bed bugs.

That wasn’t surprising, of course, because we knew we didn’t have all that many bugs, but we were still getting bitten in other parts of the house. Like, alas, the guest-room bed where we’d moved after gutting our bedroom.

Using dry ice as a CO2 source is relatively expensive and exceedingly inconvenient. We went through two iterations and decided that this was far too expensive, given the expected results.

It turns out that baker’s yeast metabolizes sugar into ethanol and carbon dioxide as the yeast gradually dies in a sea of dilute ethanol; if you have a distillation rig handy, you can probably get a decent yield of vodka from this project. Normally I use the carbon dioxide to stretch bread dough, but in this case it came in handy all by itself.

You can buy, for $50, a Bed Bug Beacon or you can build your own carbon dioxide lure and trap from ordinary household items for pretty close to zero dollars. Your choice.

I built and deployed four yeast reactor lures, built from gallon milk jugs and Tygon tubing from the parts heap. This picture tells you pretty nearly everything you need to know.

Yeast CO2 generator
Yeast CO2 generator

I used a hollow punch to poke those the neat holes in the lids, but a razor knife will suffice. Seal the opening on the bottle cap with something sticky; nothing adheres well to polyethlyene and Tygon, although the contact cement I got with the dryer rear seal worked well.

Cap detail
Cap detail

Put three quarts / liters of warm water in the jug, add a cup of sugar (lots of sugar = longer production = more gas) and a teaspoon of yeast (lots of yeast = more production = live hard, die young), put on a solid cap, and shake vigorously to mix. Swap in the cap with the tubing and deploy. The recipe is totally non-critical and would make a great science fair project…

The dingus on the other end of the hose is the bottom of a cottage cheese container, artfully sculpted into a shallow dish with four small feet between low arched openings. Basically, it’s a little cover to trap the CO2 in a confined area and let it leak out in relatively concentrated streams. I have no idea if that’s how it works, but it was easy to do and keeps the hose from wandering away.

What they don’t tell you is that the gas production from a small yeast reactor is maybe 5%, tops, of the 150-200 ml/min required to mimic a human: I bubbled the gas into an inverted 60 ml syringe and used a stopwatch. The gas production varies strongly with time; after a week it’s down to essentially zero, so I’d say the “11 day” claims for the BBB’s lifetime are, mmmm, fanciful, at best.

Gas production is proportional to the total number of active yeast. Methinks a cup of sugar in three quarts of water will yield more yeast than a packet of sugar in, what, a pint jar? If you drop fifty bucks on a BBB, make some measurements and let me know, OK?

Maybe they use brewer’s yeast, which is an ethanol-tolerant strain of ordinary baker’s yeast. The end product, after a week, smells strongly of ethanol, so I’m not sure how much difference that would make.

In any event, my opinion is that such a minimal gas flow can attract bugs from only a very limited radius, so the results are far less conclusive than dry ice or pressurized-gas lures. Of course, if you have floors crowded with bed bugs, a few of them will stumble across the lure simply by accident.

Of course, there is one lure that’s absolutely guaranteed to attract bed bugs from across the room: you. I’ll discuss that after covering traps and barriers…