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Controlling Bed Bugs in Apartment Buildings--Part 1, Insecticides

Insecticides Are the Primary Control Tool Against Bed Bugs

Over fifty years ago, bed bugs were controlled by wholesale spraying of beds, floors, walls, and furniture with DDT (see Bed Bug History).

Many things have changed since then, but not the way we control this resurging pest. There is little difference in the way bed bugs are controlled today when compared to 50 years ago except in the types of insecticide used. Insecticides are still far and away the major control tool, whether used by professionals or by the general public.

One thing has changed. Fifty years ago the insecticides being applied typically controlled bed bugs after one application, and kept controlling them for months (or more). Insecticides today are not nearly as effective against bed bugs. In apartments especially, one service visit is rarely enough. Unfortunately, retreats for bed bugs are common. And retreats mean even more insecticides are applied.

When compared to insecticides for other household pests, professionals are forced to apply a higher volume to more sites and with more retreats than against any other pest. Eradication is rarely achieved, at least in apartment buildings. Spotty, low-level infestations or repeated bed bug outbreaks are often the norm in apartments rather than the exception (see Control Difficulties ).

Menu of Insecticide Treatment Sites

Here is a menu of insecticide application sites and techniques for bed bug control:


Service for bed bugs usually includes insecticide treatment of bed frames, slats, any hollow legs or open springs, headboards, and the floor around beds with a liquid residual insecticide, often one of the broadly-labeled pyrethroids.

Mattresses and box springs

Pest control companies differ widely in how they deal with infested mattresses and box springs. Some require that they be discarded and replaced (we don't agree with this position unless they are badly deteriorated as well as infested). Others require that mattresses and box springs be covered with vinyl covers (see Information for Apartment Dwellers--How to Help Keep Bed Bugs Out of Your Bed), but will not treat them. Some will treat the box spring but not the mattress. Others will treat only with Steri-Fab®, a nonresidual bactericide/disinfectant that kills bed bugs on contact. Many pest control companies will apply residual insecticides to mattresses and box springs when the label clearly allows such a use. An effective site to treat is inside the box spring, behind the gauze cover on the bottom. (You may have to cut small holes or remove and restaple the gauze to get access.)

In most heavy infestations, we usually recommend that companies do, in fact, treat mattresses and box springs, but only after confirming that the label of the insecticide allows treatment of beds and upholstered furniture.

ALERT: Never treat the bed of anyone who is ill or otherwise health-compromised.

Lightly treat the tufts, seams, and buttons on the mattress and box spring. Mattresses should not be used or recovered until thoroughly dry. Recommend that the resident use a mattress cover, preferably an allergy-preventive cover, before remaking the bed.

Other furniture

Dressers, nightstands, and other bedroom furniture can be heavily infested with bed bugs. Technicians can apply a liquid residual in a band to the floor around the furniture. Remove dresser drawers and apply a residual insecticide inside (but be sure to avoid spraying inside drawers unless they can be covered with a liner). Treat under and inside infested nightstands. Stuffed furniture is also very attractive to bed bugs, and not just in bedrooms (See Bed Bug Inspection Tips for Pest Control Technicians). You may need to apply a residual under the cushions, behind the skirting, and to the underside, similar to treatment of a box spring. Some companies will treat infested seams on the top surface, and some won't. Some products are labeled for this use.

Other treatment sites

Other sites that may be infested or provide harborage, and that are commonly treated, include bedroom baseboards, obvious cracks and crevices, walls behind pictures and mirrors, window frames, behind switch plates and electrical receptacles, and inside clothes closets. In heavy infestations, insecticide treatment may also be expanded to include drapes, ceiling/wall intersections over the bed, tack strips under carpet, living room furniture, televisions, stereos, and other electrical devices, and other potential infested sites too numerous to list. In severe infestations in apartments, wall voids are sometimes drilled and treated with dusts

Choice of Insecticide

A wide range of insecticides are being applied for bed bug control. Research studies have demonstrated significant resistance in field populations of bed bugs to pyrethroid insecticides, yet this class of insecticides is used more than any other. If you put three pest control professionals together in a room and ask them which insecticide is best for controlling bed bugs, they are far more likely to disagree than to agree. For now, most pest control companies hedge their bets by applying more than one insecticide and formulation when treating for bed bugs. Many companies include applications of liquids, aerosols, and dusts (particularly in voids). We have seen four different products applied in one bedroom.

Another possible option in a serious infestation is fumigation. Vikane® is labeled for bed bug fumigations. Three times the dosage rate of Vikane used for drywood termites is prescribed on the label for bed bugs.  While expensive, and providing no residual protection, a properly conducted fumigation has the advantage of killing all bed bugs in the structure without exception.

Next--Controlling Bed Bugs in Apartment Buildings--Part 2, IPM


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