Bed bugs, once thought of as a rare pest spoken of only in bedtime rhymes, are an all too real nightmare for property managers across the country including California. The presence of bed bugs in multi-unit housing cannot be tolerated. Tenants dealing with a bed bug infestation suffer itchy, bothersome bites, and go to sleep each night knowing that there is an insect feeding on their blood while they sleep. This gruesome thought causes extreme stress for tenants, and that stress is often passed along to the property managers and pest management professionals dealing with the infestation. Controlling bed bugs in multi-unit housing facilities is one of the most difficult tasks encountered by property managers and pest management professionals (PMP). Landlords and property managers must hire the services of a well qualified PMP with the experience to inspect service and provide the appropriate documentation to help control the infestation and keep the community free of bed bugs.
So, what are bed bugs? The common bed bug, Cimex lectularius, is an insect that has six legs, a hard exoskeleton, sucking mouthparts, is wingless and does not jump like the flea. Bed bugs are a flat oval shape, and less than 1/4 inch long. The color of the bed bug can be a light tan, red, reddish-brown, or dark brown color depending on the age of the insect and if it has recently fed or molted. Bed bugs usually feed at night, when we are in a deep sleep. However, in infested areas like offices, lounge areas and laundry rooms, bed bugs may be active and feed during the day. Identifying a bed bug infestation by observing insect bites is very unreliable since everyone has a different reaction to bed bug bites.
If left untreated, a bed bug infestation can advance rather rapidly. A female bed bug can lay five to seven eggs per week and two- to five-hundred eggs in her lifetime. Eggs are an opaque white color, smaller than a grain of rice, and typically hatch in seven to ten days. Like all insects, bed bugs molt their exoskeletons. The molted exoskeletons are often found and mistaken for dead bed bugs, while the presence of a molt actually represents a maturing bed bug hiding nearby. Bed bug droppings are generally found near bed bug hiding places, and a well trained PMP will look for these dark black or rust color droppings of the bed bugs during his inspection.
Most people associate bed bugs with clutter and filth. While it is true that cluttered and filthy conditions are often the most difficult infestations to control, bed bugs are not attracted to filth or food mess, they are attracted only to their favorite food source, namely, us. The most common way to introduce bed bugs into a home is via international or domestic travel. Since adult bed bugs are about the size of an apple seed, and the immature bugs are considerably smaller, they can very easily go undetected in the luggage from your family vacation, in the book from your neighborhood yard sale, lying in wait in a rented moving van, or even in the shopping bag from the department store.
When a tenant reports a bed bug infestation, the first critical step is to determine if the pest issue really is bed bugs. Often the issue may be something other than a bed bug infestation. Tenants’ bites may be caused by any number of biting pests, or the “bites” may even be caused by an allergy or skin condition. In some cases, a tenant may be suffering from delusional parasitosis, also known as “phantom bites,” a condition where a person imagines bugs are biting or crawling on them when there was nothing there.
Bed bug infestations will generally be concentrated in the bedrooms and in areas where people are sleeping. They hide in tight spaces frequently out of sight: breeding in the bed frames and box springs, living wedged into the seams of upholstered furniture, and hiding behind picture frames and light switch face plates, they may even infest into the wall voids of an infested unit and move into a previously un-infested unit. In housing units with textured acoustic ceilings, bed bugs may live and breed in the textured spaces in the ceiling along the walls.
We recommend that property managers do not try to confirm a bed bug infestation in-house, but rather have a qualified PMP confirm the infestation as soon as possible. If it is your policy to have property management staff look into all bed bug claims, to prevent spreading an infestation we highly recommend making it a company-wide policy to wear protective gear every time someone enters an infested or potentially infested unit. Shoe covers and gloves are the minimum recommended gear, disposable full body coveralls are recommended if handling furniture or personal belongings as there is a risk of brushing against infested items and transferring bed bugs to clothing. If your staff or tenants can collect a sample, ensure that samples are sealed in a zippered bag or clear container, label the sample with the date and unit number, and provide the sample to your PMP for identification.
When there is a heavy infestation or when the tenant has collected a sample of the pest, identifying the infestation and recommending a treatment plan can be accomplished quickly and treatment can begin as soon as the tenant is fully prepared. However, identifying an infestation is not so simple in cases where the infestation is very low, there is a large amount of clutter or personal items, evidence of a previous bed bug infestation is interfering with inspection efforts, or the infested area is not a living space, like an office or lounge area. In these situations, a visual inspection by a qualified PMP might not determine if there is a bed bug infestation, it may be necessary to employ alternative inspections techniques.
Canine inspection teams are becoming widely used in the pest control industry. Bed bugs emit a pungent musky smelling odor that clings to the items they infest. This odor causes a noticeable stench in units with a very heavy infestation. But the canines do not need a heavy infestation to smell a bed bug. A well trained canine inspection team can detect a bed bug infestation when there is only one or two bed bugs present, this can be instrumental in catching an infestation before it gets bad. Several independent studies have shown that in difficult inspection conditions, while a visual inspection by an experienced pest control technician may only be able to find an infestation twenty percent of the time, a well trained canine inspection team can detect bed bugs with accuracy in the high ninetieth percentile. Canine inspections are ideal for initial inspections and adjacent unit inspections, and a canine inspection after the completion of a bed bug service will help determine if the issue has been resolved. Some property managers are using canine inspections to inspect vacant units prior to turning the units over to new tenants. Even office buildings and department stores use inspection services.
There is a barrage of glue traps, pitfall traps and active monitoring systems available in the pest control industry to help identify bed bug infestations. Glue boards and pitfall traps work by placing these traps in the line of transit between the bed bugs’ hiding places and their food source, the sleeping person. Glue traps can be placed throughout the unit, and pitfall traps are generally placed under the legs of the bed. At least two services are required for the use of glue or pitfall traps, the installation of the traps and at least one inspection seven to ten days later. These traps are helpful for identifying if a pest other than the bed bugs is present, and sometimes the glue traps reveal that there are multiple pests infesting a unit. Active monitoring systems mimic the bed bug food source using heat, carbon dioxide, a scented lure, or a combination of these attractants. One effective device is the NightWatchTM monitoring system, which uses all three attractants. Some property managers have decided to purchase NightWatchTM systems to monitor every vacant unit prior to moving in a new tenant.
If you have found a bed bug infestation, DO NOT attempt to treat the infestation on your own. Self treating with a product touted on the internet or sold at the local hardware store will not effectively control the infestation, and in many cases will worsen the situation by spreading the infestation to neighboring housing units.
Most professional treatment plans will include one or more of these four elements: heat or freeze treatments, insecticide applications, wall outlet or wall void treatments, and bedding cover and monitoring device installation. Heat and freeze treatments utilize the bed bugs’ low tolerance for extreme temperatures; bed bugs and their eggs will die at temperatures above 120oF or below 5oF. A heat treatment of the entire living space using specialized high output electric or propane heaters to heat the home to around 1400F is a very effective tool. The heat can radiate into all the cracks and crevices, into the wall voids and under the carpet where the bed bugs hide and reproduce. Steam treatments use a hand-held device which will not reach all potentially infested areas, and steam can be damaging to some materials. Freeze treatments have the same restraints as the steam treatments and are a less commonly used technique for controlling bed bugs.
Many property managers sigh and wish that DDT was still available, dreaming of a “silver bullet” solution to the bed bug nightmare. What you may not know is that even before DDT was taken off the market, bed bugs were starting to become immune to the chemical. So even if it were around today, DDT would not be the silver bullet for which we all so direly wish. There are several insecticides available for PMP’s that are very effective for the control of bed bugs. When the infestation is not heavy, the tenant is willing and able to follow the often arduous preparation instructions, and the unit is not overly cluttered or packed with personal items, a well thought out insecticide treatment plan can be successful at eliminating a bed bug infestation.
Bed bugs are known to spread into adjacent units and surrounding areas. There is little a PMP can do to prevent a bed bug from finding the crack in even the tightest weather stripping and walking out the front door, or hitching a ride on the tenant’s briefcase. However, your PMP can and should try to prevent bed bugs from infesting the wall voids by removing the face plates over electrical sockets and light switches and treating in these spaces with an insecticide dust.
Bed bugs trapped inside properly installed quality bedding covers will eventually starve and die. Any bed bugs introduced into the unit will be easily found on the bedding cover, and the bugs will not be able to infest the mattress or box spring. Pitfall traps around the legs of the bed and glue boards installed throughout the unit can help catch a new or continued infestation in the early stages.
Tenants and property management professionals often ask what they can do to help with the bed bug control efforts. The best advice is to hire a qualified PMP, make sure that the property management staff and the tenants understand the preparation instructions your PMP has provided, and follow up with the tenant to ensure that they are complying with all instructions. One step included in pretty much every PMP’s preparation instructions is to launder everything. Bed bugs of all life stages will die at high temperatures, and the agitation of the washer and dryer will dislodge bed bugs and their eggs from their hiding spaces in clothing creases and seams. Wash all washable items, including clothing, towels, slippers, spare bedding, throw pillows, tote bags, back packs and washable suitcases and luggage. Wash and dry items in the hottest temperature the materials can tolerate. Place cleaned items in new plastic bags in small batches. Laundering and storing washable items in this manner creates a “bed bug free zone” and makes closets, dressers, luggage etc. available for treatment. Encouraging the tenant to launder the bed linens frequently according to these instructions will also help control the bed bug infestation.
Dealing with a bed bug infestation can be very stressful for everyone involved, and the occasional bed bug infestation is bound to occur at one point in almost every multi-unit housing property in our area. While you cannot prevent this, there are some steps that you can take as a property manager to keep the bed bug infestations at your properties under control. If a bed bug infestation is found or suspected, always have a qualified PMP or canine inspection team inspect the units adjacent to the unit in question, both before and after the treatment to ensure that the infestation has not spread. Do not relocate any tenant living in an infested unit. Even if the tenant has followed the directions of laundering items, they may inadvertently bring their infestation with them. Do not allow a unit transfer of any tenant until their unit has been inspected for bed bugs.
One common misconception is that if an infested unit is left vacant, the bed bugs will die due to lack of food. Unfortunately, this is not the case. If a bed bug infestation is cut off from its food source, the adult bed bugs can lay in wait for an astonishing 18 months, being only more desperate and hungry when a new tenant arrives. Since the bugs have no incentive to stay in the unit they will begin to go looking for a food source, making their way into areas that are difficult to treat like wall void and climate control systems, and the bugs may find their way into adjacent previously un-infested units. When a unit becomes vacant, inspect the unit immediately, the use of an active monitoring system like a NightWatchTM is highly recommended.
When a unit is infested, avoid entering the unit multiple times unless necessary, this will help reduce the possibility of spreading the infestation. It is often tempting to have the tenant throw away infested items, such as mattresses; however, this may cause the infestation to spread to other units as the bed bugs fall off the infested items during transit. If infested items are being disposed of in the dumpsters, these items should be damaged and made unusable and clearly marked “caution, bed bugs” to prevent tenants in the community from bringing items into their home.
One of the best preventative measures you can take as a property manager is to educate yourself and your staff. An educated staff can help you prevent the introduction and spread of bed bugs in your community. A well qualified PMP can provide in-house training to your staff, often at low or no cost. Educating the tenants is also vital. Some property managers have educational documentation from their offices that they distribute to tenants. If you choose to do this, talk to your PMP to avoid giving the tenants conflicting information.
Dealing with a bed bug infestation can be a nightmare, but with an informed staff and a qualified PMP, these terrible pests can be exterminated, and we can all have sweet dreams.
Visit www.discoversuccess today and register for AOA’s FREE EDUCATIONAL SEMINAR on bedbugs which will be held this month.
Chuck H. Payton President of A-PRO Pest Control, Inc, an integrated pest management service. For more information, call (408) 559-0933 or visit www.a-propest.com.