As I write this, I’m anticipating my husband’s return from a week away on business.
I intend to greet him with a kiss, a home-cooked meal and strict instructions to leave his suitcase in the garage.
After attending a bedbug update a couple of weeks ago with expert Susan Jones, I am on full bedbug alert.
If there’s one over-arching message I took away from her talk, it’s this: Stay vigilant. Bedbugs are an increasing problem in our area, she warned. Keeping the bugs out of your house in the first place and discovering them quickly if they do get in are the best defenses against an infestation that’s difficult and expensive to eradicate.
Last week in this space, I passed along some prevention tips from Jones, an urban entomologist at Ohio State University and an eminent bedbug authority. And I fully intend to heed them when my beloved gets home by asking him to unpack in the garage, inspect his suitcase and its contents for signs of bedbugs and put all his clothes — clean and dirty — right into the washer and dryer.
In this week’s column, though, I’m concentrating on another part of the problem: what to do if you already have bedbugs.
If you do, you have my sympathy. But don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s a myth that bedbugs are associated with poverty and squalor, Jones said. Bedbugs have been found even in the finest hotels.
While it’s true that clutter compounds the problem by giving bedbugs more places to hide, it isn’t poor housekeeping that causes bedbugs to take up residence. They’re just opportunists. All they need is a way in and a warm-blooded creature to feed on.
Should you suspect you’re playing host to the reviled critters, professional pest control services are by far the best option, Jones said. You can search for licensed pest management companies and applicators in the Regulatory Programs section of the Ohio Department Agriculture’s website, www.agri.ohio.gov.
Get at least three estimates, Jones advised, and check references from people in similar situations to yours — for example, owners of single-family homes or managers of apartment complexes or hotels.
Most pest-control operators use a combination of approaches, she said. That probably will include a thorough inspection and cleaning (expect this to involve some work on your part), the application of more than one insecticide and possibly other eradication methods such as heat treatments, cold treatments or steaming.
The company may also use bedbug monitoring devices or bring in bedbug-sniffing dogs. Jones said the dogs can be useful in large-scale inspections, but their reliability varies widely and depends on the skill of the handler.
Unfortunately, professional treatment is expensive — sometimes more than $1,000. Not everyone can afford that.
So what do you do if you can’t?
Jones suggested you start by pleading your case to a pest control company. It might give you a reduced rate or work out a payment schedule.
Failing that, you’re left to fight the bedbugs on your own.
Be warned: It’s difficult — very difficult, Jones said. It takes effort and vigilance, and you may never get rid of the bugs completely. But you might be able to reduce their numbers significantly and keep them from feasting on you and your family.
Here are her recommendations:
• Encase your mattress and box springs. Specially made encasements are designed to trap the bedbugs and eggs that are already inside the mattress and springs. Not all bedbugs live there, but trapping the ones that do makes it easier to treat the bugs that live elsewhere, she said.
Keep the zipper closed tightly, because bugs can get out of small openings. And be careful not to tear or otherwise damage the encasement.
If you can’t afford to buy both encasements, Jones suggested encasing just the box springs. It has the most hiding places for bedbugs.
You can buy the encasements online or from some stores that sell bed linens.
• Set the legs of your bed in bedbug interceptors. These devices are little dishes with deep, talc-covered depressions that the bugs can climb into but can’t escape.
The interceptors are available from some retailers that sell bedding and pest-control supplies.
• Use a steamer to kill bedbugs on the mattress, box springs and any other suspect areas. Work very slowly, covering about 12 inches every 30 seconds.
• Vacuum thoroughly and regularly wherever bedbugs might be hiding, but be sure to intercept the bugs to keep them out of your vacuum cleaner bag. You can do that by making a little pouch out of the foot portion of an old pantyhose leg and slipping it inside the vacuum cleaner’s attachment hose. Hold the pouch in place with a rubber band, if necessary.
Vacuuming is highly effective at removing the bugs, Jones said, but suction alone won’t get rid of their eggs. That’s because they’re glued in place by a substance the female secretes when she lays them. Use a vacuum-cleaner attachment or other means to scrape the eggs off before you suck them up, she said.
• Use your clothes dryer. Drying an item for 30 minutes on high will kill bedbugs and their eggs. Machine-dry anything you can — your bedding, your clothes and certainly any secondhand garments or other dryer-safe items you bring into your home.
• Turn down the thermostat. Bedbugs mature from egg to adult much faster in warm conditions, Jones said — 21 days at 86 degrees versus 120 days at 65 degrees. Lowering the temperature slows the rate of reproduction.
• Get rid of as many hiding places as you can. Clean up your clutter, and remove soft surfaces such as carpets and drapes, if possible. Hard surfaces give the bugs fewer places to hide and are easier to inspect and clean.
• Caulk cracks and little openings where bedbugs can hide, such as the joints between moldings and walls.
• Buy insecticides from a pest control company that sells professional-grade products to do-it-yourselfers and will tell you how to apply them safely. Don’t go to a big-box store, Jones cautioned, and be sure to follow the instructions meticulously.
What doesn’t work? Ultrasonic repellers, for one thing. Jones said they’re ineffective against virtually everything. She even showed a photo in her presentation of a repeller that was dotted with bedbug skins and feces and had living bedbugs near it.
Insecticides that claim to kill bedbugs on contact have only minimal benefit, she said. They work if they’re sprayed directly on the bug, but they have no residual effect once they dry. If you’re able to see a bedbug, you might as well just squash it with a tissue, Jones said.
Bug bombs or foggers have little effect on bedbugs, she said, and they may even make the problem worse. They often cause bugs to scatter, spreading them to other rooms or housing units.
Jones said natural bedbug products are also suspect. Because natural products don’t have to be registered with the Environmental Protection Agency, their manufacturers aren’t required to produce data proving they work. Their claims of effectiveness are often based on customers’ comments, not reliable research, she said.
Boric acid granules won’t work, either. Boric acid kills cockroaches because those insects chew and swallow it, but bedbugs have different mouth parts that can only pierce and suck, she explained. They can’t ingest it.
And while it may seem counterintuitive, getting rid of infested furniture isn’t a good idea, either. Some of the bedbugs will fall off the furniture as it’s moved, spreading the problem, Jones said. If you put the furniture on the curb, someone might pick it up and carry the bugs to another household. And you can bet bedbugs are hiding elsewhere in your house, just waiting to infest the new furniture you bring in to replace the old.
Better to leave the furniture in place and have it treated, she said.
By now you’re probably scratching all kinds of itches. For that, I apologize.
Let’s just hope the source is only your imagination.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.