Bedbugs: How I Got Rid of Them

by John S. James, July 2015

In 2011 I had a serious bedbug infestation in a shared house, and we could not afford the thousands of dollars most exterminators asked (for treatments that often worked only temporarily). So I studied the bedbug life cycle and came up with something much easier to do. It worked very well for me. Maybe the standard advice for dealing with bedbugs should be reconsidered.

What's the Difference?

The conventional approach is to cure the infestation by killing every bedbug. Since each female can lay about 200 eggs, which hatch in 10 days, this seems obvious. But while bedbugs are easy to kill, they are hard to find. It is very difficult to kill them all, which is why eradication is so hard. And even if you do succeed, new ones can be introduced and then you have to start over.

My approach is bedroom changes that make it almost impossible for bedbugs to reach the sleeper(s), feed, or reproduce. Of course you kill them when you can, but you don't have to kill every one. If they can't eat or drink ever, they will leave. And you can keep the changes permanently, so if new one arrive they will not be able to eat and reproduce.

I was sharing a house with five others, one of whom had an uncontrolled infestation in the room next door. So I first used diatomaceous earth (see below) to reduce travel between the rooms. Later, after getting rid of my infestation I would still see an occasional bedbug, but rarely get bitten. On the rare occasions that a colony started to grow, it had nowhere to hide but was exposed on the white bedbug-proof mattress or box spring covers, and the bugs were easy to see and kill. This colony formation and elimination happened only twice -- despite a huge, uncontrolled infestation in the next room, reachable not only through the hallway but also through a door directly between the rooms, with an open space underneath.

To reach my bed, a bug had to hitchhike a ride on me (or possibly crawl up to the ceiling and drop onto the bed). Any that did so could feed but then had no hiding place it could reach (without dropping off the bed to the carpet below, where it and its progeny had no way to get back to the bed to feed).

I did use insecticides intended for bedbugs occasionally -- but used only a fraction of what would be needed for an extermination attempt.

In my case I usually worked away from the house, and there was nobody in the bedroom most of the time except for sleeping at night. The same methods seem likely to work even if there are people in the room all day. But I haven't tested that.

How to Do It

(1) Bedbug-Proof Your Mattress, Box Spring, and Pillows

The most important measure is to cover your mattress, box spring if any, and pillows with bedbug-proof covers. Once they are zipped shut no bedbug can get in or out (unless there are tears or other breaks in the covers). After a year or a little more, all the bugs trapped inside will be dead.

This is also the most expensive part of our approach. We used ELF brand mattress and boxspring covers, spending about $40 for each, and about $10 for the pillow protector (prices on Amazon). A pamphlet published by the State of Pennsylvania mentioned the "Protect-A-Bed" brand of covering as an example, but it is more expensive. Avoid the cheap vinyl covers, because of their heavy outgassing; we tried one first, and intended to let it air out in our basement, but the outgassing was so bad that I threw that mattress cover away immediately to get it out of the house.

(2) Raise the bed in such a way that no bug can crawl up from the floor.

I had been sleeping without a bed frame, on a mattress on a box spring on the floor. I used large, full cans of tomato or other juice from the supermarket (at least 6 are necessary, and more cans may be better depending on the maximum weight on the bed -- we had a leak once), to raise the box spring off the floor. There must be better ways to raise the box spring (in case you don't have a bed frame), since bedbugs normally cannot climb vertical walls of smooth metal or glass, but we haven't found any that are as inexpensive and easy to obtain as the juice cans.

Make sure that no bed sheets or covers touch the floor, at any time day or night. This may be difficult. You may need to use a sleeping bag instead, as it is less likely than a sheet or cover to dangles onto the floor. Another problem is that the box spring cover may sag and touch the floor under the bed; we used tacks to keep it up, and also dusted the carpet under the bed with diatomaceous earth. If any bedding does touch the floor, heat it in a clothes dryer on maximum heat for at least 20 minutes to kill any bedbugs and their eggs.

If you don't use a bed frame or box spring, a large, strong plywood sheet should work to raise your mattress so that bedbugs can't reach it. Another option to raise your bed would be a hammock -- use a metal or other barrier to make sure the bugs cannot reach it by crawling on the rope.

If you do have a bed frame, then you need to make sure that bedbugs cannot climb up the legs. If the bed's legs are wood or something else that won't stop them, you can buy bedbug traps or coaster-like devices to use under the legs. Or for a free option, an empty, clean, shallow can used for tuna fish, etc. under each leg should keep the bugs from climbing onto the bed (we haven't tested this). Remove the paper wrapper of course, as they could climb it; and if there is a line of glue left on the can, you may need to use a trap, or use diatomaceous earth where the glue meets the floor, to prevent bedbugs from getting up that way.

And if you are using a bed frame, you have to make sure that bedbugs are not hiding in or on it. Insecticide spray may be important here -- or you may need to remove the mattress and box spring and inspect the frame frequently.

Once your bed is inaccessible, you need to check it occasionally (and any time you suspect bites). Fortunately the mattress and box spring covers are white, so it's easy to see live bugs, dead bugs, droppings, blood stains, or other evidence of infestation. The bedbugs have no place to go except the surface of the mattress or box spring (or the bed frame if any), so you should be able to kill all of them there. If they drop off to reach the floor or carpet to hide during the day, they cannot get back onto the bed to feed.

Also, store clothes on hangers; they should never touch the floor. Dry dirty laundry can go into plastic garbage bags, preferably fastened at the top, for example with rubber bands.

(3) Use standard methods to reduce infestation:

* Repair cracks in plaster. Use caulk to seal gaps in baseboards, shelving, or cabinets.

* Heat kills bedbugs and their eggs. Clothing can be heated in a clothes dryer on the highest heat setting for at least 20 minutes. If you have been traveling and may have picked up bedbugs, heat your travel clothes in the dryer immediately when you return -- or seal them in a plastic bag until you can do so. And if you have bedbugs, heat your travel clothes in the dryer before leaving, to avoid spreading them to someone else.

* It is hard to heat the whole room on your own. Electric heaters will not work for this, because for safety they usually have thermostats that cut the power at a little over 100 degrees F -- hotter than people would normally want their room, but not hot enough to kill all the bedbugs.

* You can kill bedbugs with a hair blow-dryer with 30 seconds of continuous contact, as an alternative to sprays. Or crush them, or flush them down the toilet.

* If you use a spray, make sure it is intended to kill bedbugs. And be careful with pets; many of the sprays contain pyrethrin, which is poisonous to cats, and extremely poisonous to fish. I first started dealing with bedbugs by visiting an exterminator who sold sprays and equipment for do-it-yourself use, and told him we had a cat; he recommended a spray, but I checked the label and found that what he tried to sell me had pyrethrin and could have killed our cat. That's when I decided not to trust the conventional advice, and take a fresh look at the problem of bedbug control.

* Diatomaceous earth is useful. It is not poisonous like the sprays are; the kind we used is food grade for animals, used to kill parasites in the digestive system. But be sure to use a kind intended for home use against bedbugs; some other kinds are not suitable and may be harmful. And avoid breathing the dust -- a potentially serious hazard widely ignored today. Many people apply much more diatomaceous earth than necessary.

Diatomaceous earth consist of the skeletons of microscopic creatures called diatoms; their skeletons accumulated over millions of years. It kills bedbugs by getting into their exoskeletons, mechanically preventing them from getting to future blood meals.

Diatomaceous earth destroys many vacuum cleaners (including one of mine) -- so we used a non-valuable one to clean it up, and threw the machine away when it stopped running. (A $50 vacuum cleaner rated a review in the New Yorker innovation section, -- we haven't tried it, but apparently it sucks, very well.) To reduce exposure to the dust we vacuumed in a hurry, in a well-ventilated room, and even used a disposable N95 mask from a supply we had picked up after the SARS epidemic (none were available during that scare -- get some in advance).

* Also, avoid clutter especially near your bed (within 10 feet or more), to deprive bedbugs of places to hide. Vacuum your rugs and floors often, to get rid of bugs or eggs that may be there.

* And don't let bedding or clothing touch the floor.

Bedbug Epidemic Quick Overview

Bedbugs are not only a problem of poverty; they affect rich and poor alike. We planned this article as part of the Housing page on this site, but it needed a page of its own.

A major reason bedbugs became a problem recently is because the world banned almost all use of DDT. This is very fortunate -- see, showing more strongly than ever before a huge increase in the incidence of breast cancer if women were exposed to DDT while they were in the womb. DDT is associated with Alzheimer's and other serious human diseases as well, and with the near extinction of important species of wild birds.

New York City was known as the bedbug capitol of the U.S.; then Philadelphia replaced it. Both have major problems because so many people live in older apartments or row houses, respectively, and the bedbugs can move easily from one residence to others.

Incidentally, the bedbug approach we used started from a pamphlet we read at work. It said that bedbugs were less of a problem in offices because no one slept there at night, and as a result the bugs would leave (they can still be a problem in offices because they can move from people who have them at home to others who don't). So we figured that isolating the sleepers from bedbugs at night should make the bedroom work like an office for the bedbugs -- though sleepers were in the bedroom at night, they were inaccessible. And even if the bugs did not leave, they would be unable to feed and reproduce. In our experience the bedbugs did leave; we found very few in our room, despite very many in the room next door.

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Any suggestions, corrections, or improvements to the above article would be appreciated. Send them to john2james at Gmail.