By Kimberly Rau, MassLandlords Writer
Bedbugs, once practically eradicated in the United States, have been making a creepy crawly comeback in the 21st century. The United States started seeing a resurgence of bedbugs in 2000, and keeping the problem at bay has been a challenge ever since.
The chemical DDT was once considered effective at beating bedbugs, but the use of DDT in the United States has been banned since 1972. Furthermore, studies have shown that bed bugs have grown resistant to DDT and pyrethroid chemicals.
This article will give you a primer on what bed bugs are, how an infestation starts, and what you can do to try and keep the problem off your property.
What is a bedbug?
According to Pest World, bedbugs, formally known as Cimex lectularius, are likely called such because of their tendency to hide out where humans sleep, and bite them when they’re unaware. Bedbugs need blood from mammals to survive, and make their homes where people are likely to spend time: beds and couches, at home and in hotels, yes, but also offices, movie theaters and public transportation, just to name a few.
Bedbugs reach an adult size of approximately ¼-inch and are reddish brown in color, with six legs and a flat appearance when they haven’t eaten. If a bedbug has recently bitten someone, it will be elongated and swollen. They do not have wings and are unable to fly. Adults can be seen by the naked eye. The much smaller and lighter in color nymphs are harder to see easily.
How do I know if my rental property has bedbugs (and how did they get there)?
Bedbugs are resilient little creatures. General heat and cold won’t kill them. Adults can go months without eating. And where you see one, there are almost certainly more. This makes them very good at surviving in a world that would much rather see them eradicated.
The main way people bring them into their living spaces is through travel. For example, staying in a hotel room that has bedbugs (which may have come in from a previous guest) is a common way that people bring them back home, in luggage or on clothing. Buying used clothing or furniture without taking precautions is another way to end up with bedbugs. Finally, even something as simple as purchasing clothes can invite trouble: Bedbugs may lay eggs in the fabric, and an unwitting consumer would have no idea until they started seeing the telltale signs of infestation.
Once bedbugs are in a home, they can be very difficult to eradicate, especially if the home exists in a building with multiple rental units. Boston was the only Massachusetts city to make Orkin Pest Control’s list of the top bedbug cities in the U.S. for 2020 (coming in at #40, down from #38 in 2019). However, that’s no reason to assume suburban property managers or owners in smaller cities are out of the woods. Bedbugs are everywhere.
Signs of bedbug infestation
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), looking for bug bites is not a great indicator of bedbugs. Some people do not react to bedbug bites at all. Other insect bites or hives can mimic bedbug bites. Someone may also have gotten bitten elsewhere and not brought any insects home with them.
Instead, if you are concerned about infestation, look for physical signs of bedbugs around the rental unit. There may be rusty or reddish stains on bed sheets, mattresses or box springs (either from bedbugs being crushed or from bedbug excrement). Dark spots slightly larger than a period at the end of a sentence that are reddish-brown and “bleed” like a marker on the fabric indicate excrement. You may also find tiny (about 1 mm) eggs and eggshells, pale skins from shedding nymphs, and live bedbugs.
To check for live bedbugs, look around the piping and seams of the mattress and box spring, and check in cracks on the bed frame and headboard. Bedbugs prefer to feed at night and will travel up to 20 feet from their hiding spaces to do so.
If you’re dealing with a heavy infestation, you may also find live bugs in the seams of upholstered furniture, in drawer joints, around electrical boxes, behind wall hangings (even loose wallpaper), and where the wall and ceiling meet. If you can slide a credit card into the space, a bedbug can also easily get in.
The only proof of bedbug infestation is capturing a live bed bug.
How do I avoid bedbugs in the first place?
We discussed earlier some of the main ways bedbugs can get into a home. Two of those problems are easy to fix: Simply properly wash any clothing before you wear it (which is a good practice to have anyway, as clothes are treated with chemicals when they are shipped) and inspect any secondhand furniture you buy before bringing it into your home. When washing clothes or other textiles, use the highest heat possible, as this, not detergent, is what effectively kills the bedbugs.
It’s the biggest culprit – travel – that can be the hardest to beat. Though travel has slowed during the pandemic in 2020, people are still staying in hotel rooms every day. It’s impossible to know if someone was in your hotel room right before you, and whether they may have brought some undesirable pests along in their luggage. Even something such as the national bedbug registry is only as reliable as the reports people make, and it only takes one guest with hitchhiking bedbugs to ruin a place’s sterling reputation.
So, how can your tenants ensure they’re safe when they travel?
“You can’t tell whether a building or hotel room has them based on cleanliness,” the bedbug registry page explains. “The bugs can thrive anywhere there are cracks and crevices to hide in.”
So, upon checking into a hotel room, do some due diligence. Do not set your suitcases down on the floor or bed. Instead, put them in the bathtub or on the bathroom counter if possible. If the hotel provides a luggage stand with metal legs, this is also appropriate. Next, go into the room and start with the bed. You’re looking for all of the signs of bedbugs that we mentioned earlier. Reddish spots, casings, eggs, live bugs. Use the flashlight function on your phone to make this easier. If you see any of these signs of infestation, take your bags and request a new room immediately.
Upon returning home from travel, do not bring your bags directly into the house if possible. Keep them outside in the garage or in the laundry room, and immediately wash and machine dry your clothing. It’s the time in the dryer, not the washer, that will kill these pests. Do not store your suitcases under your bed. Instead, keep them in an out-of-the-way place, such as your garage or basement, when you are not traveling.
One of my rental units has bedbugs. Now what?
If you find that one of your housing units has bedbugs (ask your tenants for pictures or a live capture if possible; remember, many bugs can leave bites that look like bedbugs), don’t panic, but do act quickly. Time is of the essence, especially if the affected apartment is part of a multi-unit building.
“Because residents share the same building infrastructure, i.e., hallways, walls, ceilings, floors, and utility lines, bedbugs can easily move among different units in multifamily housing, thereby spreading quickly among people who live in close proximity to each other,” states a protocol from Mass Legal Services for treating bedbugs in multiunit structures. And, buildings with a large number of units will see greater tenant turnover than smaller rentals, creating a greater risk of bedbug spread.
Landlords must treat for bedbugs at their expense
In Massachusetts, it is the landlord’s responsibility to eradicate bedbugs (and all other vermin) in properties consisting of more than one rental unit (along with all other vermin), according to 105 CMR 410. In single-family homes, the landlord must keep the place structurally sound, but the tenant must pay for their own extermination.
In a multi-unit housing situation, this has the potential to turn into a dispute between landlord and tenant over who is responsible. But regardless of who got the infestation going, once there are bedbugs, the onus is on you, the landlord, to get rid of them.
First, you must hire a licensed pesticide applicator to inspect the affected apartment as well as all surrounding units. All affected units must be treated accordingly. The earlier an infestation is caught, the easier it will be to eliminate. Areas must be treated at the same time, as bedbugs may move from one area to another, simply relocating the problem. At any rate, expect to have your pest control company visit more than once.
“A thorough insecticide treatment should involve 2-3 visits from the [pest management professional], as it is unlikely all the bedbugs will be killed in the initial treatment,” states an article from the University of Minnesota on bedbug treatment.
“We generally expect an average bedbug infestation to take about three treatments spaced apart three to four weeks,” states an article by Bay Valley Pest Control out of California. “If bites reoccur or are continuing into the third week, a follow-up treatment should be scheduled. Some customers have relief into the fourth or fifth week and then need their next follow-up.”
It is not recommended you move your tenants during this time, because even if you have a vacant unit available, they may bring the bedbugs with them to their new residence.
That said, there are many things you and your tenants can do to prevent the spread of bedbugs that don’t involve pesticides.
Before treating with pesticides
In addition to pesticides, you must make sure you get rid of all places bedbugs can hide. Do a thorough cleaning before you treat your rental units. Vacuums (properly fitted with filter bags that can be treated and sealed for disposal) are effective at removing bedbugs and their eggs. Steam cleaners are also effective at killing bedbugs, though properly treating everything with steam can take a lot of time. If it is possible to raise the temperature of the bed bugs to 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit), they will die; this may require raising the core temperature of the room to 120 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours or more until every hiding place is hot enough.
Next, bag up all linens (including curtains and towels). Bag them in clear plastic bags and bring them to be laundered. Destroy the bags at the laundromat and do not bring them back to the rental unit.
All clothing, pillows and stuffed animals should also be laundered and dried with the highest heat possible.
Remove everything possible from the rooms that must be treated and get furniture away from the walls. Remove outlet and switch covers (remember, bedbugs are quite small and can get anywhere you can slide a credit card). Wash these plates, and all wood or metal furniture, with hot and soapy water. (Always dry your outlet covers completely before reattaching! When in doubt, hire a licensed electrician.)
Mattresses and box springs can be encased in special bedbug covers that will trap insects inside (many of these covers are also designed to create a barrier for dust mites, a bonus for people suffering from allergies). Covers should be left on for at least 18 months if there has been an infestation.
Finally, all people and pets should leave while pesticides are being applied.
A note on bedbug detecting dogs
Some pest control companies may advertise a more unique service: dogs that can sniff out bedbugs. It seems like a logical choice. After all, it’s well documented that dogs have more sensitive noses than humans do, and dogs’ powerful noses are used in all sorts of situations where people fall short. But can they reliably detect the presence of bedbugs?
The answer is: sometimes. A 2015 report from ABC news showed that four out of 11 dogs who were put to the bedbug test alerted to bugs when none were present. The news station surmised that this may be due to the fact that the dogs received treats when they alerted to the presence of bedbugs.
The report did not say that dogs shouldn’t be used, but urged consumers to make sure that the dog’s handler could show evidence of bedbugs before shelling out for an extermination.
“Entomologist Sorkin advises homeowners not to be pressured into doing expensive treatment when a dog alerts to the odor of bedbugs but no bugs are found. Instead, he recommends using bedbug monitors or traps that can be found in stores,” the report concluded.
In summary, the presence of bedbugs is an annoyance for tenants and a hassle for landlords. It’s better to exercise caution when traveling or bringing home clothes or furniture than to have to deal with an expensive and time-consuming extermination. If you do find yourself dealing with bedbugs, act quickly and effectively, and urge your tenants to report problems as soon as possible. The faster you get the situation under control, the happier everyone will be.