Public Health

Pest Management

Bed Bugs
General Information and Identification
What are bed bugs?
A bed bug.

Adult bed bug.
Photo: Dr. Harold Harlan

Bed bugs are insects of the Order Hemiptera and Family Cimicidae, which has over 90 species around the world and 15 in North America. Bed bugs and their relatives are wingless, blood-feeding parasites of animals. The common bed bug (Cimex lectularius) is a pest of humans this species has recently become a problem in the United States and countries all over the world.

Bed bugs have three basic life stages; egg, nymph, and adult. They begin as a very small but visible egg, hatch to become a first instar nymph or juvenile, which is 1 millimeter long or about the size of a poppy seed. There are five juvenile stages, which feed on blood, molt and grow over time. The adult is about the size of an apple seed. Bed bugs tend to gather together in hidden and undisturbed places where a person sleeps, or sits for an extended period of time. They are usually found in the bed, along the seams and sides of the mattress and box spring, the headboard, and bed frame, creating clusters of live bed bugs, shed skins, dark-colored fecal spots, and eggs. In heavily infested locations bed bugs can be found anywhere in the room. As bed bugs grow they shed their amber-colored, transparent skins, leaving behind what look like hollow bed bugs.

A fecal spot, the result of bed bug digestion, may look like a brownish-black bump on a hard surface, or a dark stain (like a magic marker dot) on fabric. Eggs are cemented to fabric, wood, paper, and most other surfaces as the female hides or wanders in search of a host.

How can we get rid of them?

Pesticides alone, or the use of any single method, will not eliminate bed bugs. A strategy that includes a number of methods is absolutely necessary, especially in multiple unit facilities like apartments, dormitories, Greek houses, and hotels. The following are needed for effective bed bug control:

  • Cooperation of landlord, management, and resident to focus on the problem
  • Accurate identification to be sure it is a bed bug and not another pest
  • Identification of the source (especially if bed bugs are moving from an adjacent room or apartment unit)
  • Thorough inspection of the facility and identification of all possible hiding spots
  • Cleaning and organization of the living area
  • Reducing clutter in the home
  • Bagging and removal of bedding and clothing from the affected area
  • Washing sheets and blankets and drying on HOT setting
  • Encasing the mattress and box spring in a zippered encasement
  • Washing or treating the headboard and bed frame
  • Cleaning and removing bed bugs from other items
  • Isolating the cleaned (bed bug free) items until bed bugs are gone
  • Careful and targeted use of insecticides, following label instructions
  • Inspection and treatment of all surrounding adjacent units
  • Establishing monitoring devices and controls to determine extent of infestation and effectiveness of treatment
  • Follow up inspections and all other procedures as needed (there should be at least one follow up inspection 3 weeks after initial treatment)

Management of bed bugs should begin at the first sign of a problem. The longer an infestation is allowed to exist, the more difficult and expensive it will be to control. It may take several months to get rid of bed bugs if there is a large infestation.

There must be cooperation among tenants and the management staff in University multiple dwelling facilities. A bed bug management program must be coordinated for the entire building as well as the individual room or person, because bed bugs can go undetected for long periods of time and can spread very easily through walls, on electrical and plumbing conduits. Cooperation from the tenant includes following the pest reporting procedures, cleaning and preparation of the room for treatment, and taking measures to avoid reintroduction of bed bugs.

Building management must ensure that tenants are aware of these procedures and are provided with the necessary contact information they need to report a complaint. Complaints must be addressed in a timely manner. Most building managers cannot deal with a bed bug infestation without the help of a pest management professional (PMP). The PMP should be involved at an early stage. Professionals know how and where to look for bed bugs, and can thoroughly assess an infestation to ensure the right measures are taken.

Identification of Bed Bugs

Bed bugs are small but visible insects. There are three main life stages: the whitish egg (about 1 mm in length), five pale juvenile (nymph) stages that range from 1mm to 4.5 mm (1/4 inch), and the adult which can be as long as 7 or 8 mm (3/8 inch) when fed. The newly hatched nymph is very pale until it feeds. Then it looks like a tiny droplet of blood. Each nymph stage will feed and become filled with red blood. The adult is about the size and shape of an apple seed, and dark red to brown in color and as flat as a credit card before feeding.

Adult bed bugs shwoing their reddish-brown color.

Adult bed bugs are typically reddish brown in color.

Bed bugs, cast skins, fecal stains, and eggs on a mattress.

Bed bugs, cast skins, fecal stains, and eggs on a mattress.
Photo by Stephen Kells

The first sign of a bed bug infestation is usually the appearance of bites on the arms, neck, torso, or legs. One may also find live or dead bugs. Collect a sample for positive identification. Clusters of small stains or droplets of dried blood on furniture and bedding may also be found. These stains are the bed bugs’ fecal droppings. They may be accompanied by shed skins, because bed bugs shed their outer skin, or molt, as they grow. Shed skins are amber in color and resemble the shape of a bed bug. There may also be live bugs and eggs where droppings are found. DON’T mistake bed bug droppings for cockroach droppings. Cockroaches leave behind tiny rectangular pellets, not round droplets or stains. There may also be rectangular egg cases or dead cockroaches nearby.

When searching for bed bugs it is important not to overlook the nymphs, which can be difficult to spot. Look for nymphs where droppings and stains appear, especially in crevices on fabric and wood surfaces.

Chart showing the bed bug lifecycle.

Bed bug lifecycle has five stages before becoming an adult, each stage requires a blood meal before the insect can molt to the next stage. Image from Purdue Medical Entomology