Bed Bugs

-- How to identify and treat an outbreak --

Summary: Bed bugs (often spelled "bedbugs") are small blood-sucking insects. While still relatively rare in the US bed bugs have once again become important pests in motels, hotels, and other high traffic places. Learn how to identify and treat bed bug infestations and thus prevent bites from these critters.

Common misspelling: bedbug (no space); since bed bugs are true bugs the proper spelling is "bed bug" with a space between the two words.

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Jack DeAngelis, ext. entomologist (ret.) revised: 11/2018

Identification of bed bugs

Bed bugs are flattened (when unfed) broadly oval insects, and about 1/4" long (see photo) when full grown. As they feed and fill with blood they become less flattened and more "football" shaped (see front and side views). These true bugs (Hemiptera) are reddish brown in color and lack wings even as adults.

bed bug
"Bed bug (4th instar larva, unfed) - about 1/5".

Bed bug larvae (nymphs) look like small adults and there is no pupal stage between nymphs and adults. All stages of bed bugs, except eggs, bite to obtain the blood they need in order to grow.

Bed bugs bite at night and hide during the day. Hiding places include the seams and folds of mattresses, cracks and crevices of bedside furniture, floor moldings and other protected spaces (see Bed Bug Hiding Places). They can survive long periods off the host without feeding, or they may feed on an alternate warm-blooded animal but humans are their preferred host. Heavily infested rooms often have a distinctive odor which is produced by scent glands on the bugs themselves. While digesting a meal bed bugs excrete black fecal material (digested blood) that accumulates where they hide and is characteristic of an infestation.

How bed bug infestations start

Since bed bugs don't fly, and not able to walk very far on their own, they rely on us to move them from one place to another. Rooms generally become infested because bed bugs are carried into the room on our belongings (see How to Clean Belongings). The bugs can hide themselves in pillows, blankets, sleeping bags, backpacks, towels, clothing, and so forth, when transported from an infested room to one that is not infested.

Bed bug bites

Bed bugs bite with piercing and sucking mouth-parts, similar to mosquitoes, and bites result in local swelling and irritation like a bad mosquito bite. Bites can occur in lines or clusters. Bed bugs do not transmit human disease.

Our history with bed bugs

Bed bugs have been associated with humans since our earliest history. Bed bugs bite while we sleep and probably started by pestering our earliest ancestors. Since World War II, and until very recently, bed bugs were kept largely in check with regular applications of insecticides like DDT and chlorpyrifos (trade name = Dursban). We now realize that using hazardous insecticides indoors is not a good idea and many of these materials have been banned for this use. The practice of routinely applying broad spectrum insecticides indoors to control pests like bed bugs has largely stopped because of the concerns over toxicity. So, while our indoor environment is safer it has given our old friend, the bed bug, a new foothold.

Finding and treating bed bugs

Hotels, motels and inns have been the first to experience the new bed bug invasion because of reduced insecticide use. Infestations are usually confined to one or a few rooms and if handled promptly (see How to Treat Bed Bug Infestations) rooms can be effectively cleaned and the infestation eliminated. Regular cleaning and inspection of hiding places is the best control strategy for bed bugs. Insecticidal treatment of bedding and furniture may be necessary but be very cautious when using insecticides on bedding because of the potential for prolonged exposure to toxic materials while sleeping. After thorough cleaning, bedding, bedroom furniture, and other potential hiding places should be treated with an approved spray or dust insecticide (see Bed Bug Spray and Dust).

Bed Bug Control In Homes, Dorm Rooms, Motels/Hostels

Use the following steps to easily clear and prevent most bed bug infestations so long as you catch the infestation at a relatively early stage. If you find an infestation ...

(1) Launder bedding as usual.

(2) Treat "cracks and crevices" around beds with a dust-type insecticide. "Crack and crevice" treatments should include baseboards and furniture, and other protected places where bed bugs can hide during the day. Dusts should be applied with a duster that allows you to puff the insecticide into small spaces (see Supplies below).

(3) Clean soiled mattress fabric with steam or upholstery shampoo (see Supplies below).

(4) Treat mattress surfaces and seams with an approved aerosol spray or wettable powder insecticide, follow label instructions for approved uses. Supplies for these treatments as well as Bed Bug Control Kits are available here (


Professional-level pest control supplies are generally not available in home and garden stores but can be found at DoMyOwn, our affiliate.

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