• Chelle Hartzer

Down the rabbit hole (AKA: Does Wonderland have bed bugs?)

I was pulling together a presentation for an upcoming talk and, as often happens, I wound up down an internet rabbit hole. What started as looking for new info on stored product pests, I wound up on bed bug repellents. Makes perfect sense, right?

Bed bugs are an interesting pest because many of our “typical” methods don’t work. With most pests we talk about reducing the food resources they have access to. That’s easy when you are sealing a trash bin to prevent rats from getting in, or cleaning under the stove to eliminate cockroach foods. How do you clean up the food for bed bugs? They feed on blood. They can also go long periods without feeding. You can’t tell a hotel to just take a room out of operation for six months, or ask a homeowner to go live somewhere else for half a year. Eliminating the food source (us!) for bed bugs is just not possible.

Speaking of bed bug foods, we can’t bait for them either. There are very effective baits for cockroaches, ants, rodents, and more which the pest feeds on, then dies. How do you get a bed bug to feed on a bait when their food is our blood? While some studies have been done, the practicality of dosing a person so bed bugs can feed on “infected” blood is not really a viable solution to a bed bugs issue. My personal favorite was the study out of the University of Nebraska that showed people with higher blood-alcohol content were less likely to be bit. I want to participate in that study!

While we are on the topic of baits, we use baits to draw out and capture pests. We use pheromone traps to monitor for stored product pests, and food baits to entice cockroaches and rodents to traps. While these aren’t perfect, they do provide an attractant to the pests to come out of their hiding spots and get captured. When trying to monitor for bed bugs, there are a few commercial bed bug traps some of which utilize carbon dioxide or a concoction of bed bug scents. The effectiveness of these is limited because the attractiveness of a nice, warm, carbon dioxide exhaling human being is way more enticing than that small trap with a little bit of CO2 coming off of it. There’s always glue boards and glue traps that can be placed for the bed bugs to blunder into. Bed bugs will actually avoid glue and sticky surfaces. If anyone can find it, there was a great video out of one of the Florida universities that showed bed bugs sticking their little legs out and onto the sticky surface, pulling them off, and walking in a different direction away from the trap.

Placing those traps also becomes problematic. We know to put an insect light trap in a particular location because that’s where introductions can happen and in the flight pathway of those insects. We know to put a mouse trap by the door with a broken door seal because that’s where they are entering the structure. Bed bugs are living on the bed. Of course, they are also living behind the headboard, maybe on the nightstand, and in other cracks and crevices around sleeping areas. It’s impractical to attach a bunch of traps to a mattress, where is the person going to sleep then? While there are traps and ways to make them somewhat effective, when you compare that to other pests, it’s just not as practical or effective.

Where were we? Where this all started was a paper on bed bug repellents*. Studies have shown some insecticides work better than others when it comes to bed bug treatments. Repellents (like DEET and permethrin) haven’t been looked at too much. A recent study showed that some of the tested products can repel a majority of bed bugs (compared to the control). The question becomes: do you want to spray your bed (and bedframe, and nightstands, and baseboards, and more) with these products? It’s one thing to spray insect repellent on yourself when you go outdoors to prevent mosquitoes and ticks, it’s another to spray much of the furniture in a room. Also, this study tested the repellency for 24h. How long these repellents remain effective is unknown. You have to reapply your mosquito repellent every time you go outdoors, would a bed have to be retreated daily?


Research is amazing and there has been lots of great science done on bed bugs, especially since their resurgence in the 1990’s here in the US. This research can provide information on what works, what doesn’t work, and what could work in the future. Like all pests, bed bugs need an integrated approach and different tools will work best in different situations. Do you know what works best for your particular situation? To learn more contact us here.

*To be perfectly honest, as I was looking for links and pictures to add to this after I wrote it, I fell down a few more holes and Wonderland was great, thanks for asking! Did you know there is an Alice in Wonderland pop up bar in Cincinnati?

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