Saturday, April 3, 2010

Diatomaceous Earth-a bed bug's worst nightmare

Diatomaceous Earth, or DE, is a bed bug's worst nightmare, and if you are unfortunate to have been infested by these nasty creatures, DE will become a treasured friend.

A few years ago, when my husband and I both were both Certified Pesticide Operators (CPO) or  "exterminators," we had a good friend contact us, panicked as all get out, over an infestation of bed bugs in their home. This was a nice home, a clean home, located in a resort area of Delaware. After calling a nationally known exterminator and having them come out twice, they were still plagued by the bed bugs. (They didn't call us initially because they were "embarrassed.")

The Plague is a good analogy for bed bugs. They are extremely difficult to get rid of and they multiply quickly. If you want them out of your house for good, you must employ bio-secure measures- just like you see on TV disaster movies-to eradicate them from your home. It is more time consuming than expensive. Be ready to commit!

The key here- think sectioning off- think sealing off-think bio-securely. Think cross-contamination!

The source of our friend's bed bugs could have been anywhere. The couple had a son going to college who lived in a house with "lots of guys" and the son came home frequently to visit his parents (translation: do laundry and pick up some life sustaining donations from mom and dad.) Our friends also traveled a great deal and in the summer, loved to have guests stay for weekends. Any of those scenarios could have brought them an onslaught of these:
Courtesy of Wikipedia

In case you haven't heard, bed bugs are making an energetic comeback across the globe.They are not class conscious. They have been found in luxurious five-star hotels. Quick moving and natural hitchhikers, it only takes one pregnant female to infest a dwelling. Yes dwelling. Bed bugs are not restricted to just beds. No one likes pesticide exposure, but the changes in pesticide laws, anti-pesticide feelings and practice have created an environment where bed bugs have re-emerged and thrived.

In addition to their speed and natural scattering impulse, bed bugs can live without feeding for a very long time. Accounts vary, but my research shows bed bugs can stay alive in isolation for well over a year and a half!

Our friends also panicked. The wife eeked and screamed. She ordered her husband to get the mattress out of the house pronto! He did as commanded. He and his son carried the nasty mattresses though the house, setting them down a couple times to get their bearing before getting them outside. Bed bugs were exiting at the rest stop. Our friends unwittingly spread the bed bugs into their living room and the kitchen and hallway.

Chemical pesticide application by a licensed CPO is advised for initial knock down of large numbers, but even with repeated applications, pesticides will not eradicate the problem.

Before sharing how DE works and how to apply it- chances are, if you are reading this, you have already discovered bed bugs and likely panicked as a result. Here are some VERY IMPORTANT things you should and shouldn't do:
  • True or not (and probably true) YOU MUST ASSUME THAT SOME BED BUGS HAVE LEFT THE SCENE OF THE CRIME AND ARE HIDING ELSEWHERE!  Yes, it's big and bold and red for a reason. Please heed this advice or you will be dealing with bed bugs for a long, long time.
  • DO NOT move furniture out of the infested room!  The idea here is to create a bio-secure lockdown of the infested room.If you haul your mattress through the house in  a panicked frenzy to get rid of it, bed bugs will be dropping off and fleeing to other parts of the house. You will turn a localized problem into a multi-room infestation. If you have already done this, the application suggestions below must be applied to the entire house.
  • Spray the perimeters of the infected room with a pesticide labeled for bed bugs. This would be the stage you call a CPO in. Ask for a CPO who has bed bug experience. This is huge! You don't want a kid coming in, working at his first job as an exterminator. If you hate pesticides more than bed bugs, you do have alternatives I share toward the end of this, (sorry but necessary) very long blog.
  • If you call in a CPO, it is not the time for bargain hunting. Interview the CPO business. How experienced are they with bed bugs? This is not a spray and leave type of deal. If that is all they are going to do, then you are wasting your money.
  • The inside and outside of all bedroom furniture must be sprayed. Turn nightstands upside down. 
  • This is a good time to finally organize that sock drawer! The contents of the room needs to be CAREFULLY cleared out, sealed off and sequestered. This is soooo important!
  • Slowly take down all wall art. Bed bugs tend to travel UP! We have found many a bed bug behind a picture frame or work of art- are there grooves in the framing? Yes they can be hiding in there.
  • Go to the grocery store and clear the shelves of the largest zipper seal bags you can find. Gallon size or larger. Put everything you own in these bags. Books, tissue boxes, alarm clock, CDs, everything goes in the bags.  Everything!! Empty your drawers and bureaus. Space Bags and similar products are ideal.
  • Severe heat and cold will kill bed bugs. Slowly remove linens and pillows and place them in bags and carry them to your laundry room. Do not plop your laundry in laundry baskets. Remove laundry from bags and immediately wash them in hot cycles and dry on high heat setting. If you cannot wash pillows, tumble them for a half hour on the hottest dry setting.

  • Freezing will kill bed bugs. Put books, etc. wrapped in bags in the freezer and leave them in there for several days. If you have very large thick books, put a couple of sheets of aluminum foil between pages to help conduct the cold to the center. Bed bugs do hide in books, especially the young ones.
  • Nothing leaves the room unless it is sealed off. Take what you seal off outside the house, like a driveway or lawn to inspect items in the bags. If you can live without the item, leave it in the bag- possibly for a whole year. I have read accounts of people putting their items in storage tubs and taking them to a storage pod or center and leaving them for a year or longer. Yes, it is that serious.
  • Go to your local big box store and get two zippered allergy mattress covers. You will be covering your mattress and box spring with a total envelope that zippers shut.  Have your CPO spray your mattress. There are pesticides labeled for mattresses. If you do this yourself, make sure the label is suitable for furniture and for bed bugs. Seal the mattress with the enveloped mattress cover. Put a piece of duct tape over the zipper head, in the event it loosens and moves down to let bed bugs out.
Nobody likes to be exposed to pesticides, but those labeled for bed bugs and home use are very useful for initial knock down. If you are totally adverse to pesticide use in any circumstances, using DE and steam will work, but not as quickly.

Now for the real solution. How to get rid of  bed bugs once and for all!
  • Vacuum the infected area extremely well. Remove vacuum bag and replace. Seal old vacuum bag before throwing away. Remember, you might have vacuumed live ones but you didn't kill them. They can escape the vacuum cleaner!
  • If you have a hand steamer, now is a good time to steam crevices, furniture, baseboards and anywhere a tiny bug can hide. If you don't have a steamer, rent one or buy one!
DE such as this are readily available on the Internet and in most hardware'home improvement stores. I recommend a 5 lb bag- one pound bag shown.
  • Purchase a 5 lb bag of Diatomaceous Earth (Wikipedia link for general description of DE). DE is a totally organic substance, made from the crushed shells of microscopic water creatures known as diatoms. A 5-lb bag of FOOD GRADE DE should run anywhere from $25-$35. There are numerous online stores that sell DE.  DE is also the main ingredient in pool filters, but this is not the grade you want. You must get FOOD GRADE.
    • NOTE: Organic doesn't mean you don't have to be careful. DE is microscopically sharp. It is silica based. Therefore, over exposure could damage your eyes, and if inhaled, your lungs. Wear goggles and a dust mask when applying.
    • DE is not harmful to pets. Food grade is as it means- people buy DE to put in animal feed because of the deworming quality of the diatom shells. DE also will kill fleas and other insects that come in contact with it.
  • Find a soft plastic bottle to apply the dust. It is important that the surface have a consistent light application. No clumps. An inexpensive squeeze bottle will do.

    • To humans, DE feels and looks like baking flour- but to bed bugs, and any insect pest for that matter, crawling across a lightly powdered surface of DE feels and acts like razor blades. The shell flour cuts their exoskeletons, causing them to die from dessication (drying out).
    • DE will not provide an instant knockdown. After applying, you will still see bed bugs for a short while. If they crawl across a field of DE, they will die. This will also kill any other insect. They cannot survive an encounter with DE.
    Apply the DE everywhere!   The important thing here is to poof the DE over surfaces- it should not land as clumps, but fine dust. 
    • Dust around all baseboards, in between mattresses, all around beds, behind switch plate covers, etc. If you are doing other areas of the house, DE can go in between furniture cushions, under seating, atop kitchen cabinets, dust bookshelves, all baseboards, moldings, floor thresholds, transition strips, outlet and switch plate covers. Our friends even puffed some light dust over their electronic equipment.
    • Sequestering items that may have been exposed to bed bugs is very important. If you have a quilt that you can't wash or immediately dry clean, take your quilt out to the lawn, dust it with DE and put it in a Space Bag. Compress if desired. Store quilt in a freezer, or keep in the Space Bag for a year and a half.
    Resign yourself to live in a dusty room or home. DE dust is your friend. Keep it down  and around as long as possible. This means your home will look like you have never dusted or cleaned. If you are having friends over and you must clean, then do so, but reapply the dust after they leave. Overnight guests during this period is not a good idea. If you vacuum, you must reapply.

    For the returning college student, insist they keep their luggage outside the home, or at least until they can remove the contents of their luggage or duffle bag and get them into a dryer for a hot 30-minute spin. If you are lucky enough to have a chest freezer, bag the clothes and put them in a freezer overnight if you can't put them in the dryer.

    Hand steamers are also excellent for those who have rattan or wicker furniture. Wicker and rattan provide numerous nooks and crannies to hide and protect bed bugs. Steaming helps drive them out, and at 130 degrees, kills on contact without chemicals.
    Steamers such as this are available at most home improvement centers and retailers like Usually under $30.

    In fact, those who subscribe to a totally 100 percent organic lifestyle should use steam and DE in tandem. Steam first, let dry, apply DE. Repeat as necessary.

    Sites and advice devoted to bed bugs will tell you that one of the worst things you can do is sleep in another room. This is true. It is quite unnerving to stay in a room you know has creepy crawly activity in it- but bed bugs can quickly detect the human body and move toward it. If you do not wish to cross contaminate a room, sleep in the problem room. If you must move to another room, use bio-secure behavior and measures.

    Our friends reported that within days of applying DE, bed bug activity dropped noticeably. Within a month, they reported little activity and three months later, no activity at all. We advised them to change their laundry regularly, refresh their pillows with a spinning in the dryer regularly just to be safe. It has now been over two years, and they report zero bed bug activity.

    When traveling, use sealed bags to protect your clothing and items in your suitcase. Keep your suitcase off the bed and use a luggage rack if provided. Lift up the mattress from the box spring to see if there are any signs of congregation near the mattress seams.  Remove the bedspread from the bed. I had an airline employee tell me horrible stories about hotel bedspreads (they aren't usually changed after each guest) and who knows what was happening on the bedspread before you got there - so even if bed bugs aren't suspected, hanging out on the bedspread is NOT a good idea! See my article on travel tips to prevent bed bugs.

    For those who arrive from overseas, questionable student housing, or if you are hosting guests who are frequent travelers, you need to be judicious. You can't insult your guests upfront, but when they leave, linens should be immediately changed,and pillows should be run through a 30-minute high heat cycle in the dryer.Puff a fine layer of DE in between the mattress and the box spring and your home will remain or be, bed bug free!

    Be very careful accepting used furniture. College students are very susceptible to this. It's hard to turn away a good looking sofa sitting out on a curb, but one should be very wary. I have friends in NYC who tell me that bed bugs are such a concern, nobody takes discarded furniture that is set out anymore. With good reason!

    Another good resource is your Cooperative Extension office. Almost every county in the U.S. has an Extension office, usually affiliated with a local land grant university's college of agriculture. Suspected insects can be brought in for identification. Cooperative Extension Web sites have fact sheets on all insects, and have entomologists on hand who contribute to the researched based information that Extension makes available to the public.  If you are searching about bed bugs on the Internet, look for a url that ends in .edu as a trustworthy source.

    Disclaimer: I am no longer a practicing CPO, nor an expert on bed bugs, but after treating many houses the traditional way, I have found Diatomaceous Earth to be a very effective and worthy opponent to the bed bug scourge. Do your homework and research. There is very valuable (and frightening) information out there in the blogosphere that is worth heeding. There are many sites that tout the effectiveness of DE, and my experiences concur with their conclusions.


    1. Thanks for the great blog entry. Is there a particular steamer that you recommend? I've heard that the typical steamer for personal use won't last if you try to steam your whole house from top to bottom.

      Also wondering if a blow dryer will have the same effect. I saw that on another site and was wondering if you have any experience with it.

      With the steamer or blow dryer, do you have to hold the item for a set number of minutes or can you just move around the room like you normally would? I read somewhere else that bed bugs have to be exposed to high heat for at least 7 minutes to kill them.

    2. Thanks for the great information!