Bed bugs are natural parasites of people, evolving with human populations for the past 35,000 years. Insecticides developed in the 20th century nearly eradicated bed bugs from developed nations, but since the early 2000s, population growth and increased international travel, as well as mounting pesticide resistance, have brought bed bugs back with a vengeance.

“There are not a lot of cost-effective options for dealing with them. And because they are so highly resistant to the pesticides we use for their control, they are spreading faster than ever,” said Dini Miller, urban pest management specialist for Virginia Cooperative Extension and associate professor of entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Associate Professor Dini Miller, at left, and master's student Molly Stedfast
Associate Professor Dini Miller, at left, and master's student Molly Stedfast are studying bed bugs and teaching people how to manage infestations in homes and businesses.

Miller and her colleagues at the Virginia Tech Dodson Urban Pest Management Laboratory began investigating bed bugs in 2004 by studying pesticide resistance and new approaches to their control. A large part of their work involves teaching people how to manage bed bug infestations in homes and businesses. In addition, Miller works with home health care workers, social services, apartment and shelter managers, and school facilities personnel to raise awareness.

Miller’s team is focusing on the growing bed bug problem in multi-unit housing complexes, particularly those whose tenants have limited resources. "Elderly and disabled residents are particularly vulnerable to bed bugs. They may not be able to see them or to defend themselves against receiving hundreds of bites a night,” Miller said.

Bed bugs are a nightmare for housing managers.

“When bed bugs get into the walls, they can spread from unit to unit, so instead of one unit being infested, multiple units may be infested within a period of months,” Miller said. Some apartment complexes have seen their pest management costs increase by $30,000 or even $100,000 in one year. “We are working with apartment complexes to get them to invest in a prevention program to keep bed bugs from spreading.”

Molly Stedfast of Norfolk, Va., a master’s student in entomology who works with Miller, said, “Our research is based on the idea that if we can teach people easy, inexpensive, nonchemical methods they can use to better protect themselves from bed bugs, we can reduce the problem overall.”

Bed bugs
All life stages of the bed bug are visible to the naked eye. Adults are flat and about 4 to 5 millimeters long, about the same shape and color as an apple seed. Immature bed bug nymphs are translucent and yellowish in color and about 1.5 millimeters long, about the size of a comma in a paperback book.

Stedfast has traveled to several locations affected by bed bugs, including Harrisonburg and Richmond, Va., and New Orleans. At each apartment complex, she uses simple methods to train staff members and residents to recognize and safely prevent bed bug infestations.

In her presentation to the apartment staff, Stedfast demonstrates how to apply diatomaceous earth — a nontoxic dust made from fossilized remains of diatoms, a type of hard-shelled algae — to the inside perimeter of an apartment. The dust has been used as a form of pest control for more than 100 years.

When bed bugs walk through the dust, it clings to their exoskeleton and absorbs their wax layer, causing them to die of dehydration, Miller said. “We treat the perimeter of the apartment to isolate infestations in one unit and not allow them to spread. It is a lot less expensive to treat one apartment than every unit in the building.”

“When well-off people get bed bugs, it’s an inconvenience. But when low-income families get them, there aren’t many options,” Stedfast said. “Those who can’t afford the treatments end up living and suffering with bed bugs for a long time.”

Sonya-Lee Zezza, social services coordinator at a Richmond apartment complex, said the information from training session is important for her staff to know. “The presentation for the staff and residents reinforced the facts about bed bugs. It was also helpful to be able to ask questions and clarify information,” she said. “It is very important to keep the education ongoing and to clear the myths from the facts.

“Our partnership with Virginia Tech is a win-win for everyone because bed bugs are not going to go away, so we all need to learn and assist each other on this sensitive and growing matter,” Zezza said.

Although it is difficult for Stedfast to measure the impact of her research and training programs, she said she thinks it has been effective in changing the way people think about bed bugs, even if on a small scale.

“Most grad students don’t get to see their research actually help people face to face,” she said. “It’s been really great to help people all the way from Virginia to New Orleans and to have people from all over the country call and ask questions. It makes me feel good about what I’m doing. I feel like I’m making an impact.”

  • Allison Hedrick, who graduates in 2013  with a degree in communication, contributed to this article.
  • For more information on this topic, contact Lori Greiner at 540-231-5863.

Fact or fiction?

  • Myth: Bed bugs are only found on beds. As natural parasites of humans, bed bugs need to live near humans so they can feed. The bed is a common place for bed bugs to live because people are relatively motionless while sleeping, providing bed bugs with easy access to uninterrupted feeding. But they can be found anywhere in a home, including ceilings, dressers, couches, wheelchairs, and walls.
  • Myth: Bed bugs only bite at night. Bed bugs commonly bite at night because they are active at night. But if a bed bug is hungry, it has no problem biting at any time during the day or night.
  • Myth: Bed bugs transmit diseases. Bed bug bites can lead to stress, anxiety, sleeplessness, and even secondary infections. But a bed bug has never transmitted a disease to a human.

Bed bug resources

Information about bed bugs can be found on the Virginia Department Agriculture and Consumer Services website.

Associate Professor Dini Miller created 13 fact sheets about bed bugs in English and Spanish. In 2011, the fact sheets were downloaded 314,000 times. The following year, the number of downloads rose to 1.8 million.

The publication "Bed Bugs: How to Protect Yourself and Your Home" is available in PDF and ebook format on the Virginia Cooperative Extension website.