There was a time when bed bugs were almost eliminated in this country. By the end of World War II, it looked like these household pests that had bugged humans for centuries were on their way out. But bed bugs made a comeback. Now they’re everywhere.

Pesticides such as DDT were responsible for the near demise of these blood-sucking insects, but scientists think over time, the critters developed a resistance.

Whitney Cranshaw
Dr. Whitney Cranshaw

Dr. Whitney Cranshaw, an entomology professor with the Colorado State University Extension Service, says travel is the biggest factor in bed bugs coming to the Denver area. “The reason Colorado is at risk is because we get so many tourists.”

The resurgence in bed bugs about 20 years ago became apparent in hotels and motels – places where travelers stay, he says. By 2015, one survey showed 80 percent of hotels reported bed bug problems. From there, they moved into homes.

Fortunately for the human race – the exclusive prey of bed bugs – these parasites do not spread disease. In rare cases, they can cause an extreme allergic reaction, but in most instances, they leave their victims with small welts, like a mosquito bite.

Still, you don’t want them snacking on you in the middle of the night. If you discover you have bed bugs, getting rid of them is going to be a challenge. “You’re probably not going to be able to do it successfully by yourself – good luck,” Dr. Cranshaw said. “It’s really complicated. You have to comprehensively treat all areas of the home at the same point in time. If you don’t, it’s not going to work. This is tough for professionals. In fact, it is the most difficult pest control.”

Finding Them

The first step in getting rid of bed bugs is finding them, and that’s not easy. As night feeders, they hide out during the day in bedding, clothing, carpet, and furniture. They’re usually small, too – only about the size of an apple seed and reddish-brown in color. They group together in clusters that are easier to see. You can spot the dark spots of their excrement on bedding.

Bedbug eggs and excrement on a wooden bed frame slat.
Bedbug eggs and excrement on a wooden bed frame slat. Credit: Louento.pix, CC by ND 2.0.

Making it more difficult to spot the pests in Denver is the presence of other insects that look like bed bugs. These are bat bugs and swallow bugs, which rarely bite. Dr. Cranshaw said if you think you have bedbugs, take a sample to your county extension agent for identification.

How to Get Rid of Them

If you’re set on going the DIY route, it’ll be challenging. A CSU fact sheet spells out what’s involved:

  • Clean, bag, and heat treat all fabric in the infested area. Disinfect sheets and other bedding by laundering. Drying on a high temperature is critical to successfully kill bed bugs.
  • Use plastic coverings that completely encase mattresses, pillows, and other items. This prevents colonization of bed bugs. You can find these special bags at retailers and online.
  • Vacuum thoroughly. Use the vacuum’s nozzle attachment to extract bugs hiding in protected crevices.
  • Place sticky traps under the four posts and any portions of the bed that touch the floor. Bugs that are in the room will come to feed and get caught in the traps.
  • Treat with pesticides that are effective against bedbugs. Some you’ll find contain pyrethroid. Some dusts made from diatomaceous earth and silica aerogels are also effective, but aerosol “bombs” and sprays will not do the job.

Dr. Cranshaw warns any pesticide a homeowner tries to apply himself comes with problems. “In some areas of country bed bugs are no longer susceptible to pyrethroids. Most people are incapable of applying the dust correctly, and they can be damaging to the lungs.”

If you try it, he suggests you always use a protective face mask. Like fleas, cockroaches, and lice, bedbugs carry the stigma of poor housekeeping. “It has zero to do with cleanliness. People shouldn’t feel that way,” Dr. Cranshaw said. “It wasn’t your fault.”

He admits as an entomologist he loves bugs – except bedbugs, in which he finds no redeeming value. “The word bug derives from boogieman, the bedbug that feeds on you at night like a vampire,” he said. “I can’t say anything nice about them. They don’t make the world a pleasant place. They make it meaner.”

Whitney Cranshaw, Ph.D., is Professor of Entomology and Extension Specialist at Colorado State University. He is the author of the bestselling Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs – Second Edition.