Virginia Tech masters student wins regional award for inventive bed bug remediation

Not every Masters student knows what it’s like to live with a bed bug infestation, but Virginia Tech masters student Molly Stedfast has worked with people who do. Since starting her masters project with Dr. Dini Miller in the fall of 2010, Molly has developed a bed bug integrated pest management plan and training for both residents and staff of public housing apartments. At the Eastern Branch of the Entomological Society of America meeting on March 17, Molly received a regional award for her work.

Jim VanKirk and Molly Stedfast

Jim VanKirk and Molly Stedfast

Molly was chosen over several other nominees to receive a Friends of Southern IPM Graduate Student award, presented by the Southern IPM Center. The award is one of two graduate student awards and six professional awards given to individuals and groups who perform outstanding work in integrated pest management.

When Molly began her graduate program, Dr. Miller was originally going to assign her to the school IPM program. However, when she learned that Molly’s interests were primarily in extension, Dr. Miller decided to put her in charge of bed bug trainings.

Not only do bed bug issues still loom large in the news, but people in multi-unit housing facilities have serious issues. One infestation can spread to adjacent units, creating a cycle of treatments followed by repeated infestations. In fact, in 2013, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority spent more than $1 million on bed bug remediation.

Multi-unit apartments house many of Virginia’s most vulnerable citizens, including the elderly, disabled and those living in poverty. Unlike public housing authorities, which are required to pay for professional bed bug control, landlords of Section 8 and other privately owned housing can charge residents for the cost of bed bug treatment. Because the cost of professional pest control treatment usually totals between $2,000 and $5,000, many of these residents do not report infestations, so problems escalate into a nearly untreatable situation. Some residents try to treat the infestations themselves using ineffective treatments or toxic products.

Molly faced the challenge of helping residents prepare themselves and their apartments for potential bed bug infestations inexpensively and effectively. Because effective pest control requires accurate and timely identification of the problem, Molly wanted to make sure that residents knew how to identify bed bugs. To find out how much residents understood about bed bugs and bed bug treatment, she asked residents to complete a survey that quizzed their knowledge of bed bug identification, biology and habits.

The survey results revealed that most residents didn’t know much about bed bugs beyond their approximate size and need for blood meals. Many residents thought that bed bugs infested only the bed and that they could tell they had them when they started getting itchy bites.

“It was clear that they didn’t know what they were dealing with when it came to bed bugs, which was scary,” says Molly. “They didn’t know that they could identify a bed bug infestation by fecal matter or by the exuviae, or that they could find bed bugs on furniture other than beds.”

Based on the results of her survey, she devised a training program for the residents that introduced them to the five instars of bed bug development (each of which needs a blood meal) and how to locate bed bugs in areas of the house other than the bed. She also explained how to treat for bed bugs using inexpensive methods like the clothes dryer and mattress encasements, in addition to telling them what they should not do, such as spraying insecticides in the house or on themselves and throwing away their furniture.

For staff, she led a hands-on training that included inspections, monitoring, and applying diatomaceous earth (DE) around the perimeter of each apartment unit, specifically demonstrating where to place the DE. She also showed staff how to build a heat chamber to treat furniture and other items that may be infested. All staff who worked with the housing authority attended the training.

“That’s where we learned a lot because the managers could be more proactive,” Molly says. “Now staff members have the knowledge to provide good bed bug management throughout the building.”

Because one of the treatments suggested in the staff training was a diatomaceous earth perimeter, Molly wanted to calculate how much might be needed for each unit. So she actually applied the diatomaceous earth treatment herself in each of the 120 apartment units in the building.

The DE application, she says, was a learning experience. Diatomaceous earth is usually used in individual units, so applying the treatment on a much larger scale was a challenge.

“We weren’t sure it was going to work,” Molly says. “Plus, the complex we did was comprised of housing for the elderly, so the residents were a little fussy when we told them we were going to be in their apartments. Once we explained what the DE would do and that it would get on the bed bugs as they went through the walls, and the bed bugs would die in a few days, it was easier to get into the apartments.”

She and the building manager and often one of her colleagues in the lab spent two days a week for an entire semester applying the treatment to baseboards and walls, which often meant moving heavy pieces of furniture away from walls.

“The clutter varied; some of the residents with little income didn’t have many belongings, so it was easier to reach the walls,” Molly says. “We had issues in the apartments where the resident had moved from a home and tried to bring as many belongings with them as possible. Some of them had no wall space available, so we had to move a lot of things before we could even get to the baseboards.”

The time that it took to apply the treatment ranged from 8 minutes in a small efficiency apartment to 87 minutes in a very cluttered apartment.

After the treatment had been in place for a year, Molly was able to use the bed bug treatment records to determine that the costs for bed bug remediation had actually decreased. One of the cost savings involved not having to use a heat treatment for adjacent units when an infestation was reported. The DE barrier seemed to be preventing bed bugs from neighboring apartments from moving elsewhere.

“The building’s management has been so grateful,” says Molly. “They tell us that it has really helped. Now the bed bugs can’t go to another apartment without walking through the diatomaceous earth treatment.”

After Molly was finished with the Harrisburg, VA apartment building, a housing management company in New Orleans, LA, asked her to train staff members in housing facilities there. Molly shared the treatment protocol, including the DE barrier and the heat box and demonstrated how to apply the DE treatment.

Since then, Molly has expanded the area of her training to include facilities in Virginia and New Orleans. She has delivered at least 13 hands-on training programs to 6 housing facilities in three cities in Virginia and in New Orleans.

“In these low-income apartment complexes, most people won’t do anything that they don’t feel is necessary, so the fact that they’ve contacted us is a huge step,” Molly says.

Molly will graduate in May, and afterwards will become the director of the new Bed Bug and Urban Pest Information Center, attached to Dr. Miller’s lab.

“I’ve done a lot of things that I never thought I could do,” she says. “I feel that I’ve helped a lot of people, which is amazing to be able to say as a masters student.”

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