Virginia Tech experts tackle bed bugs in public housing

Two Virginia Tech extension entomologists proved that safe bed bug control doesn’t have to be expensive, but it’s more effective when it’s proactive.

In 2011, Virginia Tech masters student Molly Stedfast and her faculty advisor, Dini Miller, set out to test a preventive, low toxicity bed bug remediation program, combined with resident and staff education, in an apartment complex for low-income, disabled residents. The trial program lasted for three years. Results of the program were published in the Journal of Integrated Pest Management.

Their goal was to see if their program would lower the number of infestations, along with their remediation costs, in a multi-unit complex that housed low-income residents who might be more vulnerable to the effects of chemical treatments. During 2010, the management of the complex—the J.R. “Polly” Lineweaver Apartments and Annex—had spent nearly $5,000 on bed bug control, consisting primarily of heat treatments. The next year, they spent $8,525.

bed bugs on furniture

adult bed bugs, larvae and eggs on a piece of furniture

In multi-unit housing, units adjacent to an infested unit need to be treated to keep the infestation from moving from one area to another. In many cases, residents didn’t report infestations until they were out of control, so the infested unit ad the adjacent units needed multiple treatments before the problem was gone. In other cases where residents failed to report a problem, bed bugs would crawl from one unit to another, infesting multiple units before they were found. Clutter compounded the length of time before infestations were discovered, as units that had an excessive amount of furniture concealed small populations of bed bugs while they multiplied.

Stedfast and Miller proposed a minimally toxic treatment combined with a workshop where residents and staff could learn more about bed bugs and how to identify and prevent them. While their proposed plan was not intended to control a major infestation, their hope was that over time, the program would decrease the number of infestations and lower costs by catching infestations before they became severe.

Stedfast personally implemented the treatment plan in all 121 units in the buildings. The first step was to vacuum along the baseboards to suck up existing bugs, eggs and larvae. Often she had to move furniture away from the wall, and some units were more cluttered than others, making the first part of the treatment much more time-consuming.

Molly Stedfast applies diatomaceous earth to the baseboards

Molly Stedfast applies diatomaceous earth to the baseboards

Once the corners were vacuumed, she used a dust applicator to blow a line of diatomaceous earth underneath the baseboards. The diatomaceous earth, which is harmless to people but deadly to insects, would stick to the bed bugs’ feet as they crossed the threshold between one apartment and another. The applicator had several technical problems; the flow of dust was irregular, so the unit consistently had to be adjusted. In addition, the tip of the applicator got stuck under the vinyl baseboards several times and had to be reattached.

After Stedfast treated 27 units with the applicator, the machine broke and had to be replaced. The second duster had much more power, so she used it to treat the rest of the 121 units much more quickly.

The diatomaceous earth treatment was the part of the trial that Stedfast and Miller feared would alienate residents from the rest of the program. Management had warned them that several of the elderly residents were difficult, so the specialists prepared for negative comments when they surveyed residents later about their experience with the treatment. To their surprise, although some residents said they were annoyed by the interruption in their day, most of them were relieved to have the treatment. A few said that it gave them peace of mind or made them feel more comfortable about living in the apartment. Some noticed extra dust in the air or on their furniture, but only a small percentage expressed concern.

In addition to the treatment, Stedfast and Miller trained the residents, management and staff about bed bugs. Residents received a simple “what does a bed bug look like” workshop, while management and staff learned more about the biology, identification and control methods for bed bugs. Stedfast also trained staff how to apply the diatomaceous earth barrier. She taught residents that they could also kill bed bugs on clothes and small items by placing them in a hot dryer.

In 2012 Stedfast and Miller assessed the project’s impact on infestations and costs and discovered that the costs associated with treatments had risen over 300 percent. Part of the cause, of course, was that residents were now more familiar with what bed bugs looked like and were more freely reporting them. Another cause, however, was that another researcher was collecting live bed bugs that year to develop a special “bed bug detection kit” and reported infestations as he found them. His visit, ironically, was before the residents received their training on identification.

The next year, and last year of the study, costs actually went down slightly, and fewer new infestations were being reported. Residents who did report an infestation were reporting it during its early stages, before it became an issue for other residents.

Stedfast, who won a Friends of Southern IPM Graduate Student award this past year, has traveled to other states and other apartment complexes in Virginia to train housing managers and staff on the proactive bed bug suppression program. Stedfast and Miller plan to follow up with Lineweaver over the next few years to evaluate their progress, but based on the 2013 results, they hope that bed bug infestations and remediation costs will continue to decline.

Source: Stedfast, M.L. and Miller, D.M. (2014) Development and evaluation of a proactive bed bug (Hemiptera: Cimicidae) suppression program for low-income multi-unit housing facilities. J. Int. Pest Mgmt. 5(3): 2014. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1603/IPM14003. Retrieved 13 November 2014.

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