Content warning – This article contains images and descriptions of bed bugs.
Bed bugs are here in the UK, but you’re not powerless to keep the pests from running amok in your home.
France’s top export this year isn’t creamy camembert or moody arthouse cinema. No, people will remember France in 2023 for exporting the only home invader so reviled that many would rather see their belongings go up in flames than deal with them: bed bugs.
Right now, French families are tossing their beds onto the streets, schools are remaining shut and even the security of the 2024 Paris Olympics is being thrown into question, all because of the uncontrolled spread of bed bugs.
If you’re tuned into social media, you’ll have seen clips of bugs on the Eurostar or between seat cushions, and you’ll probably be sharing in the fear that the nocturnal pests could come to the UK.
Truthfully, you needn’t bother: they’re already here, and they’re everywhere else too.
“From around 2000 until now, we’ve seen more and more infestations of bed bugs. It started off in Europe, then it became very important in the US…and then in late 2005 onwards, late 2010s, it has exploded too in Asia. So, now it is a worldwide problem,” said Chow-Yang Lee, Professor of Urban Entomology at the University of California.
Pest control company RentoKil painted a similarly concerning picture, reporting a 65% increase in infestations in UK homes between Q2 2022 and Q2 2023. No less concerningly, it also claimed that 80% of hotels and motels in the US dealt with the critters during the last year.
The question is, if it’s too late to keep our country safe, what can we do to protect our own homes?
Keep them at bay
According to Kathryn Shaw of the British Pest Control Association, alongside guest accommodations, homes with multiple occupants are the biggest risk sites for bed bugs. This is because bed bugs can “move from one room to another in search of food or after mating. This means that your infestation could have come from a neighbouring property if you’re in a HMO”.
To that end, vigilance is the best weapon: “The first step is good housekeeping – while they don’t discriminate between clean and dirty homes, you will be much more likely to spot them if you clean regularly and wash your bedding frequently,” she said.
Michael Skvarla, Assistant Research Professor of Arthropod Identification at Penn State University, also recommends eliminating hiding places like piles of bags, clothing or wall-adjacent furniture. This won’t bed bugs from nesting, but it will provide them with fewer places to hunker down.
Inspecting any second-hand purchases or guest accommodations is a must, too. Contrary to what their name suggests, bed bugs are often found away from the bed itself, including between sofa cushions, within wooden furniture or tucked behind peeling wallpaper.
Don’t assume that you can pay your way into security with fancy lodgings or a luxury hotel, either. As Lee highlights, “I have seen bed bug infestations in five-star hotels; I have stayed in motels and never got bitten even once.”
Regardless of whether you find bugs or not, Shaw recommends washing and tumble drying all packed clothing as a precaution after travelling. Ideally, you’ll want to hit 60°C, which kills all bugs and their eggs nearly instantly. However, if that risks ruining your clothing, 45°C will do the job in around an hour, with any lower temperatures taking exponentially longer.
For items simply too delicate to withstand even a 45°C wash, bagging them up and freezing them for three days is your best bet, if a little less convenient.
Public transport is another prime location for picking up bed bugs. For people who regularly travel on buses, trains or trams, standing up and keeping all luggage off the ground is the best course of action. But if standing isn’t an option, a quick seat inspection could still save you from picking a bug-riddled spot.
Make them go away
Of course, prevention advice is cold comfort if your home is already compromised. To that end, Skavarla stresses the importance of a multifaceted approach centred around professional help and the application of a thin layer of insecticidal dusts, like diatomaceous earth (DE), to carpets and hard floors.
Don’t be intimidated by the idea of buying insecticides like these. They’re widely available, and a 1 kg bag won’t cost more than £10.
Insecticial dusts do require careful application, however. “Apply dusts so they’re almost not visible. Don’t apply it so thick that it looks like snowfall, as bed bugs will avoid it,” Skavarla said.
He also recommends vacuuming carpets and furniture at least twice a week, following up by rubbing all hard-to-reach areas with an alcohol soaked rag. “After vacuuming,” he said, “make sure to freeze or discard the bag or empty the canister outside or into a sealable plastic bag so any bed bugs you vacuumed up can’t escape back into the house.”
Despite singing the praises of consumer insetcicides like DE, Skavarla is sceptical of bug bombs and aerosols: “The insecticides don’t reach the areas where bed bugs hide and the disturbance can scatter bed bug populations into other areas of the house so you can end up with bed bugs in places where they might not otherwise go.”
Why are they an issue today?
In all the fervour around avoiding bed bugs, it’s worth wondering why they’re so prevalent now.
Lee has studied bed bugs for decades, first in Malaysia and now in the US. He takes the view that, whatever the reasons behind it, our modern bed bug woes are a return to status quo.
“A long time ago, bed bugs were a big problem,” he said, pointing to reports from London in the 1800s of guest lodgers being advised to get half-drunk before bed, lest they be eaten alive in the night.
Bed bugs continued to be a huge issue all the way until the 1940s, when the insecticide DDT all but eradicated them.
“Suddenly, as of the late 60s, bed bugs became a nonissue any more. So the world was pretty much free of bed bug problems, I would say for about 30 years,” he said.
During that time, pyrethroid insecticides replaced DDT at the vanguard of the affordable anti-bed bug movement, largely due to DDT’s less-than healthy reputation for both the planet and people exposed to it.
The trouble is, both insecticides work in very similar ways, and much like with antibiotic resistance, bed bugs have grown less and less bothered by the chemicals as time has passed.
“What we are seeing today is that almost every species we collect is resistant to DDT and pyrethroids,” Lee said.
He believes Africa, one of the few places never quite freed from bed bugs, was the origin point of today’s insecticide-resistant bugs.
With these insecticides used indiscriminately in African nations, owing to their remarkable effectiveness against malaria-carrying mosquitos, they unintentionally served to fast-track bed bugs’ natural selection process.
That meant that while the rest of us were spending the 60s, 70s and 80s purging our homes of bed bugs with ease, African homes were having an increasingly harder time of it, enduring subsequent generations of bed bugs increasingly unphased by once deadly insecticides. And as Lee pointed out, “…because of our excellent transportation and the movement of people, now you are seeing these [African] bed bugs everywhere else.”
Not helping matters is the human impact on the environment. For one, bed bugs love warm temperatures, and with global warming the list of places they deem hospitable is growing by the year.
But even more impactful is our modern luxury of temperature regulation. Lee explained, “You can be inside the house for the entire year and the temperature would be set at 24°C, even though it could be snowing outside, even though it could be boiling hot outside. Our indoor living environment has become so uniform; that’s why all these pests thrive.”
That’s not to say that households unable to afford heating have an edge in fending off bed bugs. As with most things, it’s still the poor who tend to fare the worst.
While low income housing may not provide bed bugs with ideal breeding temperatures, it does tend to be more cramped, with residents relying far more on second-hand goods and public transport.
These disadvantaged households harbour the bulk of a city’s bed bugs, in what Lee refers to as “the reservoir”, so called because it provides a steady supply of the pests for everyone else in a city.
“For as long as we don’t resolve the issue of bed bugs in the reservoir, we will continue to have bed bugs,” Lee warned.
So, if you’re worried about bed bugs hitching a ride here on a family of French holidaymakers, don’t be. Instead, worry about the ones running amok in the council estates, HMOs and low income neighbourhoods of your city.
Rather than thinking of them like an individual household’s problem, it will benefit us all to think of them as a community problem. Ultimately, without a concerted public health effort to rid the poorest from this nuisance, we’ll all be getting very familiar with bed bugs very soon.
Featured image by Adobe, other photos by Dong-Hwan Choe from the University of California, Riverside