It was quite cold in Denver during the 4th annual Global Bed Bug Summit, in fact below freezing for much of the two day program. But research is discovering that freezing temperatures are not always enough to kill bed bugs, and certainly not immediately.
Chilling News from the Lab
Bed bugs, like most insects, have learned to adapt to a variety of environmental conditions. Just as they have learned to adapt to many modern pesticides and have developed resistance to them, bed bugs have also evidently evolved mechanisms to resist extreme cold. At least for a time.
As recently reported in a number of news sources, an article in the December 2013 edition of the Journal of Economic Entomology, published by the Entomological Society of America, titled “Cold Tolerance of Bed Bugs and Practical Recommendations for Control,” laid out the evidence.
Researchers attempted to determine what temperatures would be 100% lethal to all bed bug stages, from nymph to adult. They found it would require 80 continuous hours at -16 Celsius (3.2 F). Amping up the cold to -20 Celsius (4 F) would kill in about 48 hrs.
Apparently bed bugs have learned to adapt to freezing, at least for a short time, by lowering the freezing point of their bodily fluids, and thus can survive with a greatly reduced metabolism. Here we have yet another example of the extreme adaptability of this persistent pest.
This research should immediately call into question cryogenic treatments for bed bugs used in the past, which have now largely been abandoned by the pest control industry. While cryogenic treatment is certainly “green’ and has no harmful side effects for humans or animals, it is very difficult for it to be effective. A constant and sustained temperature, as the research shows, has to be maintained to actually be effective. And the bed bug must be fully exposed to that killing temperature for a sustained period..
The Laboratory vs. the Field
The lab is not the field. The research laboratory is a controlled environment by definition. The field – the real world – is not. Variables interject and conditions can change, often suddenly. Consider this scenario: A sofa discarded late in the day, say in Denver during freezing weather, may contain bed bugs. As the temperature dips, the bed bug is burrowed into the cushions, the frame, or other somewhat insulated areas. Overnight the temperature is well below the lab threshold, but our bed bug is snug and warm. No worries. He’s not fully exposed to the lab determined optimal killing temperature. He’s snug as a bug in a rug, as the old saying goes.
Come the new day, temps rise to, say -8 Celsius (27 F), and our bed bug is out of the woods for now. A passer-by stops for a minute out of curiosity to inspect the discarded sofa and as his pants leg, or shoe perhaps comes in contact with the discarded sofa, the bed bug sensing warmth (and maybe the prospect of a blood meal!) hops on board for a ride home with our unsuspecting passer-by. The bed bug is happy. There is the prospect for a meal, and if a it’s a female ready to lay eggs, the prospect of a new colony, and lots of potential misery for our unsuspecting pedestrian. A new infestation in the urban environment is about to take hold. That’s real world. That’s the way it works.
You Can Do It Yourself! Just Put ‘Em in Your Freezer!
On the heels of this interesting research, some of the popular articles reviewed (trying to be helpful, we guess) have even suggested that people can place infected items, clothing, etc., in the freezer for two to four days to rid those articles of bed bugs. That’s good in theory, based on the research. But that also raises some practical questions: Can most home freezers actually maintain the requisite temperatures for a sufficient time, especially while otherwise in use for food storage. Open the freezer to dig around for that pint of Haagen Dazs Gelato you have stashed away, or the frozen spinach for dinner, and you’ve immediately blown your base temperature. That will probably cost you another hour or so at 3.2 F to compensate.
Besides that, do people really want to stuff pillows, mattresses, chairs, drapes, and a hamper of infected clotting in their freezer for a couple of days? Probably not, would be our guess. Great in theory. Not so great in practice.
Perhaps a better and simpler idea would be to wash any infected personal items in hot soapy water and dry on high heat. Much quicker, just as effective, certainly ‘green,’ and it doesn’t’ monopolize your freezer. Your freezer is now free for its intended use — stocking with Haagen Dazs, frozen cheese cake, and all those pizza specials from the neighborhood grocery. That’s what home freezers are for. Not for do-it-yourself bed bug remediation.
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