Bed bugs: the dreaded B-word. Among all issues hostel owners encounter, bed bugs rank in the top 3 among regulations and unruly guests.
And there’s a good reason for that: Bed bugs are the fastest growing pest control emergency in the developed world!
The bad news is: There’s no one cure-all solution to prevent bed bugs 100% in your hostel. That said, however, there is an eco-friendly and bulletproof method to get rid of them within 24 hours.
In this guide you’ll learn the key characteristics of bed bugs, what you as a hostel owner can do to prevent them altogether and what measures to take in order to get rid of them in a fast and cheap way.
Let’s dive in!
Bed Bugs Characteristics
In order to fight any enemy, you need to know who you’re dealing with and what their idiosyncrasies are. Hence, let’s start with the basics before we get into proven methods to kill and prevent bed bugs.
What Do Bed Bugs Look Like?
Bed bugs are 6-legged insects that have the shape of a flaxseed. Their reddish-brown body is between 1.5mm (1/16 inch) – up to 5mm (1/5 inch) long. Hence, you can see them with your naked eye.
Typically, bed bugs are as flat as a credit card… until they suck your blood. Due to their ability to drink 3x their actual body weight, they can become rather roundish after their meal.
Oftentimes, you’ll notice some white or orange-brown bed bugs. Those are the ones that haven’t had any blood yet. As soon as they had their first blood meal, their body color changes.
Here’s what bed bugs look like when they’ve recently sucked blood.
Where Do Bed Bugs Come From?
Unlike cockroaches, ants, and flies which get attracted by old food and dirt, bed bugs only care about one thing: fresh food, i.e. your blood.
Hence, “bed bugs aren’t a reflection of cleanliness, as they have been found even in the swankiest of accommodations.” [Source]
While it’s not your fault to get bed bugs, it is still your responsibility as a hostel owner to
- a) take measures to prevent them, and
- b) get rid of them as fast as possible once a room is infested.
The question is: how do they get into your property in the first place?
Bed bugs don’t just walk into your hostel. Instead, they typically hitchhike in bags, sleeping bags, or the clothing of your guests.
As soon as they found a new home, they love hiding in mattresses, cracks, and furniture. Especially the latter can be an issue when buying second-hand stuff.
Since they are nocturnal, they usually try to avoid sunlight and only come out when it’s dark.
What Parts Of The World Struggle Most With Bed Bugs?
Decades ago, bed bugs only appeared in areas with warm and rather humid conditions. They love this kind of weather. However, since international travel became more and more popular, bed bugs literally traveled the world.
By looking into Google Trends, you can see in what areas of the world people mostly researched for “bed bugs” – which is a reliable indicator for people currently struggling with them.
As you can see in the picture above, bed bugs are especially an issue in North America, but also in New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, South Africa, the UK, etc.
In short: they are a global issue – no matter where you’re located.
A quick research for “bed bugs” site:tripadvisor.com will show you all the reviews that contain the word “bed bugs”. When you look at the countries of the affected lodging facilities, it confirms the daunting truth: they are everywhere.
Are Bed Bugs Still An Issue In 2019?
In a word: Yes.
Again, Google Trends helps us here. The following chart shows the time frame when most people searched for “bed bugs” beginning in 2004 up to this day.
Two things are noteworthy:
- 1) The obvious bed bugs epidemic around 2010
- 2) Almost double the amount of people research bed bugs in the summer – the warm months – compared to the cold winter season
However, bed bugs didn’t make quite as much news in 2010 as they made over the last couple of years. Part of the reason is that the global financial crisis was around the same time.
What’s interesting though is that bed bugs almost became extinct around 1950. At this time, the very first chemical pesticide called “Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane” – known as “DDT” – was commonly used in all kinds of households.
It even got to a point where scientists had to stop their studies on bed bugs because they just couldn’t find them anymore.
However, the horribly toxic DDT got banned in the US in 1972 due to severe health issues in humans. The people who used it regularly, experienced more birth defects, a reduced semen quality, gave more birth to children that developed autism, etc…. The list is endless.
When you were a kid, your parents might have told you to not let the bed bugs bite you, right?
For a long time, they were so unheard of that kids might have asked what a bed bug even was. However, this changed. Today, bed bugs are the fastest growing pest control emergency in the developed world. [Source]
Scientists list many reasons for this, but the main two causes seem to be
- a) cheap air travel that allowed bed bugs to spread easily, and
- b) people heating their homes continually throughout the winter unlike a century ago.
In order to fight these little beasts effectively, you have to know their strengths and weaknesses. Let’s start with the latter.
What Are The Weaknesses Of Bed Bugs?
If there is any good news about bed bugs, you’ll find it here:
- a) Bed bugs can’t fly or jump
Even though they have tiny wings, bed bugs can only walk and are rather slow compared to other insects. They are also unable to jump. That’s one of the reasons we sleep on raised beds.
They typically don’t walk more than 30m (98 feet) to get to their meal. Hence, they don’t necessarily only hide right inside the mattress but you also don’t have to go too far to find their hiding spot.
- b) Bed bugs can’t climb up slippery surfaces
Their legs are not made to walk up surfaces like smooth metal, plastic, glass or scotch.
- c) Bed bugs exclusively drink human blood
Hence, if they don’t have access to human blood, they’ll die. That’s good news for your pets! 🙂
- d) Bed bugs are sensitive to temperature
Their preferred living temperature is between 22-30°C (72-87°F). A temperature of more than 46°C (115°F) kills them within seconds.
They also don’t like cold temperatures and try to avoid it. In fact, they die at temperatures of lower than -20°C (-4°F). That said, temperatures have to be below that number for several days to ensure that they are all dead. Hence, heat is the easier way to kill them!
Let’s dig deeper and analyze the bloodsucker’s full profile.
What Are The Strengths Of Bed Bugs?
The tiny vampires have 4 major strengths:
- a) Bed bugs have developed a high degree of resistance
Like all other living beings, bed bugs have adapted to their environment over the years. However, they are able to adapt cholocain a speed humans can only dream of.
As a matter of fact, today’s bed bugs are more than 10.000 times more resistant to all common pesticides compared to the ones who lived 50 years ago! [Source]
- b) Bed bugs spread fast
The females typically lay between 200 and 500 dust-grain-sized white eggs during their lifetime. On average, they lay three eggs per day.
- c) Bed bugs are excellent assassins
Like mosquitoes, bed bugs inject you with anesthetic to ensure that you don’t feel the bite. They also administer anticoagulants which keeps your blood flowing while they feed. Moreover, only very sensitive people are able to feel them crawling since they are super light.
That’s the reason why some people did wake up with more than 500 bites the next morning without having noticed the slightest thing during the night.
- d) Bed bugs can live up to one year without eating
Bed bugs are able to go into a diapause in which they shut down most of their metabolic processes to survive on their energy stores. They’re so efficient that they can literally live up to one year in this stage.
Three things cause them to go into diapause:
- #1 It’s getting too warm: temperature around 40°C (104°F)
- #2 It’s getting too cold: below 10°C (50°F)
- #3 They can’t find food, i.e. humans
What Does A Bed Bug Bite Look Like?
As a hostel owner, it’s important to know how you can distinguish a bed bug bite from other insect bites.
First and foremost, not all people show a visible reaction to their bites! Every human body tends to react differently to their cocktail of chemicals that they inject into your skin.
I experienced bed bugs once in a shared flat in Sydney during the summer and I didn’t show any signs even though we found the bed bugs later on.
When bites appear, they appear as slightly raised red bumps. What mainly differentiates them from mosquito bites is that they typically appear in a pattern. The most common one is three or more bites that are 5-10mm (1/5 – 2/5 inches) apart.
Bed bugs search for blood vessels under your skin and follow them to feed. Hence, they typically appear in patterns that are in line rather than random single bites across the body.
Another criteria that differentiates them from mosquitos and flea bites is that bed bugs feed on any exposed area of your body. They don’t care if it’s your face, your armpits, your toes, and yes, even your genitals.
Other blood-feeding insects typically prefer ankles and avoid the head.
Since all humans react slightly different to bed bug bites, I highly recommend taking a look at more pictures here to get an in-depth understanding of their appearance.
Here you can see what it looks like when a bed bug bites:
Are Bed Bug Bites Dangerous?
Good news: Bed bugs don’t transmit diseases!
In fact, that’s really unique about these blood-feeding vampires. All other insects like mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas transmit diseases since they inject a tiny bit of the blood they’ve sucked from previous living creatures.
Bed bugs are different. Their body breaks down even the heaviest diseases within a short time. HIV, for example, breaks down in less than 60 minutes. And since they only feed every few days, there’s no danger of passing on diseases through their bites.
Now to the bad news: While they might not be dangerous, they are itchy as hell. Humans who got bitten describe the itchiness of a bed bug bite to be 5x stronger than mosquito bites.
The only “real” danger is when people who suffered bites can’t resist the urge to scratch the wounds which can cause infections. Besides that, there’s nothing to worry about. And that’s something you should clearly communicate to any infected guest!
What’s The Difference Between Bed Bugs And Fleas?
Bed bugs themselves as well as their bites are often confused with fleas. For many, the distinction is a blurred one. Let’s fix that.
Similarities of bed bugs and fleas:
- Both are blood-sucking insects
- Both are reddish-brown
- Both bites appear as red bumps
- Both love warm and humid conditions
Differences of bed bugs and fleas
- Fleas can jump up to 33cm (13 inches) ←→ Bed bugs can’t jump
- Fleas prefer animals (e.g. your dog) ←→ Bed bugs exclusively go for humans
- Fleas live in your pets fur ←→ Bed bugs live in furniture or clothes
- Fleas are smaller: 1.5 – 3mm (1/16 – 1/8 inch) ←→ Beds bugs are around 2x their size
- Fleas prefer Instagram ←→ Bed bugs are found on Twitter (still with me? 😉)
- Fleas have a more curved back ←→ Bed bugs are flat
- Fleas typically bite on the lower parts of the body (around the ankles) ←→ Bed bugs go for any exposed skin
Here’s how fleas look:
How Do You Know If You Have Bed Bugs?
Easy! “Alexa, do we have bed bugs in our hostel?” – Well, not quite…
The good thing is that bed bugs leave telltale signs once they’ve infested a room. Here are the most common signs when checking a room:
- Dead or alive bed bugs
Obviously, the most reliable way is to search for actual bugs. By far the most common place to find them is around the seams of mattresses. However, they also hide in nooks and crannies of beds, baseboards, walls (if there are crevices), curtains, etc.
- Fecal traces
Look for speckled brown dots on the sheets, mattresses, pillows, curtains, etc. That’s their poop, i.e. digested blood. The taste reminds me of chocolate-covered espresso beans. Nah, just kidding 😅
The more traces you find, the longer they’ve been there and the more bed bugs you have.
Their eggs are shiny white and look like tiny grains of rice.
- Sniff for Bed bugs
Truth be told, you have to smell it at least once to be able to distinguish their odor from your room. Most people describe it as a slightly sweet smell in combination with almonds, but still unpleasant. Seriously, that’s no joke.
That said, it’s also rather subtle, especially when there are only a few bed bugs around. That’s the reason many pest control experts have trained dogs to be able to sniff them.
- Cast skins
Another common sign is shed carapaces from molting bed bugs. Their tanks are typically close to where they hide.
All in all, you can’t really miss bed bugs if you know what to look out for. Make sure to add this section in your housekeeping’s manual to enable them to see the early stages of an infestation
Now you know how to detect them. Time for the combat!
How To Get Rid Of Bed Bugs Fast
“Are there cases where they just disappear?” – Nope. Not as long as there are humans nearby.
Before we get to the list of proven methods to get rid of bed bugs, be aware that the consequences of an infestation can be huge!
Hence, I recommend you roll up your sleeves and take care of it personally instead of delegating it completely to your staff or external services. The truth is, nobody else will care as much about the issue as you.
#1 Bed Bugs Spray / Pesticides
Let’s start with the most popular treatment: Simply walk into a nearby supermarket and buy an anti bed bugs spray, right?
In my opinion, chasing this silver bullet is comparable to people who buy the latest super pill that claims to make them live to 120 years.
There are three common problems with pesticides:
- 1) Many simply don’t work
- 2) Some are dangerous for your and your guest’s health
- 3) Most pesticides don’t kill eggs
We’ve already covered that bed bugs have developed a 10.000 times higher resistance against all kinds of pesticides. What might have killed bed bugs decades ago doesn’t hurt them anymore. And they become more resilient every single year.
Furthermore, many new substances on the market haven’t been tested for longer periods of time. Especially not in their impact on human health. And there’s no way to see the harmful consequences until it’s, well, too late – when people get sick, just like we’ve seen with DDT.
There are also two myths surrounding the substances that apparently kill bed bugs:
- 1) Baking soda can kill bed bugs
- 2) Eco-friendly pesticides will do the job
Let’s start with the former: The main idea behind baking soda is that it will absorb the moisture of bed bugs which will dehydrate them to death. However, baking soda is not strong enough to achieve this effect. While it can be helpful for washing your bedding and cleaning in general, bed bugs don’t join its list of useful areas of application.
Now to the latter: Do you see the crux when products claim to be environmentally friendly and non-poisonous but able to kill living creatures?!
I’ve seen many hostel owners trying all kinds of eco-friendly products only to come to the conclusion that their efforts were fruitless.
In my opinion, pesticides in general are absolutely over-hyped and the reason is probably that it’s a space where many companies can make a shit load of money.
If you want to use pesticides successfully, there are two rules you have to follow:
- 1) Buy a pesticide that’s proven to work
Don’t just go into your supermarket or on a companies’ website where everyone claims to have “the best”. Instead, head to Amazon and filter for products with more than 4 stars. Then have a look at the actual reviews to see if other people had success in using the product.
Also, take a close look at what areas you’re allowed to use it. Based on that, here’s the one that I’d choose:
- 2) Follow the instructions carefully
Pesticides are one of the few products where it pays off to read the instructions carefully. You neither want to poison yourself nor your guests.
#2 Steam Cleaner Against Bed Bugs
If you’re looking for a more effective and eco-friendly method, you’ve come to the right place.
Bed bugs die within seconds if the temperature is higher than 46°C (115°F). A steam cleaner typically heats up to more than 110°C (230°C) which makes them the perfect killer against bed bugs.
Even if the steam doesn’t come in direct contact with them, the temperature might be still high enough to entomb the little beasts. It also kills the eggs of bed bugs.
Compared to all other alternatives, there’s nothing that offers such a high return on investment (ROI) as a steam cleaner. Compared to pesticides, you can also use it for your deep cleaning routine as well.
Here’s a comment from a hostel owner:
I’ve talked to hostel owners that have experienced bed bug problems and they tend to say the same though many still use pesticides because added chemicals just “feel” safer.
There are two common steam cleaner models that will do the job:
- 1) Multi-surface steam cleaner
- 2) Steam cleaner for the ground
A combination of both is probably best if you’re experiencing an acute bed bug issue. Just make sure to really go over every nook and cranny.
One last addition: Before using a steam cleaner on the floor, it’s recommended to vacuum first.
#3 High Room Temperature Against Bed Bugs
A steam cleaner is the best choice if there are only a few bed bugs and the infestation is rather small. However, once they’ve spread across several beds or rooms, you might need to haul out the big guns: Room heaters.
Room heaters are the most bulletproof method to get rid of ALL bed bugs within a room in a matter of hours! In fact, one pest control expert spread more than 50 bed bugs in his own bedroom to demonstrate the effectiveness of this method.
This guy must be insane – or he hated his landlord and was going to move out the following weekend anyway. Whatever, you can watch the video here:
In theory, you could do this by yourself: Buy an electric room heater that comes with a thermostat and you’re ready to go.
However, even with an electric room heater, it’s still a dangerous task. Many people have burned down their houses by using kerosene or gas heaters or ended up with severe carbon monoxide poisoning.
Furthermore, a room heater of this kind is a tool that has no use except for bed bug infestations. Hence, it will probably just take up unnecessary storage space as long as you don’t have any issues.
Fun fact: Decades ago, it was common for sleazy hotels to have bed bugs and other insects. If it got “too bad”, they often wrapped the entire metal bed with old papers or rubbed them in kerosene and light them on fire (outside the house). This method made sure that even the insects inside the bed, well, rested in peace.
Back to the room heater: That’s a solution where I recommend the help of a pest control service.
#4 Pest Control Service / Bed Bugs Exterminators
Using pest control services is no guarantee for success. In fact, this is the answer to one of my surveys:
Now, there are good and bad pest control services. The bad ones typically come in, spread their smoke bombs and leave you in a matter of an hour with a 4-figure invoice.
The good ones either make use of a room heater or use specific pesticides more than once. Since eggs are immune to chemicals, it’s often needed to treat the same room again after a few days. They will also answer all your questions and give you additional tips to prevent them in the future.
To find a reputable company, I suggest using Google to look for the ones with a good rating. However, if you’re located in a rural area, you might not have access to these services at all.
Exterminators, in general, aren’t cheap. Especially if your entire hostel is infested, it can easily cost several thousand dollars. That said, your opportunity costs of not being able to sell the rooms in addition to the damage to your reputation makes them well worth their money.
#5 Deeeeeep Cleaning Against Bed Bugs
Besides all that, a thorough deep cleaning can also help to kill them. Besides using a steam cleaner, here are additional tips to get rid of the vampires:
If your mattresses aren’t covered with a bed bug proof mattress cover, now is a good time. Even if there are living bed bugs in or around your mattress, you can kill them by encasing the entire mattress.
First, treat it with your steam cleaner and maybe an additional pesticide. If you’re located in a hot area, it’s also a good idea to expose the mattress to a full midday sun. After that, cover the entire mattress and zip completely.
Make sure nobody is going to open the encasement before the duration of a full 12 months in order to kill them through starvation. Hence, I suggest taping a tag to the zipper that says “Infested with bed bugs. Do not open before [date]!”
Furthermore, if your walls could benefit from a new coating, it might be a good time to renovate your room. By using a glossy white, you not only cover existing stains but also make sure that future bed bug traces are more likely to be noticed.
The paint itself will also kill potential eggs that you missed during your deep cleaning. By using a glossy color, bed bugs will also have a harder time to walk up the walls.
What about your other stuff, do you have to throw everything away?
Nope, this is typically rather a desperate panic reaction that is unnecessary. If you use a good room heater, the heat will take care of all bed bugs – even the ones behind your baseboards, inside your beds, etc.
To get your bedding bed bugs free, simply place it in a plastic trash to bring it to your washer. Just make sure you don’t shake any bed bugs loose on the way.
Then wash your bedding with a water temperature higher than 50°C (112°F). This will kill all bed bugs including their eggs.
Handling The Guests
Part of the entire process of getting rid of bed bugs is to handle your guests properly. The damage to your reputation is probably the most costly consequence of an infestation.
In fact, researchers conducted a study among hotels that showed that a single report of bed bugs in recent reviews lowered the value of the hotel room by $38. [Source]
So, how do you deal with guests that experienced beg bugs in your hostel?
Treat them like royalty.
Be as empathetic, caring, and helpful as you can be. Make sure you make them understand that it’s not your hostel’s fault to experience bed bugs and that they don’t originate from you but have been brought in by other travelers.
I further suggest to go to the pharmacy and get them a no-itch cream. Besides that, make sure to wash all their clothes (free of charge) as well as their backpack. If they have something delicate that doesn’t tolerate high heat, you can get it dry cleaned. It works as well.
Now, should you refund their stay?
This is a controversial topic among hostel owners. However, my opinion it is a CLEAR YES! Even if it might sound unfair since it’s not your fault to have bed bugs, the detrimental effect of a single review is way higher than the costs of a refund.
Furthermore, imagine you were in their situation. You paid for a night and all you got was several days of pain. I bet you’d blame the property as well if you were in their shoes.
Besides that, make sure to keep the issue secret from other guests. Use a code word (e.g. “broken shower”) when you’re talking with your staff about it.
Last but not least, let’s have a look into the methods to prevent such an issue altogether.
Here's what experts recommend to get rid of bed bugs:
“Clean, clean, clean, remove items in a black plastic bag and straight to the bin or washing machine to wash it at 55°C (131°F) or hotter. More cleaning, inspect every piece of furniture and soft furnishing inside the room. Remove, inspect and clean curtains.
Steam clean every item of furniture and soft furnishings inside the room including carpet edges and carpet. Seal all gaps and cracks inside the room and edges around the carpet. Finally, red flag the room for extra inspections.”
Elite Pest and Insect Control | Christchurch, New Zealand
How To Prevent Bed Bugs
The sooner you can catch the signs, the better your chances will be of preventing a full-blown and costly infestation. Bed bugs spread fast and it’s way easier to treat an isolated room rather than the entire building.
While there’s no permanent solution to prevent bed bugs 100% from getting into your hostel, there are several proven methods to make it harder for them and to reduce their potential damage.
- Use bed bug proof mattress covers that enclose the entire mattress
But don’t take the cheapest ones that are noisy. That’s definitely the wrong place for penny-pinching.
- Put transparent tape around each foot of the bed
Since bed bugs can’t walk on slippery surfaces, they won’t be able to walk up the bed.
- Train your staff to see early signs of bed bugs
Bed bugs should be a part of your staff’s manual. Your front-desk staff should be able to recognize bed bug bites on travelers when they check-in.
However, your housekeeping staff is the most reliable source since they see each bed every few days. Show them pictures of all the common traces and make them aware that bed bugs are a serious issue.
- Use commercial metal bunk beds instead of cheap wooden bunks
The cold nature of metal is less fancied by bed bugs rather than warm wood. Furthermore, wood tends to breath depending on the humidity. With enough time, this inevitably leads to crevices that are the perfect place for them to hide.
Commercial bunk beds are typically completely sealed so that they can’t get inside it. Cheaper ones are not only less stable and more noisy, they also tend to have many gaps where the flat insects can get inside easily.
Probably the worst choice you can make is to buy bamboo beds, as one hostel owner experienced first-hand:
- Move your bed 2-3 centimeter (1 inch) away from the wall
Since bed bugs can’t jump or fly, they won’t get on the bed if there’s a gap. Also, make sure that no bedding (e.g. bed skirts) is touching the floor or the wall.
- Strictly prohibit the use of sleeping bags
Always supply enough linens so that no guest feels the need to use their own stuff.
- Use white bed sheets and wall color
In my previous blog post about hostel bedding, we’ve already covered the many advantages white linens have for hostels. In addition to that, white shows you all the traces of bed bugs more easily than all other colors.
- Avoid wood in bedrooms
That not only goes for beds, but also for floors, walls and other furniture. The very nature of wood is predestined to build crevices over time. Any additional wooden furniture in your room provides additional accommodation for hundreds of bed bugs.
If you don’t have a choice, make sure to seal all cracks every few months.
- Be careful with second-hand furniture
Especially when you’re buying second-hand furniture, make sure to steam clean thoroughly before using it! If you can’t get inside it, think twice before placing it in a dorm.
- Ask guests that come from a local hostel for their reasons to switch
If they mention bed bugs, offer them a free laundry service of all their belongings.
- Deep clean regularly
A thorough deep clean every 6-8 weeks can prevent a potential invasion. Just make sure your staff does a thorough job. In my experience, volunteers typically can’t be relied upon when it comes to deep cleaning unless you’re going to supervise them well.
- Use bed detectors
Bed detectors are a foolproof way to recognize traces of bed bugs. You simply put little plastic pucks underneath each foot of the bed. The slippery surface prevents bed bugs from getting up your bed and also traps them inside.
It’s basically the same effect as in spiders trying to walk up the bathtub.
This method is a lifelong investment for less than 15 bucks for each bed. The main advantage I see is that it frees up mental space because it’ll instantly show you and your guests any infestation. Hence, you’re able to nib the issue in the bud.
Here's what experts recommend to prevent bed bugs:
“Know where your customers has come from, and have robust policies in place for preventing bed bugs entering the premises. This includes regular inspections by cleaning staff, bug locks on ALL beds, bed bug caps on all bed legs, as well as staff training by an experienced professional on an annual basis to learn the signs of a potential bed bug invasion.”
Elite Pest and Insect Control | Christchurch, New Zealand
TheHostelHelper is not liable for any damage resulting from the use of the information provided. Read my full disclaimer here.
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