Green strategies for the prevention of bedbugs and fleas — so your neighbor’s problem doesn’t become YOUR problem

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Nighty Night Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite wall decal from Twistmo
We just found out that several neighbors in my apartment building have bed bugs. Is there anything we can do to try and prevent them in our apartment — particularly in a green way? I hate the idea of flooding my apartment with pesticides that could harm my pets.
— Elizabeth

Oof, best of luck in keeping them out! What a scuzzy feeling.

So, I had fleas once. Isn’t that a gross thing to say? About a week after I moved into a Victorian House in a shitty neighborhood with a family of hippies, I was settling into bed and saw a little black spot climbing up between the fibers of my sheets. I looked closer, and holy fuck. A flea. They look just like they do in cartoons.

I jumped up, took a shower, changed my clothes and slept at my boyfriend’s house. The next day I went home and spoke to my roommates — their indoor/outdoor cat brought them home. They planned a flea bomb. I wasn’t stoked about living in the aftermath of a pesticide bomb, but I was also totally skeeved, so we had a flea bomb.

It took several additional applications after the first flea bomb to completely clear the house, but my room cleared out much sooner because I used my Google Fu.

Most flea-removal tricks will also work with bedbugs. Both insects are susceptible to heat (over about 120 degrees) and desiccation. There isn’t a lot you can do to prevent them from moving about in your own building. Your best bets:

  • Don’t allow pets to wander into common areas where they can pick up bugs.
  • Keep your entrance free of clutter in which bedbugs might huddle.
  • If possible, caulk cracks along baseboard and moulding. They can enter that way. Similarly, seal cracks around pipes or wires traveling through walls.

If you find yourself with an infestation — or if you just want a few tricks for extra prevention, here’s what I did:

  1. Fleas and flea eggs (and bedbugs and bedbug eggs) are very subject to desiccation. I stocked up on baking soda and salt, which dry the bugs, and poured them EVERYWHERE. On the hardwood, making sure they penetrated cracks; all over my chair and rug, and I think just near my bed. You can also use diatomaceous earth (safe for humans and pets).
  2. USE HEAT. Even the sun coming through windows can help make your home inhospitable. Use your blinds to your advantage.
  3. I washed all my textiles repeatedly and dried them on super hot settings and never let them sit out in the open.
  4. Cedar is a natural bug repellent. You can get pure cedar oil, but I liked the balls. It’s safe and makes your home smell lovely.
  5. I vacuumed often — probably every day — and kept the vacuum bin filled with baking soda and salt to desiccate whatever it picked up. It’s important to clean the bin or change the bag EVERY TIME. Steam cleaners are even better.
  6. Anything soft that wasn’t being used was wrapped in a plastic bag.
  7. I did this for months. Fleas were out of the house within a couple weeks, but their eggs can be in stasis for three months before they hatch, waiting for you to drop your guard. Hell no, fleas. And bedbugs? They can live about a year without eating, acting like jerks the whole time.
  8. Especially important to prevent an infestation: protect entryways. Use cedar or diatomaceous earth or baking soda or salt across all doorways, near cracks, and around any place they might enter your home. If you have to visit these neighbors, don’t bring anything with you, don’t sit, and pop your clothes in the dryer when you come home.

It sucks. For monnnnnnnnnths after that I was SURE that every tickle was a flea — even though they hadn’t traveled on me when I had them! — and I now live in fear of bringing home bedbugs. Again, good luck!

We need all the help we can get to keep bloodsucking pests out! What have you learned about preventing infestations?

Comments on Green strategies for the prevention of bedbugs and fleas — so your neighbor’s problem doesn’t become YOUR problem

  1. While not truly green, it is working brilliantly. I live in North Florida where the sandy soil is perfect for harboring fleas. My fiance and I were struggling to keep our dog and cat flea free. The popular topical flea meds (frontline, advantage) were proving ineffective. I switched my dog to Comfortis, which is a flea medication they ingest and it has changed everything. She has become a flea killing machine, controlling the flea population both in the yard and house. They jump on her, take one taste and DIE. It has even made it practically unnecessary to use the topical flea meds on the cat.

    It’s expensive, but SO worth it. If you have a dog and a flea problem, this is the way to go.

  2. I second the diatomaceous earth rec. It’s good for just about any pest you don’t want in your home: ants, fleas, bedbugs, slugs, anything that travels small and close to the ground. Diatomaceous earth is made up largely of diatoms, the little glass-like animals from the ocean, and they cut up the bellies of insects so they die. Totally safe for pets. Just ask the spirit of our dog who lived for 17 years 🙂

    • Diatomaceous earth may cause the same disease as asbestos if inhaled – another really useful but dangerous inorganic material – if it is inhaled and is far from harmless when used improperly, so please be cautious! See http://bedbugger.com/2007/03/30/faqde/ for proper uses. Not everything labeled “non-chemical” is automatically harmless, nor the opposite. I am a chemist, and in a sense that makes me a different kind of offbeat reader. Everything in life is made from “chemicals” and not everything labeled natural is automatically green and safe to use.

  3. Bedbugs are really best taken care of by a certified pest control company. The landlord is usually responsible for this, so ask them to take care of it. Make sure the company is experienced with bedbugs and if they are, they’ll inspect both the apartments that know they’re having a problem and the ones that are adjacent (above, below, to the side) and treat anywhere they find a problem. Companies committed to green pest control will use primarily heat (steam), vacuuming, and cedar oil (this is a concentrated cedar that non-pest people cannot get their hands on, just cedar blocks will not keep the bugs away) and may also treat things which can’t go through the drier with a pest strip sealed in a plastic bag.

    We had bedbugs in our building and they got into the apartment. Luckily, the landlord was really on top of things and the pest control company worked hard with us. They came back 3 times to check and make sure no bugs remained, but the first treatment pretty much took care of them. But I’ve read that a lot of pest companies don’t really know how to deal with bedbugs, so get your landlord to check them out.

    P.S. A Flea bomb will not kill bedbugs and WILL cause them to spread throughout the building as they flee the bomb! Don’t use them!

    • Absolutely — the best bet is working with your landlord. I kind of skipped that as I had a series of landlords that were completely unresponsive to even BIG problems.

      • Also, when we used the landlords methods he hired people to blast the place with insecticide which gave us all physical reactions way worse than the bedbugs ever did.
        We had bedbugs in our shared house and I made sure to keep a bag of house clothes outside my room and I’d strip off before running into my room so I didn’t carry any bugs in that way. My room stayed bug free!

  4. I third the diatomaceous earth!! This past Halloween weekend my fiance and I and our two babies (dogs) went to NJ for the Zombie Walk. We stayed at a pet friendly hotel and the Zombie Walk was on the beach, and at some point our little girls picked up fleas. My fiance called me all upset and told me he found one on Waffles (our dog) and I immediately started looking up natural treatments.

    I poured the DE all over the carpets, rubbed it into our puppies fur and continuously vaccuumed and washed bedding and clothes. It worked like a charm and we never had another problem. I even passed along the info to a friend with flea and pet issues and she’s seem a huge improvement!

    It works great!

  5. So I had fleas this past summer/fall. Things are hard to kill to without resorting to harsh chemicals, it’s true. But the most important (and difficult) lesson I learned? You can’t live in fear that they’ll be back tomorrow. You’ll never get anything done. After a few weeks of letting the ferret out and he doesn’t pick any up (he’s a pretty good spot check, turns out) I just had to move on. I don’t have fleas anymore. Win.

    My favourite, albeit not as green as I would like, rememdy was a flea dip for my cats and ferret (less concentrated for the ferret) and an aerosol spray for things I couldn’t wash (like my couch and floors). If you’re gonna go the pesticide route, make sure the spray (ONLY the spray, nothing you intend to use *on* the animals should contain this)contains Nylar (I used one with active ingredients Nylar, Tetramethrin, and Sumithrin. Removed the pets. Sprayed everythings). It’s one of, oh, two chemicals out there that is *effective* at actually killing the flea eggs. And flea eggs can survive in unfriendly conditions (heat, cold, no food) for up to a year or so. Yikes.

    • Ferrets are a good flea spot check. But I don’t recommend using flea products on them. They aren’t meant for them. I gave mine a Dawn bath every day or so and it was gentle and flea deadly.

  6. Just a note to small pet owners- if you’re looking for green(er) products to use and you have small rodents or bunnies, do NOT use cedar oil or products anywhere that your buddies traverse or nearby to their habitats enough for them to breathe in (which means not in the same room unless there is really good ventilation). Cedar and cedar oil, while nice smelling to us and a creepy-crawly deterrent, is irritating to small pet lungs and eyes, and can cause health problems with prolonged exposure.
    Just a heads up to those who are worried and also have small pets who roam about the house/backyard.

    • THANK YOU! I was going to say the same thing. Cedar may smell nice, but it can be very detrimental, even kill rodents, many birds and reptiles and can really irritate dogs and cats with delicate respiratory systems (like pugs or persians!). It’s great for hardy animals, like livestock or poultry birds.

  7. In my old apartment, I swore I had bedbugs near my computer area. I tried everything but nothing seemed to work. We moved into a new apartment after we got married, and didn’t take the old couch with us for obvious reasons. Now in our new place I am all about preventing creepy crawlies. It is a bit difficult though, when your husband doesn’t like patchouli oil (which I heard kept away dust mites which I have a problem with…) or the fresh linen smelling bags or even fresh lavendar (he says because its smells like antique stores his mom would drag him too).

    I’m definitely going to try the baking soda and salt, and if I can find it the diatomaceous earth just to do a deep clean around our place. Our new place doesn’t get much sun where it sits, which rocks during the summer months so it stays cool but makes it very difficult to keep out bugs and mold.

    Very helpful article and comments!

    • Diatomaceous Earth (also called DE) can be found at hardware stores. I believe it is used in filters.

      • DO NOT!!!!!! USE DE FOR POOL FILTERS TO COMBAT BUGS IN YOUR HOME!!!!!!! It is VERY dangerous and may damage your lungs! The DE you want to use in your home is FOOD GRADE, however, you still need to use proper precautions so as not to inhale it.

  8. My former workplace had a chronic flea infestation that was eventually traced back to a stack of secondhand books someone had purchased and left piled under thier desk so I’d consider storing book collections in an airtight bag just as you would soft items until the fleas’ life cycle is complete.

  9. Bedbugs are scary. I had them in my last apartment. I moved because of changing jobs, but I would have moved anyway. Still, one thing I learned from my many attempts to get rid of them (the landlord set off a bug bomb, very bad idea) the best we could do was to rent a steam cleaner and get a bedbug mattress cover. Heat will kill the eggs.

    Also, if you do get bugs, don’t underestimate the mental issues with them. It’s very hard to feel safe when you can’t even go to bed without being afraid. It ok and it’s normal. Don’t think you’re insane.

    • I second everything Kess said. My boyfriend and I had bedbugs almost four years ago from a used couch we got. It was terrifying because they are SO hardy and can live for up to 12 months without any food i.e. human blood. So, even after we had an exterminator come and treat our apartment twice, for the next year, we lived in slight fear. Okay, so it was definitely more than slight. They can also travel through a house or apartment much faster than you’d think. Our couch was totally infested. It only took a matter of days for our bed and every other piece of furniture in the house to be infested as well. We had to get rid of everything.

      The feeling unsafe in what is supposed to be the most sacred and safe of places (bed) was absolutely the worst part. My partner and I both had at least 20-30 bites continuously until we irradicated the problem. BTW, they look like large mosquito bites but they last longer, and I thought they itched a lot more. Now, getting the creepy crawly feeling has a whole new meaning.

      Some suggestions from my experience and the tons of research I did at the time: do not bring used furniture into your home unless completely necessary. If you do, check under flaps, cushions, and around the creases and edges. Here’s a good website that tells you what to look for: http://www.ehs.indiana.edu/BedBugs/inspection.shtml
      Also, if you are staying in a hotel (very very common way to bring them home), bring a large garbage bag for ALL your stuff. keep everything up on a high shelf, in the bathroom, or at least away from any furniture. Bedbugs love to crawl into your luggage, backpacks, etc. Inspect the room as soon as you arrive. I know it sounds like overload, but believe me, taking five minutes to do this vs. having bedbugs is well worth it.

      Ick. Not a good post to reply to when dealing w/ some insomnia. Hah! Maybe my post was a little overload, too, but sometimes it seems as though people don’t realize the ridiculously horrible experience that bedbugs are. I feel like sharing what I’ve learned is my duty now… hahah!

      • I work in a hotel, and in my opinion and from my personal experience with bed bugs- you’re not over reacting at all. You’re giving great advice.

  10. I’ve also heard that the fruit of the Osage Orange (often refered to as Monkey brains)is a natural insect repellent. I’ve never tried it myself but I’ve heard good things and they’re free if you have that tree in your area.

  11. We got the bed bug covers for our mattress and pillows in our bedroom and we haven’t had an issues. We got fleas (I think?) a couple of times and it’s all but stopped since we put the covers on. I’m still terrified of getting bed bugs though.

    Now roaches are my second concern behind bed bugs. I pour borax behind the stove, sink, between counter and refridge etc to kill the fuckers if they try to get in. Borax isn’t safe for pets though so I have to be careful. I didn’t know that baking soda and salt would do the trick as well! Super excited. Mostly we just get an occasional roach that comes into our apt and dies (which I believe is because our neighbors spray but who knows)

  12. Great ideas, thanks! Just wondering if anyone here knows about grain beetles (they’re either sawtoothed, rusty, or flat… not sure which exactly)? We’ve worked really hard to get rid of them… even moved to another Province, haha. Seriously, though, we ditched ALL of our food before moving here, brought our couch to the dump, but still see one once in awhile. 🙁

  13. We have an indoor-only cat, and a month or two after we moved to a new apartment last summer, we started noticing fleas. I honestly think they were already in the apartment, just waiting for us and our kitty to move in, because we NEVER had that problem at the old place. In our flea ignorance, we tried all the harsh chemical stuff at first – we bombed and sprayed and used Advantix or whatever the stuff is that you put right on the neck of the cat. Although it may have put a dent in the flea population, we didn’t see the dramatic results we were looking for. Then my dad told me that fleas really hate strong smells like lavender, peppermint and eucalyptus. I had some Dr. Bronner’s lavender castile soap, so I used it to give the cat a bath. I also vacuumed the shit out of our whole house, and washed and dried all our bedding/textiles on high heat (we usually do cold water laundry). It worked!

    Now I just vacuum on a more regular basis and occasionally give the kitty a bath with either lavender or peppermint Dr. Bronner’s, whichever one I have around. This has been working for 6 months – no more fleas! Luckily, our cat is pretty mild mannered in the bathtub, she just howls and squirms a little. If you’ve got a cat or dog who wouldn’t put up with it, I imagine you could also dilute the soap in a spray bottle and just spray your pet down and rub it in.

  14. My mom used to put out a soap dish with a light over it at night. It would attract and drown the fleas. We had to move, though, because the landlord would only bug bomb one appartment and not any of the others. Things got gross. I don’t know any tricks for real infestations, since that happened when I was 6 so i don’t remember much and haven’t had much of a problem since then. Crossing my fingers I don’t, though, I’m itchy just thinking about all this!

  15. Has anyone mentioned DE (diatomaceous earth)? It is safe to consume and safe for pets. i used it at my old apartment to get rid of the bedbugs my roommate brought home (yuck!). i have three pet rabbits and they were fine with the stuff all over. You are supposed to put the powder on your mattress and all over the room/apartment/house. Vacuum once a week and reapply; it is incredible and very inexpensive. i threw away all of the linens i could bare to part with and the DE did the rest! It takes time (bedbugs can hid anywhere, such as boxes and books, not just your mattress and clothes) but with patience, there is life after bugs!!

  16. I’ve used food-grade DE with my dog for years; I actually keep it in a salt shaker and shake a little onto her food. It’s nontoxic for pets to eat it mixed with food, and eliminates parasites and worms. I first found out about this from my dad, whose family used it on their dairy farm cows as a de-wormer.

    As for fleas, I wrote about this awesome company FleaBusters on PetSugar (http://www.petsugar.com/Eco-Flea-Removal-Service-13805312). Working more than full time with a baby and a cuckoo life made it kind of nuts to try all of the DIY solutions I wanted to use to ecologically remove the fleas, so this is a great choice if you’re in a similar situation. I’m a total believer in the company now.

    As for bedbugs, (knock on wood) so far I’ve had no experience with them, but a lot of my friends refuse to thrift anymore because of bedbugs (my sister refuses to go to movie theaters in NY, where she lives). I can’t give up the thrifts, but all of those retro sofas I usually eye up look much less appealing now. Sigh.

  17. Bedbugs, unlike fleas, cannot jump. They can only crawl. You can bedbug proof your bed by wrapping double sided sticky tape around the legs. This won’t work if you’ve got animals who jump on the bed or if you leave you PJs anywhere but the bed.

    When traveling you can stymie bedbugs by putting your luggage in the bathtub. They can’t jump in and they can’t climb the surface.

  18. Great information… Thanks! We found our sons pack-n-play infested with bedbugs-yuck! it was the perfect environment with all the tucked seams and netting. It was a fridge Iowa winter week so we put everything outside overnight and steam cleaned the carpets. we also sprayed 3 parts rubbing alcohol, 1 part h2o with about 15-20 drops peppermint essential oil and a squirt of dishsoap. we sprayed this everywhere beds, base boards, curtains… although some varnished wood it may discolor-so be aware if you have special pieces. the alcohol is disruptive to their eggs- the grown ups don’t like it either if sprayed. what pests! this has put deep cleaning and simplifying in motion for our family. (everything is going thru the dryer of coarse)

  19. So there are a few comments on here I’d like to address. To qualify my comments I’d just like to mention I’m a licensed veterinarian. I believe the first step to getting rid of fleas is to understand the flea life cycle.

    The flea life cycle starts when an adult flea takes a blood meal from a pet and uses that energy to produce eggs. The eggs roll off the pet onto the floor. They then become larva which feed on organic debris on the floor. These larva are photophobic which means they are like vampires about light they don’t like it at all they tend to hide under furniture and in dark corners. After the larva have fed for awhile they will pupate much like a butterfly would. In this stage they can stay for an extended period of time if needed. They hatch out in response to CO2 or breathing out, vibrations, and body heat. This is why you hear about houses where no one is living and then when a living creature comes by and gets attacked by loads of fleas.

    You can see that they are tricky buggers to take care of but it can be done. I strongly recommend doing a multiple pronged approach environmental and the pets themselves. If that isn’t done you are unlikely to get rid of the problem. My favorite product for the environment is an area spray called knockout it’s an aerosol and it drys super rapidly you don’t have to leave the house even. Other helpful things are to wash all of the bedding in the household yours and your pets. Vacuum frequently especially underneath furniture. As far as for the pets themselves I would say speak with your veterinarian as we are starting to see some resistance to some of the topical medications that used to be our first line of defense. I’m a pretty big fan of a new topical and the pills that have been coming out thus far.

    I have just a couple of other quick comments based on my quick skimming of the comment thread. Garlic and onions can cause hemolytic anemia in pets this essentially means that blood cells will come apart in a bad way. Diatomaceous earth as a de-wormer has not been studied for use in dogs and cats and there are many effective worm medications on the market. Please consult your veterinarian so they can identify what types of worms are present and can treat for them accordingly. I hope everyone can realize that I’m saying this as a scientist not just as someone trying to push medication from a specific company. There are no studies showing a mechanism of action for getting rid of parasites and I’ve read about necropsies (animal autopsies) where the animal was getting diatomaceous earth and died from worms.

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