Free Couch? Think Twice About Bed Bugs

Right around this time of the year in Madison and other college towns across the country, a smorgasbord of furniture and other goods appear along the sidewalk as tenants are frantically moving in and out of apartments. For historical reasons related to the need to register for classes in-person at UW-Madison, many of the leases end and begin in Madison around August 14th-15th each year, leading to an abundance of items on the curb free for the taking.   This is such a well-known and easily observable occurrence around Madison, that some have even affectionately referred to it as “Hippie Christmas”.

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One of the many free items showing up around college towns these days. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW-Entomology.

As the old saying goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” and this certainly could be the case with free things on the curb. That free couch along the sidewalk might look like the perfect addition to that larger apartment, and it can be hard to beat the price of that curbside armchair. However, there’s the real possibility of unwanted hitchhikers: bed bugs. While I’m all for reducing waste, reusing items, and recycling, the concern about bed bugs should not be overlooked.

Until the mid 1900’s, bed bugs (Cimex lectularius), been a common pest around the world. With the invention of synthetic insecticides around the time of World War II, these insects had nearly been wiped out. Given time, bed bug populations developed resistance to some of those insecticides. The insecticide resistance coupled with the rise of international travel and the bed bug’s stealthy stowaway tactics, meant that it was only a matter of time before they came roaring back onto the stage. That very phenomenon has happened in the past two decades, and bed bugs can now be found in every US state, and in a wide variety of situations––from student apartments to five star hotels. When bed bugs are detected, they can be eliminated with diligent tactics, although the task can be challenging and is best left to pest control professionals. Costs to eliminate bed bugs can easily be $1,000 or more.

Adult bed bug. Photo Credit: Gary Alpert, Harvard University,
Adult bed bug. Photo Credit: Gary Alpert, Harvard University,

Absolutely need to have that nightstand from the curb? A few steps can help prevent issues. The first is to simply know how to look for bed bugs and their telltale signs. Many folks seem to believe that bed bugs are too small to be seen with the naked eye, but this is far from reality. It turns out that adult bed bugs (image above) are roughly the same size, color, and shape as a small apple seed. Juveniles will have the same general shape, but will be smaller. Very tiny whitish eggs (~1mm long) and black spots (from digested blood) on furniture are other classic signs of bed bugs. [A useful guide to identify bed bugs and their signs can be found here].

Before bringing any item in from the curb, examining it thoroughly for any signs of bed bugs is well worth the effort in the long run.  Objects with a simple design (ex. a nightstand with few grooves for bed bugs to hide in) are easier to inspect than large upholstered furniture and mattresses.  For larger, hard to inspect items, it may not be worth the risk to grab such items.  For small items, one easy step is to place them into a large Ziploc bag and put them in the freezer for 7-10 days as a precaution. Bed bugs, or any other insects present in such an item would freeze during that time.

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Classic bed bug signs: black spots from digested blood and whitish eggs (~1mm long). Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW-Entomology.

What if you’ve moved into a new apartment and suspect it has bed bugs? Getting a suspected bed bug specimen properly identified is a crucial step. It turns out that there are a number of nearly identical species that can only be told apart under the microscope. These related species are associated with bats and birds; they don’t pose the same headaches as bed bugs and are controlled differently. If you’ve confirmed that bed bugs are present in your apartment, starting a conversation with your landlord is an important step; ignoring the situation is about the worst thing that could be done in such as case. Overall, it’s much easier for a pest control company to come in and eliminate a small bed bug infestation than a large one. This is especially true of large apartment and condo complexes, where bed bugs can spread from unit-to-unit over time, making control much more difficult. In addition, if you happen to be moving out of an apartment that has or might have bed bugs, it’s best to mark any items being discarded with spray paint so that others looking for furniture will know not to bring those items home with them.

For bed bug questions in rental situations and many other tenant-related topics, the Tenant Resource Center of Wisconsin offers assistance.  Safe moving and keep an eye out for bed bugs!