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Bed Bug Repellent Tests Should Reflect Type of Bug Behavior, Researchers Find

bed bug (Cimex lectularius)

A new study digs into the pros and cons of two different methods for testing potential bed bug repellents: a harborage test and a barrier test. Repellency results can differ when bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) are searching for shelter versus when they are searching for a bloodmeal. (Photo by Gary Alpert, Harvard University,

By Andrew Porterfield

Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) have returned as a common pest, thanks to global travel and resistance to insecticides. Repellents like DEET or icaridin can fend off the insects for several hours, and still other natural repellents (like cinnamon oil or margosa extracts) are used against other arthropods and could be used against bed bugs.

Andrew Porterfield

Andrew Porterfield

But testing for such repellents’ effectiveness has not been evaluated very thoroughly. In fact, in Europe, no agreed-upon testing methods are available for evaluating the ability of repellents to halt bed bug infestations, and no officially authorized bed bug repellents exist in the European Union.

Moreover, researchers from the German Environment Agency found that testing methods may vary depending on whether the bed bugs are foraging for food or looking for shelter. Anne Krüger, Ph.D., Erik Schmolz, Ph.D., and Arlette Vander Pan, Ph.D., entomologists at the agency, found that two test systems (one for harborage and the other a barrier test) showed significant variations in repellent effectiveness. Their work was published this month in the Journal of Economic Entomology.

Krüger, Schmolz, and Vander Pan

Left to right: Anne Krüger, Ph.D., Erik Schmolz, Ph.D., and Arlette Vander Pan, Ph.D.

In their study, the researchers looked at how test systems evaluated five types of repellents—cinnamon oil, DEET, icaridin, margosa extract, and permethrin. The first test system was based on bed bug harborage, looking at shelter-seeking behavior with untreated and repellent-treated harborages. In this test, two shelters made of filter papers lying on top of each other were placed in a crystallizing dish. The bed bugs were released in the middle of the dish and allowed to choose a harborage.

The second system was a barrier test, in which bed bugs were attracted by carbon dioxide and heat (simulating a possible blood meal) to walk across filter papers treated with the repellents. In this test, bed bugs were released in a clear acrylic cylinder out of a kitchen towel paper bag, acting as a harborage. The bugs could stay there or crawl to a metal container emitting heat and carbon dioxide. On the way, they had to cross filter paper treated with a repellent.

There were significant differences between harborage and barrier tests. Repellency overall was much lower in the barrier tests than the harborage tests, with the sole exception of DEET, which repelled 97 percent of bed bugs 24 hours after application. For the harborage tests, DEET and icaridin showed high repellency, and even cinnamon oil showed at least 99 percent repellency of bed bugs 24 hours after application.

The high repellency was cinnamon oil was a surprise, the researchers say. “We had tested cinnamon oil previously in experiments with different ant species, and it had remarkably high repellency levels. This was the reason for using cinnamon oil in the bed bug repellent experiments.”

Another surprise arose from the barrier test, “where significantly more females crossed the repellent than male bed bugs,” the researchers say. “Female bed bugs are supposed to be responsible for bed bug dispersal because they tend to hide in new harborages and leave shelters more often for host and harborage seeking. The higher tolerance against repellents shows that efficacy testing should be done with both sexes.”

Both testing systems were effective at evaluating repellents and underscore the need for accepted testing methods that could also determine repellent action against certain bed bug behaviors (like seeking shelter or food). “People tend to improvise with DIY methods to protect themselves against bed bugs,” say the researchers. “The authorization of repellent products (required in the European Market) can help to sort out inefficient or unsafe products. Recognized test methods give manufacturers safety that their tests will be taken into account in the authorization process. Such test methods are not only beneficial for authorities and manufacturers but also for consumers who can then rely on the efficaciousness of products they purchase and use.”

Journal of Economic EntomologyRead More

Methods for Testing Repellents Against Bed Bugs (Hemiptera: Cimicidae)

Journal of Economic Entomology


Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor, and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies, and nonprofits in the life sciences. He writes frequently about agriculture issues for the Genetic Literacy Project. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow him on Twitter at @AMPorterfield or visit his Facebook page.


  1. What is the most effective way to kill an or ward off bed bugs? Do regular insecticides like ant and Roach killer help in controlling and or killing bed bugs?

    • From my experience I just used rubbing alcohol in a spray bottle it killed them and I spray about 2 to 3 times a week and haven’t had a problem with them since and it’s been 7 months now

  2. No…It is a must that you use one of the following methods. You can go to Walmart and they have large containers of spray almost like what you would use in a garden. This is not a one and done. You need to continue to check the areas they would hide and spry vigorously. I have used bleach in areas which were possible. GOOD LUCK 👍

  3. I found that baking soda works well the cristal are sharp in the baking soda and stabbs them to death and when they eat the baking soda they explode like a fish that eats to much fish food

    • Hello, have you tried pure Neem Oil ?
      I have treated several travel routes with Neem Oil and they avoid the paths for many months. The oil seems to incapacitate them on contact. Trailing a large circle of Neem Oil around several BBs of varied instar levels causes them to run around testing the new barrier and then just stop and sit.

  4. We had our furniture stored in a storage building and now I think we have bed bugs. Is this possible to get them from storage

  5. I have had success w/high grade lavender oil and water, sprayed daily on every spot you have seen them, then working on all trail areas. I moved into an apt and the “brand new carpet,” was infested w/them. I coated the carpet in lavender oil spray (I found this in an old Farmers Almanac) then I have had the carpet steam cleaned twice. I also use the alcohol/water spray on all wooden, metal parts of furniture, highly effective. All leather and material surfaces get lavender oil. I will be getting cinnamon oil, that is a new one for me. I must use non lethal because of pets and grandchildren. All blankets, pillows, clothing that comes in contact with them are immediately washed in hot water, detergent, 2 cups of baking soda and lavender liquid fabric softener.

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