Don't let the bedbugs bite; The little suckers are back

Wayne White is a board certified entomologist who works for American Pest in Takoma Park, Md. He shows how to inspect a hotel room bed for bedbugs.
By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010; 11:59 AM

If evolution really worked in our favor, bedbugs would be as large as melons, with neon carapaces and a courteous deportment, announcing their presence every time a newcomer entered a hotel room. Alas, the vampirish insects are neither obvious nor polite: They're tiny and reddish-brown like freckles, and masters of subterfuge.

At hotels haut to low, exposure to the pests can be higher than at home, because of the rapid turnover of guests who act as a private bug delivery service. In addition, the guaranteed food source - see above - encourages the insects to stay. The bed bug-traveler cycle is endless. But it can be broken.

"People need to be proactive," said Joseph A. McInerney, president of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. "This is something that we're going to have to live with for a while."

After a dormant period following World War II, Cimex lectularius is back. In the 1990s, the insects started reemerging in overcrowded urban settings and of late have catapulted to star bugdom status, surfacing in hotels nationwide, in Manhattan retail stores, in Broadway theaters and in other environments that involve numerous people in a semi-somnolent state.

"They're all around," said Wayne White, a board-certified entomologist with American Pest in Takoma Park, who attributes the rise in bedbugs to the uptick in international travel and a shift in pesticide usage. "They're just finally showing up in places that are more public."

In the 2010 Comprehensive Global Bed Bug Study, conducted by the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky, 95 percent of the 1,000 participating pest-management pros said that they had encountered an infestation in the past year, up from 25 percent a decade ago. The experts reported the highest incidences in private residences, followed by hotels and motels, college dorms, various modes of transportation, laundry facilities and movie theaters. In late August, pest control company Terminix released a list of the 15 bedbuggiest cities in the United States. New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati and Chicago filled the top five spots; Washington ranked ninth.

"We have 3.5 million people in the United States staying in hotels every night, and the number of people bitten is minuscule," said McInerney. "But when it happens to you, it's a big deal."

To learn how to detect and repel bedbugs on the road, I met with White at the company's Takoma Park office, then later in a hotel room where he performed a live bedbug inspection.

At our initial meeting, we sat in a brightly lit room with vials of bedbugs representing the various stages of life, from the dots of eggs to the flat, apple seed-size adults.

White explained that the insects are nocturnal and typically cluster in dark, cave-like shelters, such as the seams of mattresses and the corners of headboards. They are drawn to the body heat, scent and carbon dioxide exhalation of animals and prefer crawling along humans' hairless surface to bushwhacking through fur. They work best in undisturbed areas, such as your bed in the middle of the night, when you are deep (read: immobile) in sleep. Able to crawl 14 inches in five minutes, the bugs will travel for food, crossing the room for a meal. For greater distances, they rely on hitchhiking in luggage, shipping containers and your child's Teddy bear.

"The more you travel," said White, "the higher the likelihood that you will bring them home."

To help you avoid unwanted souvenirs - red welts and/or six-legged stowaways - White laid out a multipart strategy that covers the before, during and after periods of your vacation. The battle against bedbugs starts now.

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