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Fall 2010

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

December 14, 2010

Bedbugs: Abominable holiday hitchhikersSmall bedbug.

Before crawling into unfamiliar beds, seasonal travelers are wiser for knowing the habits of a resurgent pest

Bedbugs almost disappeared in the United States in the last half of the 20th century, with most of us knowing them only as dark characters from this bedtime rhyme: "Good night. Sleep tight. Don't let the bedbugs bite."

Easier said than done now that bedbug infestations are rising at an alarming rate. Some experts surmise that an increase in travel, lapsed public control programs and the bug's resistance to pesticides may be to blame.

These "human nest parasites" mostly stay hidden in cracks and crevices until the early morning hours, when they emerge to scurry over their hosts, stealthily piercing the skin with their long beaks to gorge on blood. Bites often appear as rows of red dots, which may swell into itchy dermatitis -- but some people never know they've been bitten.

People can pick up bedbugs while traveling, potentially introducing bugs into their homes. Bedbugs are notorious for crawling into luggage, clothing and books, where they'll hitch a ride to a new locale.

Bedbug complaints in the District of Columbia.
The bedbug life cycle.

Should you discover bedbugs in your home, "the first rule is don't overreact," says Eddie Connor, manager of Connor's Pest Control in Springfield. Two actions can further spread the bugs, he says: "Moving furniture to another room is a bad idea. That will only spread the problem." The other misstep: using bug bombs to try to kill the bugs. "Those can be dangerous and ineffective," Connor says. An Environmental Protection Agency Web page agrees: "Foggers and bug bombs do not control bedbugs."

Connor's solution is one that a growing number of pest-contol services are finding effective: dogs and heaters.

Highly trained canine search teams have proved to be 98 percent accurate in confirming and pinpointing the extent of an infestation. Connor uses small, energetic dogs that are able to navigate behind and under furniture. His company's beagle, Jack Russell terrier and puggle can each search as many as 130 rooms a day.

Once an infestation is mapped, rooms are vacuumed and the contents are arranged so that heaters boosting the room's temperature to about 134 degrees for three hours will penetrate bedbug hiding spots and kill the suckers.

The technique may work well for single-family homes, but apartments and hotels are more of a

challenge. Bedbugs use hollow walls and cracks in masonry as avenues to spread into other units.

In those instances, pest-contol experts recommend tandem treatments. Diatomaceous earth, a natural powder, is blown into wall spaces, where it can cause any bedbug that comes in contact with it to eventually dry out and perish.

While bedbugs aren't known to transmit disease, they can "affect the mental health of people living in infested homes," according to a joint statement this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the EPA. Reported effects "include anxiety, insomnia and skin problems that arise from profuse scratching."

Bug-avoidance tips for travelers

  • Inspect your room before settling in. Turn back the bedding to look for dark fecal spots left by bedbugs in mattress seams and behind the headboard.
  • If you see signs of an infestation, alert the management and ask to be moved to another room that isnt adjacent to the infestation.
  • Store your suitcase on the luggage rack, off the floor and away from the bed. Keep your belongings in your suitcase.
  • When returning home, leave luggage outside or in the garage. Remove clothing and wash and dry it in a hot dryer for 20 minutes.
  • ♦ If luggage must be brought inside, seal it in a heavy plastic bag.
A bedbug dog at work.

Sources: Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Urban Pests, Integrated Pest Management Practitioner, Medical and Veterinary Entomology, World Health Organization, Central Ohio Bed Bug Task Force, Journal of Economic Entomology, D.C. Department of Health