By Harry Case
In my job as a sales and marketing manager and as a licensed pest control technician and field representative, one of the functions I perform is researching pest related news around the USA. I spend a large number of hours on this research, so I have a pretty good handle on which pests are making news and which ones are of concern to people. The number one pest, as counted by the news articles I’ve seen, is the common bed bug, Cimex, lectarius. These unsavory creatures have, to date, not been proven to transmit disease from one person to another, but they do spread fear, embarrassment, discomfort and misery.
By the early 1950′s bed bugs were nearly eliminated from the North American continent as a result of the widespread use of DDT. Their numbers were so decimated that generations raised after that time thought they were a myth, perpetuated in a nursery rhyme. Unfortunately, bed bugs are very real. The banning of DDT and the marked increase in international travel, have rapidly given us a resurgence of these nasty pests. Their increase started slowly at first, sort of like the front side of a bell curve, but then accelerated and intensified. We now appear to be on the steep and rapidly rising back side of the curve, with no idea of when the population will peak or when the curve will flatten out. The number and variety of places they now infest is quite astonishing! First re-discovered just a few years ago, in US hotels and motels, they now infest apartments, homes, movie theaters, hospitals, retail clothing outlets and offices, as well as public and university libraries. They can be picked up in taxicabs, busses, trains and aircraft. They’re even on cruise ships! They will eventually be found anywhere humans are.
The current curative measures work fairly well in eliminating these pests but they are time consuming, labor intensive and expensive. A typical control program for a home under 2,000 square feet treatment can involve multiple visits by technicians and cost $600 to $1,000 to treat. That’s if the infestation is mild to moderate. Heavy infestations can be more involved with a much higher price tag. When conventional means are used, effective treatment requires taking apart beds and furniture for treatment of all surfaces when possible, removing belongings from the structure for fumigation, dry cleaning of draperies, cloth wall hangngs and clothing that cannot be laundered or hot laundering and drying of washable clothes. Carpet edges must often be lifted and treated underneath. Wall voids should also be treated in areas around the bed or bedroom. In many cases articles such as upholstered furniture, mattresses, electronics and the like cannot be treated sufficiently and must be replaced altogether. Mattresses cannot generally be treated but there are mattress and box spring encasements available on the market that are bed bug resistant and do a good job of keeping any bugs confined inside until they starve to death. There are also some encasements available for sofas and some other upholstered furniture. Some populations of bed bugs are becoming pesticide resistant. Fortunately, alternative measures are available. When practical, smaller spaces, such as apartments or student dorms can be heat treated with most belongings still inside, but this is a costly process. At times entire structures must be fumigated a time tested and effective, but expensive method.
It seems obvious that, in the case of bed bugs, the proverbial ounce of prevention may be worth 5 pounds of cure. Preventing a bedbug infestation in your home requires vigilance on your part. You can’t depend on anyone else. If you rent, your landlord will not be able to protect you. He or she cannot determine where you travel, what you bring back from those travels, who visits your home or what they might bring into your home. Although some state or local regulations may, I think unfairly, require that landlords are responsible to pay for treatment, they are not required to replace your non-treatable belongings or furniture and you may end up paying large sums of money for new items. You are the only one with any chance at preventing an infestation in your home. Measures you can take are as follows: If you go to a hotel place your luggage on the luggage rack, not the floor or the bed. Bed bugs don’t do well trying to scale the rack’s metal legs. Before you unpack check the room. Pull back the sheets and check the mattress for bed bugs or any brown or black spots that might be bed bug feces. Look for molted skins. Check areas around the bed, behind the headboard, the drawers of the night stand and other furniture. Look under the bed. Think like a bed bug. What tight little places are there where they would be likely to hide. If you see any signs of bed bugs take yourself and your luggage out of the room, notify the management and insist on another room. Check that room out as well. Something you can do prior to booking a hotel is look up one of the online bed bug registries for that locale. If there are reports of activity in that hotel select another one. When you get home from travelling, re-check your luggage before you enter your home. Be sure there are no bed bugs before you bring it in. Be careful of who comes in to your home to visit. Bed bugs can be carried in on clothing or other belongings, from and infested home. There are other measures you can take but I won’t go into them here. For more information I suggest going to the UC Berkely website and looking up articles by entomologist Gail Getty.
All of these methods are effective in treating an identified infestation and hopefully preventing some infestations, but do nothing to provide a long term solution. As the numbers of bed bugs and the places they infest grows, so will the difficulty and complexity of prevention by current means. It seems reasonable to me that a better solution is needed. We need a broad and far reaching approach aimed at more easily destroying and preventing these pests from spreading. I certainly don’t advocate bringing back DDT but, perhaps, something with a similar effect on these bugs, without the risks or environmental effects that DDT had. May be an effective, long-lasting, Cimex specific, insect growth regulator could be the solution. Perhaps we can look at natural bed bug pathogens or parasites. If things get bad enough we may have to resort to chemical means. It seems obvious to me that, if we don’t develop a powerful method for control and prevention, we will end up with bed bugs and the chronic suffering that they bring, as part of normal life. I, for one, see that outcome as unacceptable.