Bedbugs: The Real Story

By now most people have read or heard about the Bedbugs in New York City and most other major cities. Almost every day there is a story on the news or on the web in which Bedbugs were found, reported, causing havoc, panic or prompting lawsuits. Most recently, a Michigan family filed suit against the Waldorf-Astoria because they claim their room was infested with Bedbugs. So what is the real story with all of the cases of Bedbugs? Why all of a sudden

The answer is not simple and not all of a sudden. Let us start at the beginning. Bedbugs have been a parasite of man since man first slept in caves. It is believed that when humans began to inhabit caves, Bat bugs began to feed upon them. Over time a separate species developed into what we now know as the common Bedbug, Cimex lectularis. After WWII, Bedbugs were virtually eliminated due largely in part to pesticides such as DDT (now banned but some professionals are calling for its return). There was a spike in infestations after both The Korean War and The Vietnam War but those were also knocked out quickly. Then during the late 1990’s Bedbugs began to return to the US. When infestations were first reported, many pest management professionals did not know how to treat them and there weren’t many products available for use against Bedbugs. Many of the resource materials available to the pest management industry were written during the 1940’s and 1950’s and mentioned products that were since banned and methods that could no longer be practiced. One such method involved using bowls filled with turpentine and placed under the legs of the bed to trap and kill Bedbugs (I of course do not suggest this method). Pest management professionals used what was available and hopefully there were veterans of the industry on staff in which they could ask for advice on how to treat them.

Many of the reports of Bedbugs in the 1990’s came from hotels around the airports on the east and west coast, mainly NYC and California. Slowly over the years, these infestations started to spread to the outlying suburbs. The stigma attached with Bedbugs kept people from talking about them so the masses where largely unaware. Meanwhile, chemical manufacturers began to add Bedbugs to the labels of existing products and developed new products which can take years to hit the market, primarily for Bedbug control. During the late 1990’s and early 2000, only handfuls of pest control companies were routinely coming in contact with Bedbug infestations but they were happening. Bedbugs were quietly thriving and spreading and the pest control industry struggled to eliminate them and develop more effective products and strategies.

This past summer, Bedbugs hit the main stream. Infestations in various retail locations and movie theaters in NYC caught the eye of the media. Once this happened, it became a national concern. Much of the general public was unaware that Bedbugs even existed, thinking they were fictional creatures mentioned only in a rhyme. Immediately calls to professional pest control companies increased and the business end of it went into effect. Bedbug control is big business because they are not easy to eliminate and there is a lot of labor and/or special equipment involved. Although many infestations are visually identified (live Bedbugs or signs of their presence were observed), many cases of “Bedbugs” are due to the concern or panic of having a possible Bedbug infestation. Any unexplained red mark, bump, welt or irritation is being attributed to Bedbugs and people demand treatment. Some nervous homeowners will not take a chance and having the home treated provides peace of mind while commercial establishments and apartment buildings cannot afford any negative attention so they request treatment just to show they are taking the concern seriously. Unfortunately due to the money making potential (an average Bedbug treatment to a single-family home can cost as little as $300.00 and $1000’s for alternative treatments such as extreme heat) many questionable professionals have emerged, even entirely new businesses. Until recently, there were many pest control companies that did not perform Bedbug control services but the possible financial gain has changed that.

Bedbugs are difficult to control and the treatment usually requires a lot of preparation by the homeowner prior to the service visit. The professional must be extremely thorough, treating every possible nook and cranny throughout the bedroom. These areas include: the mattress and box spring, bed frame, headboard, night stand, dressers, closets, outlets and light switches, baseboards, behind pictures, etc. It is a time consuming process and depending on the treatment technique, may consist of multiple treatments over a few weeks. The pest control provider may employ chemical applications, extreme heat, extreme cold, HEPA vacuums, portable steamers and/or any combination thereof. When the treatment requires a lot of manpower and/or special equipment, the cost most certainly rises.

Since the start of the Bedbug craze this summer, Bedbug detection using dogs is as business growing by leaps and bounds. Dogs have been used in the pest control industry for years, sniffing out termites in the southern states, so why not train them to sniff for Bedbugs? Although it is widely recognized that dogs can and do find Bedbugs, they are not always accurate and only as reliable as the person handling the dog. A recent NY Times article called into question the practice of using Bedbug sniffing dogs. As with any business or industry, there are always questionable people and practices. Performing research before you make your purchase is just as important with Bedbug control as it is with anything else. Ask for references pertaining to both the dog’s work and the treatment. You may not be able to get references as many people/businesses do not want it known that they may have or had Bedbugs but ask anyway.

Bedbugs are a real concern and everyone is at risk of infestation however the problem may not be to the extent publicly portrayed. Many reported cases of Bedbugs are spurred on by fear or unexplained itching. Even though Bedbugs or signs of their presence may not have been observed by the professional, many people want treatment for the “peace of mind factor” or for good public relations. Does this make the treating company unethical? Is it any different when a retail location has the establishment treated for Bedbugs when a customer reported a possible Bedbug was seen versus when a retail location treats for mice when the same customer reports that a mouse ran across their feet? Probably not but Bedbugs bring on a higher level of the primal fear people have in general with insects/pests. Bedbugs feed upon humans, hide in our beds and aren’t often seen by their victims but are not known to transmit the diseases may other insects/pests transmit. Bedbugs are technically a nuisance pest but many experience fear and anxiety at the very mention. Be sure to educate yourself and take some preventative measures if you are concerned. Install Bedbug-proof mattress/box spring encasements and Bedbug monitors. These measures combined with cultural practices are the best you can do.