It took DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), the “atomic bomb of pesticides,” to reduce infestations in this country to a level that a couple of generations have grown up not quite knowing what “Don’t let the bed bugs bite” means.
But DDT was banned in 1972, and the primitive little insect species called cimex lectularius is surprisingly resistant to anything less lethal.
Bed bugs have been making a stealthy comeback ever since. In June, the National Pest Management Association reported a 71 percent increase in infestations since 2001. Denver is listed among the U.S. cities that have been most affected by the return of the pesky little bloodsuckers.
The resurgence was greatly helped by the insects’ habit of hitching a ride in travelers’ luggage and shipping cargo from abroad. They can live up to a year between meals, so the lack of dinner service in the meantime is no problem.
Because of these habits, hotels and stores have been the businesses especially hit hard. But the pests are turning up more frequently these days in residences, as well. In August 2009, the University of Colorado at Boulder spent about $50,000 on special heat radiation equipment to eradicate infestations in its campus housing (see story here).
Bed bugs are apple-seed size, wingless and brownish-red as well-fed adults. All they need is an inert warmblooded body and a few minutes of quiet feeding before they retreat to a sheltered area to rest and make more bed bugs. Hence their fondness for beds, and sometimes our sofas and sleeping bags.
You may never know what hit you until itchy red welts appear on your skin. By that time, the insects have been briskly reproducing on the premises. Females lay one to five smaller-than pinhead eggs daily.
Those eggs hatch in about 10 days.
Yes, bed bugs are in Boulder County. And, no, the public health department is not reacting the way it usually does to plagues of mosquitoes, fleas, ticks and similar biting pests. That’s because bed bugs are, by comparison, relatively benign little vampires.
“They’re definitely a nuisance, but we’re not keeping track of any reports of infestations,” says Marshall Lipps, environmental health specialist for Boulder County public health. “Bed bugs are not known to carry diseases. Even if someone developed an infection or had a mild allergic reaction, it would be a secondary effect from the scratching.”
Infestation has nothing to do with sanitation, although removing clutter helps greatly in reducing hiding places. Their detection is most obvious in your bed — not so much the unwelcome guests themselves but tiny spots of blood and insect poop. But don’t stop there.
Get a strong flashlight and inspect the mattress and foundation, particularly under the cloth covering on the bottom of the foundation, and wherever there are cracks and seams. Look behind the headboard (even if fastened to the wall), under the bed and at the flooring. Check behind pictures, books, light-switch covers and loose wallpaper. Take a good look throughout closets and into the holes that wires and pipes travel through. Scrutinize baseboards, moldings, furniture and appliances.
Don’t forget your pets’ bedding and hang-out places. Flea and tick collars, by the way, don’t work on bed bugs.
“Bed bugs are species-specific parasites,” says Nancy Bureau, associate veterinarian at Alpine Hospital for Animals in Boulder. “That means they prefer a particular blood temperature — human. But bed bugs will hide in animal bedding, and they’ll use animals to get around. They’ll bite dogs, cats and other warm-blooded animals if, say, you go on vacation and leave them behind. Or there’s so much competition that some of them have to turn to the animals.”
If you detect bugs on your pets, the pests can be removed with a flea comb and a flea bath product that is appropriate for the animal. Once you’ve confirmed the presence of bed bugs in your home or business, you’ll have to act fast. (Avoid any retail product that claims to be a bed-bug repellent or eradicator.)
Here are the steps recommended by the Boulder County Public Health Department and from a website recommended by Marshall Lipps called www.bedbugger.com.
If your mattress and box spring are worth saving, get mattress covers from a moving company and encase each for at least a year. Trapped insects will suffocate.
Dry clean or wash bedding and curtains in hot water with detergent and bleach. Dry in the sun or a hot dryer.
Wash clothing and other linens in hot water. Dry in the sun or a hot dryer.
If you’ve been traveling and not sure if you’ve brought back any unwelcome guests, wash all clothing immediately and put all the other travel items in a sealed trash bag.
In areas where you find or suspect bugs, get a stiff scrub brush to loosen any eggs from surfaces. Put a new bag in your vacuum cleaner and vacuum all areas thoroughly, especially where there are cracks, crevices, holes and loose wallpaper. Seal the vacuum bag in a plastic bag and put it in an outdoor trash can.
High heat treatment is very effective, but should only be done by a professional. You can easily set fire to your premises, otherwise.
Dry vapor steam cleaning will kill both bugs and eggs on contact, with less risk of encouraging mold growth. You can rent a steam-cleaning machine, but be sure to do the homework so you can do it safely and effectively. This method is especially recommended if you’re hiring a professional pest control operator to follow up.
Regardless of claims to the contrary, there are no effective “green” pesticides, and it will take at least a few hours for a licensed, bonded professional pest control operator to do the job.
The best way to keep bed bugs at bay is to be proactive. And if you’ve gone through the trouble of getting rid of them you’ll have to stay vigilant.
Caulk and seal around any holes where pipes and wire come through floors and walls. Fill the cracks around baseboards, molding, flooring, window frames, etc.
When traveling, take along a flashlight and a big trash bag. Once you get to your destination, put your luggage in the bag and set it farthest away from the bed while you check the room with the flashlight. If you see bugs, alert the management immediately and ask for a new room — and not next door. Check the new room, too.
Any clothing, linens or furnishings you purchase may be infested with bug eggs you might not see. If it can’t be put in a hot dryer as soon as you bring it home, don’t bring it inside until you’ve checked it thoroughly, vacuumed it and disinfected or steam cleaned it.