Bed bugs make a comeback

Published 8:06 am Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The discovery of bed bugs in America has local bug control specialists and hotel managers scrambling to keep up with practices that will keep the bugs at bay — or eliminate them all together.

While bed bugs were largely erased from the United States in the 1950s, they have recently emerged in a big way, making their homes in hotels and apartment buildings across the country.

Last week, the pest control company Terminix listed New York, Philadelphia and Detroit as the three most-infested cities, based on call volume to its 350 service centers. Ohio had three cities in the top 10. But according to specialists, the problem hasn’t proven to only be limited to large cities.

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“We’re getting bed bug complaints from the urban areas, rural areas and anything in between,” said Jay Bruesch, technical director at Plunkett’s Pest Control in Minnesota. “They are found any place people travel and stay for a bit.”

With Austin hotels frequented by tourists passing through the area, the issue of bed bugs is on the mind of area managers.

“It’s always been a concern in the hotel industry,” said Scott Davy, general manager for Holiday Inn and Days Inn in Austin. “Hotels are really held helpless to the transportation of the bed bug — we just have to be proactive on a regular basis to preventetively maintain the beds in the rooms from bed bugs.”

Those measures include monthly spraying of all rooms in the hotels, Davy said, along with random inspections throughout the month.

So far, no spot checks or complaints have turned up bed bugs — something Davy has been thankful for.

“I’ve been here in Austin since October of ‘09 and we’ve not had any incidences here in Austin that we’ve been aware of,” he said.

Why the comeback?

Bed bugs weren’t all too uncommon in the United States until the mid 50s, when the problem was eliminated largely because pesticides that were once applied on a wholesale basis began to only be used when needed.

“Once pest control services didn’t consist of broadcast spraying anymore, bed bugs were able to survive,” Bruesch said.

That, along with increased travel between the United States and other countries that have bed bugs — including Europe — has resulted in the re-emergence of the bug.

As far as turning back to the old way of bed bug prevention, Bruesch said the world has changed in a way that no longer accepts widespread chemical use.

“We could never go back to the old way,” he said. “The old way was different. We welcomed pesticides, we welcomed their odor and didn’t mind when we applied them and they gave us a headache.”

With many now aware of possible side effects, Bruesch said the public is left and those in the bug business are left with few options.

“The new world is one that is pretty fearful of chemicals and would not accept the widespread use of pesticides,” he said. “They’re also not thrilled with the idea of going to bed with bed bugs.”

Though pest control services can eliminate the bugs, it will not eliminate the problem and probability of another case.

Experts say it is going to take a comprehensive public health campaign — public-service announcements, travel tips and perhaps even taxpayer-funded extermination programs for public housing — to reduce the bedbug problem.

Why the name?

The title of bed bug is derived from the insect’s Latin name, which is translated to bed bug in English.

Naturally, the name was given because of the bug’s tendency to make a home in the bed of humans. There’s a reason for that — they feed on the blood of warm blooded animals.

“They can only feed on our blood and they’re going to stay as close to that meal as they possibly can,” Bruesch said.

Bed bugs have been known to hide between mattresses, beneath the carpet or even behind picture frames on walls near beds, Bruesch said. In some cases, he said the bug will even travel some distance from the bed.

Bed bugs are known to catch rides on pretty much any thing — from luggage to clothing.

Are they harmful?

The good news, according to Bruesch, is that bed bugs do not carry disease. The danger of the bug could instead be seen in their bite, which often appears to be similar to that of a mosquito bite. For those who are allergic, the itchy welts left behind by a bed bug could be more severe.

Bruesch said the initial bite of the bed bug is painless and often goes unnoticed by the victim until the welt, accompanied with itching, appears.

Bruesch said that those who wake with the welts should be looking out for the bugs, but he also said that people should be aware that not all bites are from bed bugs.

“Not every bug is a bed bug, not every bite is a bed but bite,” he said. “Not every bump on your skin is a bed bug bite — there’s a good chance it’s a pimple, mosquito bite or blocked hair follicle.”

Though Bruesch encouraged people to be vigilant in the fight against the bed bug, he said people also need to understand that many things can lead to bumps under the skin.

Identifying the bug

Bed bugs are generally flat and range in colors from clear to dark brown, depending on age and whether or not they’ve recently feasted. Younger bugs are typically clear, unless they are full. Adult bugs are typically flat, oval-size bugs, which are generally smaller than wood ticks, according to the University of Minnesota Extension.

The Associated Press contributed to this report