The Brutal Business of Battling Bedbugs

bedbug exterminator
bedbug exterminator

Over the past summer, America has been gripped by bedbug fever -- and not in a good way. The minuscule pests have gotten out of control: In New York, they forced the closure of several high-end retailers, bedeviled Bill Clinton's Harlem headquarters, and were recently discovered in Google's offices.

While New York is officially the most bedbug-ridden city in the country, the nocturnal bloodsuckers have become a problem across the country, as the emergence of pesticide-resistant strains of the bugs have made them harder and harder to fight. In 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared them a public health pest and, in 2009, it held a national summit to work on the problem.

A vast industry has sprouted up to fight infestation: from bug-sniffing dogs (particularly Beagles) to portable fabric steamers to undercover exterminators, the front lines of the bedbug battle are jammed with all manner of measures, including pricey and high- and low-tech options. Prevention, meanwhile, is the most effective form of bedbug treatment -- and it's largely an open market. Currently, there's one proven method for preventing an infestation: mattress encasements. Priced between $75 and $180, a well-made cloth encasement ensures that bedbugs inside a mattress or box spring cannot come out to bite. And, if new bedbugs come into the home, encasements make it much harder for them to hide.

Part of the reason for the general lack of bedbug prevention services is that preparation for the little monsters is not easily packaged, marketed or sold: It requires significant lifestyle changes and a great deal of thought. Barring the unlikely development of new pesticides or an EPA decision to permit the use of banned chemicals, bedbugs are here to stay, which means that fighting them will either require a bottomless wallet or a vastly different perspective about cleanliness and prevention.

Eternal Vigilance: The Price of Freedom(from Bedbugs)

Mattress enclosures are helpful for protecting against bedbugs, but careful, constant observation is the greatest weapon in the bedbug arsenal. The best way to save money on cleanup and extermination is by watching carefully for signs of the bloodsuckers and responding quickly when they show up.

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There are two useful early warning signs of a bedbug problem: bites and blood spots. Unfortunately, while itchy bug bites may draw attention to the problem, they aren't the best indicator. To begin with, between 30% and 50% of people aren't allergic to bedbug bites, and they often remain blissfully unaware that they've even been bitten. Of the remaining 50% to 70%, most will only show small welts that are indistinguishable from mosquito bites. In fact, the main difference between mosquito and bedbug bites is that the little redcoats often leave a line of two or three bites -- a formation that some experts refer to as "breakfast, lunch and dinner."

An even better indication that the critters have arrived is brown or black spots on bedding. Bedbugs often defecate while eating, leaving behind smears of partially digested blood. Later, when they return to their lairs, they excrete even more, depositing telltale collections of dark spots. If either dark spots or the three-bite formation show up, chances are good that bedbugs are nearby.

Why Baby Bedbugs Turn Red

Dealing with bedbugs requires "integrated pest management," a mix of techniques that attack the tiny bloodsuckers on a variety of fronts. In addition to killing the bugs that have already taken over an area, it's important to protect against future infestations. This involves completely and thoroughly cleaning the infected space, as well as making changes to reduce the chance of future visits.

After finding bites or blood spots, the next step is to find the culprits. Unfortunately, bedbugs are extremely hard to detect. Fully grown specimens are about the same size as an apple seed and have a dark brown color. Younger bugs, or nymphs, are almost transparent, except when they are feeding -- the victim's blood can be seen through their skin, giving them a translucent red appearance.

Bedbugs cluster in dark, confined spaces. According to Mike Simpson, director of marketing for mattress enclosure manufacturer Protect-a-Bed, a University of Kentucky study found that 65% of bedbugs live in or around the bed. They often hide in the seams of a mattress, around the edge piping, or in the box spring. Susan Jones, an associate professor of entomology at Ohio State University, notes that they can move in behind baseboards or picture frames, in electrical sockets or in furniture. To clear them out, it's vital to search -- and vacuum -- every nook and cranny of the home.

Bedbugs also love to hide in clothing. In order to protect against an infestation, it's important to clean and -- most crucially -- dry every garment that could be infected. Clothes need to be left in the dryer for at least a half hour at the highest possible temperature; afterward, they should be sealed in plastic containers until the entire living space is clean, as they can be easily re-infested.

Sucking Up the Suckers

Another problem is bedbug eggs. Even after all bedbugs are cleared out of a home, any eggs that are left behind can quickly mature, leading to a fast re-infestation. Unfortunately, getting rid of eggs is complicated: they are tiny -- about the size of a speck of dust -- and light colored. Also, as Jones notes, they have "a sticky coating that glues them in place." Removing them requires a stiff-brush or vacuum attachment and a lot of scrubbing.

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Bedbugs can also live inside vacuum cleaner bags, hoses and attachments, re-infesting a home even after they are cleared out. To protect against survivors, Jones suggests vacuuming up a half cup of corn starch or talc: the atomized powder will asphyxiate any hangers-on. Afterward, to insure against re-infestation, it's important to quickly and thoroughly dispose of any vacuum bags by sealing them in a plastic bag and immediately dumping them in trash receptacles that are located outside the home.

Jones highlights the importance of cleanliness for fighting bedbugs, noting that "You can be the best housekeeper in the world and get bedbugs, but if you're not a good housekeeper, you'll keep bedbugs." The filthy suckers love to hide in piles of clothing, dirty laundry, old newspapers, or other clutter.

Jones notes that dumpster diving, thrift-store shopping, and buying things from eBay are all potentially dangerous invitations to an infestation. Before bringing used items into a home, it's important to make sure that they are clean.

Making the Problem Worse

Some companies have used the bedbug epidemic as a way to make a quick buck. Jones notes that many "natural" pest-fighting alternatives have questionable value. For example, diatomaceous earth, a popular nonpoisonous insect killer, may take weeks to work, while lavender- and cedar-based bug killers are unproven. At best, she argues, they are "a Band-Aid on a gaping wound." At worst, they are completely useless.

Even worse, some companies are offering products that will actually make bedbug issues worse. For example, foggers or bug bombs -- common tools in the insect-fighting arsenal -- can turn a small bedbug problem into a major infestation. Jones warns that, while these insecticides may kill a few bedbugs, they will encourage most of the bugs to scatter to other areas. Instead of being limited to the bedroom, the bugs will spread all over the house, making the problem bigger -- and harder to control.

With EPA bans on most types of insecticide and bedbugs rapidly becoming immune to the remaining poisons, it seems likely that the evil little bloodsuckers are here to stay. While exterminators and scientists may develop new treatments to fight them, chances are good that -- like our ancestors -- we will need to learn how to live with the occasional bedbug bite. In the meantime, with vigilance and a few lifestyle changes, we can make it much harder for bedbugs to get a (super small) toehold in our homes.