“Bedbugs are back, we like to say,” jokes Robert Gaul, longtime service manager with Craig Thomas Pest Control, which has offices in Dutchess, Ulster, Orange, Columbia, and Greene counties. But the bedbug epidemic is no laughing matter, as Gaul is quick to point out: “It’s the worst it’s ever been.” While you may think these nasty parasites — which feed on human blood and multiply rapidly — are only a problem for city folk, think again. “They’re major hitchhikers,” Gaul explains. “You just have to rub up against something and they’ll cling on. In New York City they were closing down all sorts of buildings — theaters, restaurants, department stores — because they were getting totally infested. And traveling is one of the big ways bedbugs get spread around; you have a lot of people going back and forth to the city these days.”
A bedbug measures only five millimeters when fully grown; it’s hard to believe something so small can cause such hysteria. But their rate of reproduction (one bedbug can lay hundreds of eggs per year) and appetite for blood make them a most undesirable house guest. Reports of infestations have risen sharply over the past 15 years, a serious disappointment to a generation of folks who thought they’d seen the last of these pesky insects. Thanks to the successful use of chemical pesticides like DDT, bedbugs were believed to be extinct in the United States by the 1980s. But as international travel increased — and environmental and health concerns encouraged the use of more gentle pest control methods — bedbugs snuck their way back onto the scene with a vengeance.
Photograph by Adam Cuerden/University of Edinburgh
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Like ticks, bedbugs feed on blood, although they detach after feeding and do not transmit diseases. “They used to be nocturnal, but not always now,” Gaul says. “They’ve been known to adjust to an office atmosphere and feed during the day.” How do you know if you have an infestation? “A dead giveaway,” says Gaul, “are tiny bites in a row.” Other signs are blood stains on, or peppery fecal matter accumulated in, the seams of the mattress. Be aware that in the bed is not the only place you’ll find these vicious louses; the “masters of hitchhiking” can make their home in your clothing, bags, sofas, on pets, or even in peeling wallpaper. “This year, our local bedbug work is up 600 percent compared to last year,” says Sarah Thomas, a spokesperson for Craig Thomas Pest Control. She mentions that Valley colleges, B&Bs, and spas are among the many places that have had bedbug problems. Gaul claims that his company has treated every type of facility — from hotels and camps to hospitals and movie theaters — for bedbugs, although most infestations are found in apartment buildings.
So what to do if you find yourself the unwitting host of a bedbug invasion? Don’t think that moving to the couch for a few nights will fix your problem. “It takes 12 to 18 months to starve a bedbug,” chuckles Gaul. “Moving won’t do anything, except maybe spread them.” He strongly recommends seeking professional assistance immediately: “I can guarantee that if you try to treat the problem yourself, it’ll get worse.” Treatment protocols vary depending on what stage the infestation is in; one of the first recommendations likely will be to leave the bedding alone, but wash and/or dry all clothing. “Heat is their worst enemy,” Gaul explains; many exterminators will use steam to treat the baseboard and moldings around the room. Interceptors may be placed around the legs of the bed frame, and the mattress covered with a heavy-duty cover. Exterminators now can even make use of bedbug-sniffing dogs — a great asset in apartment and office buildings — which help to pinpoint the source of an infestation for the most effective treatment.
Since prevention is the best medicine, Gaul offers these tips on how to minimize your risk of picking up bedbugs on vacation:
- Always look for bedbugs when you enter a hotel room. They’re beige, tiny, oval, and flat (although when engorged they are reddish-brown and about the size of an apple seed).
- Be sure to check under the mattress and the headboard.
- Never put your suitcase on the bed or the luggage rack, always place it on the floor.
- Don’t unpack your clothes, and keep your suitcase in a large plastic bag.
- Try to wash and dry everything at a laundromat before you head home. Then rewash once you return home to kill any potential stowaways.