Bed Bugs Gone Wild
An earlier version of this story misstated Meg Kane's affiliation with the National Pest Management Association. She is a media assistant who provides information about the organization.
Bedbug researcher Gail Getty is getting a lot of calls these days, courtesy of a resurgence of the tiny pests that were once limited mostly to the childhood bedtime rhyme.
Concerned landlords, travelers and pest-control companies contact Getty, of Lake Arrowhead, for the best way to deal with infestations, which have been on the rise for almost a decade.
With the biggest outbreak since World War II, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called the first-ever bedbug summit in Virginia this week to brainstorm ideas for getting rid of them. The turnout was so much larger than expected the government agency had to change locations to accommodate about 300 professionals
"There's no city that doesn't have them. There are no geographical boundaries," said Getty, an entomology professor at UC Berkeley who is often called on as an expert witness in civil court cases involving bedbugs.
Getty never sets her suitcase down inside a hotel room until she has scoured for the reddish brown bugs that are smaller than a popcorn kernel. They commonly hide in the seams of mattresses, but she's also found them inside TV remotes and coffee makers, under lamps and in the binding of a hotel room Bible. When she finds them, she requests another room.
They often emerge in the early morning hours to feed on human blood. Sometimes people don't know they've been bitten, but others have an allergic reaction that causes swelling, redness and itching.
The good news is, the pests don't transmit disease, said Alec Gerry, a UC Riverside entomologist.
"They are strictly a nuisance," he said. "And it definitely has the 'ick' factor."
Experts blame the resurgence of Cimex lectularius Linnaeus on increased world travel and the use of less powerful pesticides since the insecticide DDT was banned in the 1960s. Some of the bugs also may have developed a resistance to pesticides.
Used furniture can also transport the bugs, and that may be happening more with the housing and economic crises, he said.
Suggestions at the EPA summit included approval of some pesticides for emergency use and federal funding for research into alternative treatments such as heat, cold and steam.
Bedbugs are not discriminating. They are as likely to be in swanky hotels as they are more low-budget lodgings, office buildings and airplanes. Increasingly though, the bugs are migrating to homes, apartments and condos in alarming numbers, experts said.
"Typically we have two to four calls a year. Since the first of the year we've had 10. Not a ton, but progressively increasing" and in private residences, said Terri Williams, a program manager for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. "We anticipate seeing more."
Late last year, the county's vector control officials were surprised to find active infestations in 18 condominiums in a north San Bernardino complex. Treatment took four months, including repeated exterminations and follow-ups with tenants who moved to make sure they didn't take the bugs with them to their new homes.
According to a survey by the National Pest Management Association, bedbug calls jumped 71 percent between 2000 and 2005, and the trend continues. Exterminators who received one to two calls a year are getting that, or more, in a week.
Bedbugs are hard to nab because they can travel through wall voids and electrical outlets to move between rooms. They can live up to a year without a meal, surviving in pipes, vacuum cleaners and in luggage. Their presence has nothing to do with cleanliness, or lack of.