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Bed Bugs Bring Some Good News

Monday, October 5, 2009

I bring good news about bedbugs, though come to think of it, the fact that there's any news at all about bedbugs is bad.

For 50 years or so, bedbugs laid low, which is not that difficult a feat when you're the size of an apple seed. Experts like Mark Sheperdigian assumed they had pretty much been eradicated.

Now bedbugs are back, which is definitely not the good news part. At Rose Pest Solutions in Troy, where Sheperdigian reigns as vice president for technical services, the number of bedbug jobs has risen from one or two in 2001 to about 160 last year, with continued rapid growth expected in 2008. Consider that one job might entail two weeks of trench warfare at an apartment complex, and we're talking some serious bug volume.

National organizations have tracked bedbug population growth at upwards of 500 percent. "New York is alive with bedbugs," says Sheperdigian, 49, sounding almost gleeful at the image. "Cincinnati is full of bedbugs. Las Vegas is just amazingly full of bedbugs." And these are not your grandpa's little pushover bedbugs, nosirree. These are the descendants of the survivors of the era of mass bedbug execution. These bedbugs think DDT is a recreational drug.

As you might guess, that's not the good news part, either. Nor is Sheperdigian's opinion of one of the trendy new methods of bedbug-whacking, an icy carbon dioxide spray that's supposed to freeze them in their creepy little tracks. He says it mostly blows them around.  The good news is that it doesn't hurt when a bedbug sucks your blood, though I can tell you it's kind of annoying when one poops on your hand.

Where they lurk

Also, bedbugs are not known to carry diseases. That's a plus. They lurk in the folds and seams of mattresses, other furniture and draperies, slip out before dawn and suck blood. It's not an exciting life, but it works for them.

Some people break out in little red welts after they're bitten. Some don't. Keep in mind that not every bug bite in bed comes from bedbugs, but if there's a row of bug bites, that's where a bedbug tour group stopped for lunch.

One theory says that bedbugs have reemerged because Americans are traveling more to countries where they never quite went away. The problem is, Sheperdigian says, his research shows we were traveling more in the '80s and '90s.  "This isn't a matter of reintroduction," he says. "There's something deeper happening that we don't understand."

Until we do, check your headboards and mattresses for skittery chestnut-brown insects, reddish blood spots or little pinpricks of waste matter. Don't pick up stray furniture from the curb. Inspect the bed, mattress, nightstand and curtains when you stay in a hotel, and keep your suitcase on a stand. If your bedroom turns out to be a bedbug haven, figure on $500 or more to get rid of them. Rose Pest Solutions uses a combination of vacuums, steam and insecticides. Others favor bedbug-sniffing dogs or the equivalent of gigantic hair dryers. None are foolproof. Add that to the not good news list.  Bites do not hurt Sheperdigian used to be that classic little kid crawling through the grass with a magnifying glass and a jar.

"You can collect insects and find rare ones in your backyard," he points out, "which you can't do with stamps." He went on to earn a degree in bugs from Michigan State, and he's been in urban pest management ever since.

On the table in a conference room, he has two prescription-sized vials holding bedbugs in various stages of development -- pearly white eggs, tiny blond babies, hungry adults. Reaching in with a pair of tweezers, he pulls out a healthy-looking female and places it on the back of my left hand.  It wanders around for a few seconds, then unfolds two hollow tubes from beneath the equivalent of its chin and taps the keg. An inch below my ring finger, it reddens as it dines. Almost flat when Sheperdigian turned it loose, its back begins to arch. Then its entire body elongates, a neat trick fueled entirely by my B-positive.

Lunch takes a surprising 10 full minutes. Maybe it's lingering as it reads some little bedbug magazine.

Eventually, it disengages, and Sheperdigian drops it back in its plastic tube. As a lovely parting gift, it  leaves two tiny samples of what you're supposed to pick up when you walk your dog. I am not injured, but I am insulted. I ask whether there are any natural bedbug predators I might unleash, sort of like little crawling hitmen.

There are. In the 1850s, sailors discovered a way to keep their ships bedbug-free. But he doesn't recommend it, he says, and his voice has that almost gleeful tone again.

The solution was cockroaches.

Neal Rubin

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