Beating back bedbugs
They’re not just popping up and creeping us out in hotel rooms and clothing stores. Bedbugs also can ruin real-estate and rental deals. Here’s how to spot them — and to get rid of them.
They like you, a lot. In fact, they may even have been in bed with you last night.
They’re bedbugs. And they’re everywhere.
Consider New York City: In 2002, the city received no complaints about the little blood-sucking critters. Last year? Nearly 10,000 complaints.
Today, major cities around North America — Los Angeles, Toronto, San Francisco, Newark, N.J. — and worldwide all have problems. So, too, do smaller cities such as Cincinnati, as travelers bring the insects back home with them. They’re not just wreaking havoc on lives but affecting real-estate deals, too — not just renters but also buyers.
And they’re cropping up in less conventional places as well, “like clothing stores, like office buildings, banks, hospitals,” says Michael F. Potter, an entomologist and bedbug expert at the University of Kentucky.
Two Abercrombie & Fitch stores in Manhattan recently shut down briefly after bedbugs were found. In a recent survey by Potter’s university and the National Pest Management Association, 95% of 521 pest-control companies nationwide said they’d dealt with at least one bedbug infestation in the past year.
“So what?” you say. “Bedbugs are a problem for the poor, right?” Hardly.
“Bedbugs are nondiscriminatory. They don’t feed on filth,” Potter says. “You could check into a five-star hotel, you could live in a multimillion-dollar house, you could have your kids go to the finest universities, and you could still have bedbugs.”
Are you worried about things that bite in the night? Fear no more: We have all you need to know about bedbugs but were too skeeved out to ask.
Know the enemy
Bedbugs are small, reddish to mahogany-colored, flat-bodied bugs nearly the size of an apple seed. They eat blood — your blood and your pet’s blood. They hide during the day and feed on their sleeping host at night, leaving behind small, roundish, dark-red fecal stains or speckles (your digested blood). Females can lay up to 500 minuscule white eggs, in batches of up to 50 at a time.
What makes bedbugs particularly maddening is that they can go dormant and go without feeding for several months — adults have been known to go without feeding for 18 months — only to reappear later when there’s a warm body to feed upon.
Bedbugs like to live where they work; research reports that more than 85% of bugs are found on or near the bed, according to the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management program. But they also appear places where people lounge — upholstered sofas and chairs, for instance.
If you are bitten at night, you know you have bedbugs, right? Not so fast: A bedbug bite leaves a red mark that’s hard to distinguish from other bites, such as mosquito bites. And research by the University of Kentucky has shown that nearly 30% of people don’t react to the bites at all. That means people often don’t know they have an infestation until it has exploded enough to be obvious — and has spread far beyond the bed.
“They can be in virtually anything — we get them in the pages and bindings of books. We’ve found them in the head of an adjustable wrench,” says Richard Cooper, technical director of Cooper Pest Solutions in Lawrenceville, N.J., and co-author of “Bed Bug Handbook: The Complete Guide to Bed Bugs and Their Control.”
Cooper says his crews even have found them inside coffee makers and sticks of deodorant.
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“The key is early detection and awareness,” says Cooper, who also helps author the website BedBugCentral. If you find an infestation, let’s say within a few weeks or a month of the bugs entering the apartment, you have a good chance of stopping them with relatively straightforward measures.
Sussing out an apartment or home
How do you know if an apartment you’re thinking of renting, or a home for sale, has had bedbugs?
The quick answer: It’s not easy.
“It’s actually kind of difficult if you’re inspecting a vacated dwelling” because the insect can go dormant, Cooper says. The insects could hide under floorboards or behind walls — places not easy to access.
Potter has some advice, though.
“If you see evidence of speckling toward the top (of the wall) where the wall meets the ceiling or the upper corners of the room, that means you had big problems before you arrived there,” he says. “With bad problems, you’ll sometimes see (speckling) around or behind electrical face plates.”
Also, look for evidence of bedbugs around edges where carpets have been. Don’t assume that just because any bedbug-infested furniture is gone, the bugs are gone, too: “What happens with a vacant unit is that a lot of the bugs get taken out with the furniture, but if it’s a significant problem, not all of them do,” Potter says. (If the apartment is furnished, see below for how to check.)
It’s not unheard of for bedbugs to scuttle a real-estate deal. In Chicago, condo owners sued a property-management company, saying the company should have told them there was an infestation in the building before they bought their units. The condo owners won, says Christian Hardigree, an attorney and chairman of the department of hotel management at the William S. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who speaks often about the legal aspects of bedbug infestations.
Know your rights going into any lease or deal; the law around bedbugs is changing quickly, Hardigree says. In New York, for instance, Gov. David Paterson is expected to sign a law that would require New York City landlords to tell prospective tenants whether any units in an apartment building they are considering had been infested within the previous year.
Keeping them out: Coming home
Let’s say you’ve just come home from a work trip and you suspect your hotel had bedbugs, which is how the critters often make it home. What should you do?
- Strip down. As soon as possible — such as when you’re just inside the house — take off the suspect clothes and empty your clothes and luggage into plastic garbage bags. Seal them.
- Dry it. “If you want to wash the stuff, that’s fine, but the heat from a clothes dryer will kill them,” Potter says. Potter has done tests: As little as 10 minutes on high heat “will kill everything.” Backpacks, shoes, sneakers — “all that stuff can go in there.” Even most “dry clean only” clothing can be put in a clothes dryer on a low to moderate setting with no harmful effects, as long as it’s dry, he says.
- Cook your luggage. Bedbugs can hitch a ride in your suitcase, too. Here’s how Potter would get rid of them: During the summer, “I would open it up and just leave it inside my closed vehicle for a day. The temperatures inside can get up to 150 [degrees], 160 degrees in there.” That’s enough to kill them. Does opening your suitcase in your car make you nervous? Here’s an alternative: Wrap your suitcase loosely in polyethylene sheeting and leave it in direct sunlight on your driveway on a day when temperatures are in the 80s or 90s. That, too, should cook the critters. “It’s not 100% guaranteed perfect, but it’s what I would do,” Potter says. Another option: If you travel a lot, consider investing in PackTite’s portable heating unit, which warms its contents — clothes, small travel bags, whatever — to a temperature that kills bedbugs. The device can also be useful to rid other items in the house of bugs.