Biting back at bed bugs

The blood-sucking insects are making a comeback

The blood-sucking insects are making a comeback

April 20, 2009|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

David McMullan says he knows better than to enter a hotel room and drop his suitcase on the bed.

As the district manager for JC Ehrlich Pest Control for the Quad State region, McMullan is consciously aware that there might be some uninvited roommates waiting for him.

"I don't even take my luggage inside," he said. "I sit it outside and go inside the room to inspect it."

What McMullan is looking for are bed bugs, the blood-sucking insect that lately has been pushed back into the spotlight.

Bed bugs, he says, primarily hide in the headboard, the seams of the mattress and box springs. But the bugs can also hide under wallpaper seams, under torn carpet, behind pictures, dust ruffles, behind baseboards and other nook and crannies. Then they come out at night and feast on the warm body in the bed.


McMullan says as late as five years ago, he was rarely getting calls at his Hagerstown office about the bugs. But, he says, he's noticed that in the last couple of years the company has been getting more calls about them.

And McMullan isn't alone in noticing the increase.

In 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency classified the bed bug as a public health risk. Recent reports have said this is been the biggest increase of bed bugs since World War II.

The bed bugs have been such a cause of concern that the Environmental Protection Agency hosted its first-ever bed bug summit in Arlington, Va. According to the Associated Press, the summit had come about because of the rise in complaints to the city.

What is a bed bug?

Greg Paulson, chair of Shippensburg (Pa.) University's biology department, is an entomologist - a scientist who specializes in insects.

And working at a college, Paulson says he's had his share of calls, usually from off-campus students and landlords arguing over who could be blamed for the bed bugs.

Bed bugs, he says, are true bugs, in the same group of the stink bug and the boxelder bug. The bed bug, Paulson says, is reddish-brown in color, small and flat.

"I would say they're between the size of a tomato seed and apple seed," he says.

And although bed bugs are mostly known for their attachment to beds and box springs, Paulson says there are other types of bed bugs that feed on bats and birds.

That's why he believes the bed bug is a native to the United States. "I guess they've certainly been here as long as when the people came over on the Mayflower," he says. "I'm guessing Native Americans had bed bug problems, too."

Paulson says the young bugs look exactly like their adult counterpart, unlike a butterfly with a larvae stage.

What are the signs?

When traveling or out on a job, McMullan he says the first thing he does is pull back the sheets to look for the tell-tell blood stains, which are the bed bugs' fecal matter.

Paulson says sometimes when people see the blood they think they've cut themselves.

"The first thing they do is look for a scab," Paulson says.

Those bites usually are the first signs.

"Most people don't even notice they have bed bugs until they've been bitten," McMullan says.

The bites are small. Those who aren't allergic, Paulson says, usually believe it to be a flea or spider bite.

"The poor spiders always get blamed," Paulson says.

He says people who are allergic are the ones who really notice the bites because of the blistering. Paulson says the skin will actually form a blister between a dime and a quarter in size.

What can be done?

McMullan says the EPA stopped the use of many of the materials and chemicals used to get rid of bed bugs. Even as late as eight years ago, many of the chemicals used to treat mattresses and boxsprings have been pulled off the market.

And pesticides such as DDT, which was banned 1960s, Paulson says, helped to really eradicate the bed bug population.

"I think we had good control but over the last decade with pesticides being halted we've been seeing more bed bugs," he says.

The purpose of the EPA's bed bug summit was to discover safer ways for bed bug control, prevention and management. Those dealing with bed bugs were turning to the EPA to approve pesticides for emergency use.

McMullan says the first sign of a bed bug is when to call the experts in. He says if infestations aren't managed, the bed bugs are everywhere.

"After they have a blood meal, they go and lay eggs," he says.

In fact, he says, some bed bugs have been able to live up to six months to a year without a blood source.

At JC Ehrlich, McMullan says they have a three-part treatment. The first day is inspecting the infestation and also treating the room. Then they will return for two more times, looking to see if there are any more bed bugs and continuing treatment. Usually, by the third time the bugs have been booted from the bed.

McMullan says there are other methods such as steam and chronogenetic, both of which the Hagerstown branch company doesn't do.

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