This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 3, 2010 - This summer, when Linda Morgan began waking up with strange bug bites on her arm, she didn’t know quite what to make of them. “I still have the scars,” said the 51-year-old Granite City resident. “They were incredibly itchy, 10 times worse than mosquito bites.”
Her downstairs neighbor was having the same problem and the apartment complex’s handyman put the two stories together. When exterminators arrived, they checked luggage the neighbor had used on a recent trip to New Orleans and found the cause: bedbugs – lots of them. The stowaways had accessed the upstairs by crawling through the walls. It was Morgan’s first – and she hopes last – exposure to the troublesome pests, which she had previously associated only with unclean environments.
“I thought they are dirty creatures but they are not,” she said. “You can stay at a five-star hotel that’s top-notch. It’s still going to have bedbugs if someone brings them in.”
“I hope you can educate a lot of people because I knew nothing about them,” she added.
Increasingly, people like Morgan are getting an education – frequently an unwelcome one – about these tiny creatures who are spreading across the nation at an alarming rate. Laymen aren’t the only ones being schooled on this once uncommon bug. Even professionals are getting a brush up about a pest once thought permanently relegated to ancient aphorisms about sleeping tight and not letting the bedbugs bite.
“A lot of younger entomologists have never even seen a bedbug,” said Robert Marquis, a professor of biology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “This recent upsurge is interesting because we don’t have them much in collections anymore. You don’t see living ones.”
That’s because, until recently, specimens were a rarity. The insects, only a few millimeters in length, are ectoparasites, organisms that feed externally on a host. Often they reside in mattresses, boxsprings, upholstered furnishings or other areas where they can gain access to their food source: humans. Venomless bloodsuckers, they survive by puncturing the skin of a sleeping victim and injecting an anticoagulant that allows the animal to feed.
Marquis said that they are thought by some to originally have favored bats but may have developed a taste for homo sapiens when our ancestors began living in caves for shelter. Bedbugs were a common irritant in the first half of the 20th century but were largely eliminated in the United States with the development of better pesticides such as DDT.
However, since the late 1990s, there has been an unexplained rebound in the insect’s population. Recent reports have estimated a five-fold increase in bedbugs nationwide.
“No one really knows what’s going on,” Marquis said. “They have a guess that perhaps they were brought to the U.S. from someplace else but they don’t know where because a lot of other countries have been good at controlling their own bedbug populations.”
One secret to the little critter’s success may be durability. The organisms are resistant to many forms of insecticide and Marquis said that some types can survive for as much as a year without a blood meal. A female bedbug lays three or four eggs in a day and perhaps hundreds over her lifetime.
Though it seems worse in larger cities, particularly New York, the problem is spreading fast. A study by the University of Kentucky and the National Pest Management Association reported that 95 percent of exterminators had seen at least one case of bedbug infestation in the past year. Those figures seem generally to reflect local trends.
“I’ve been pretty inundated with bedbugs for the last month,” said Rick Isenmann, owner of STL Pest Control.
The South County-based exterminator said he used to get about one call a week but recently that figure has jumped to 6-10. At first, it seemed centered on the central corridor of the county, particularly near Washington University. Now, however, he said calls can come from anywhere.
“The good news is that bedbugs don’t really harm you but they do mess with your head psychologically,” he said. “You’re afraid to fall asleep. It’s like your worst nightmare.”
Jason Everitt, technical director for Rottler Pest Control, said his company got its first bedbug call about four or five years ago from a homeowner who had picked them up traveling abroad. After that almost no activity was reported until about a year and a half ago. Then business started to pick up.
“We’re getting 30 to 50 calls a week right now,” he said. “We’ve got a bedbug treatment going almost every day.”
Everitt said the most vulnerable areas seem to be hotels and motels, where the tiny hitchhikers take advantage of the transient human population in the rooms. However, increasingly apartments, nursing homes and college dorms have become targets as well. The company is also seeing a growing number of residential infestations.
“In homes, it is a difficult task to get rid of them because there are so many areas where these things can hide,” said Everitt noting that he’s found the bugs in areas as exotic as the interiors of clock radios. “I think it’s a long-term problem. I don’t think this one is going away anytime soon.”
He advises travelers to examine beds and bed frames in hotel rooms before settling in and examine whether luggage may have been infested. At home, don’t ignore red, itchy bites, especially those in a line or cluster along the skin, and look for telltale blood stains on the sheets.
Contrary to popular belief, a bedbug problem is not an indication of an unsanitary home since the parasites are attracted to people, not food that has been left out.
Everitt said Rottler uses a large furnace to heat homes to 140 degrees Fahrenheit for several hours, similar to the method used in Morgan’s apartment. It’s a treatment that can run $1,500 to $4,000 dollars. Some exterminators, like Isenmann who charges about $250 to $1,000, employ chemicals instead.
Others have found truly original ways to inspect for the bugs. Marquis said that some are even using bedbug-sniffing dogs.
Not all exterminators have seen a jump in calls. Mark Soell of Rose Extermination in South County said that in his 40-year career he’s only done about four or five bedbug jobs. In the past two months, the figures haven’t changed much.
“There’s a lot of talk about them but we’ve only gotten one call,” he said.
Local officials also haven’t seen an epidemic. Craig LeFebvre, spokesman for the St. Louis County Health Department said that his office has had only four complaints from individuals at local lodging establishments in the past three months. The presence of bedbugs was confirmed in at least one instance.
“News reports have really focused on New York,” he said. “We have not seen that here.”
But LeFebvre noted that the health department doesn’t track bedbugs as a public safety issue since, unlike other biting insects such as mosquitoes, they are not carriers of disease. Neither business establishments nor individuals are required to report if an infestation is found.
“It doesn’t mean that there’s not more out there that we haven’t discovered and that people haven’t had mitigated,” he said. “It makes you wonder whether, with all the news stories, people know more to look for it.”
The website bedbugregistry.com lists 42 reports of bedbugs in the state but the incidents are user-generated and there is no way to verify whether a report is accurate or out-of-date.
Charles Prett, environmental supervisor for the St. Louis City Health Department, confirmed there are no regulations regarding bedbugs in the city. He said only about seven reports have come in during the past year and bedbugs were confirmed in only two cases.
Still, he said the city is considering the issue a priority and his department is working to educate on the best ways to combat the problem.
“The most misunderstood thing is that we can’t come out and cite somebody for them,” he said. “All we can really do is verbally advise and monitor.”
The Missouri Hotel and Lodging Association, a state group that promotes the lodging industry, did not return phone calls for this story as of press time.
David Baugher is a freelance writer.