New Tactics Take a Bite Out of Bedbugs

New Tactics Take a Bite Out of Bedbugs

by Sara Schaefer Muñoz
Source: The Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2008

New Tactics for Bed Bugs

Several years after Americans woke up to a bedbug problem, the pest-control industry is rolling out an arsenal of methods that promise an easy yet thorough assault on the bloodthirsty pests.

Bedbugs, which can be difficult to spot, are becoming even tougher to eradicate as they spread and their resistance to some pesticides grows. In response, pest-control companies are adopting new tactics.

Stern Environmental Group LLC, a Secaucus, N.J., company that serves the New York City area, recently started using a technology that sprays the bugs with icy carbon dioxide to kill them. ThermaPure Inc., of Ventura, Calif., uses devices similar to giant hair dryers to heat up a room and bake the bugs to death. Bedbugs & Beyond LLC in New York will remove people’s furniture from their homes and fumigate it with a poisonous gas. Another method uses specially trained dogs to track down tiny bedbugs and their eggs, helping exterminators target spraying. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Minnesota are studying bedbugs’ behavior in an attempt to develop a trap that simulates a typical victim — a sleeping human.

Professional treatments, including many of the conventional methods still being used, can start at about several hundred dollars and reach into the thousands.

A simple solution to rid a home of the common bedbug, or Cimex lectularius, has proven elusive since the brown, wingless creatures made a resurgence in the U.S. about five years ago. Both entomologists and the pest-control industry say they have seen a rise in infestations of homes and hotels; Steven Jacobs, an urban entomologist at Penn State University who identifies insects for homeowners and pesticide companies, says he now receives about 30 bedbug specimens a year, compared with almost none about five or six years ago.

Bedbugs are slightly smaller than an apple seed and hide in the folds and seams of mattresses and other furniture, emerging at night to feed on a warm-blooded host. Part of what makes bedbugs so tricky to eradicate is that the insects aren’t confined to the bed. They live in drapes, behind wall hangings, in the cracks of wall plaster — and even in light fixtures and electronics. Further complicating matters, a female can deposit the tiny eggs around a room. The bugs are transported from one location to another in luggage or clothing; pest experts say the bugs likely accompany travelers home from hotels or enter a house on secondhand furniture.

Entomologists say it is unclear why the pests have made a comeback, but theories include a more restrained use of other pesticides that in the past might have helped to nab bedbugs, and an upswing in international travel.

Bedbug bites can produce itching welts, but the bugs aren’t known to carry disease. Still, they can be quite a nuisance and take a powerful psychological toll. Some people don’t sleep well for months, worrying that every itch is a bug on them, and many feel ashamed to tell their relatives or neighbors about the problem.

Bedbugs typically have been treated with a class of chemicals known as pyrethroids. Yet entomologists who study bedbug control say the insects have developed some resistance to these chemicals. Other chemicals are more effective but can take longer to work. Mattress encasements may be successful in eliminating bugs — but only from the mattresses.

Companies pitching the latest eradication methods — such as heat or icy sprays — say they are more effective as well as more palatable for people worried about using pesticides. Yet entomologists caution there still are drawbacks: The cold spray might not reach every bug; dogs can miss hiding places high up in a room; and heating might cause bugs to flee to a cooler place in the home. Except for heating, the latest methods usually require the homeowner to go through the onerous process of clearing out rooms, drawers and closets, and washing or dry cleaning all clothing and linens.

“We don’t have any easy method of elimination,” says Michael Potter, a professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky who has observed an increase in bedbugs through his research and work with pest-control companies. “We are looking for the silver bullet.” While visiting her father’s home over Christmas, Chance Fechtor developed 40 bites on her body that doctors suspected were from bedbugs. Convinced she had brought the bugs home with her, Ms. Fechtor took apart her bed and went though her clothes looking for them. She even starting waking up in the middle of the night and donning a headlamp in hopes of nabbing them.

After doing some research, she came across Advanced K9 Detectives in Milford, Conn., which trains dogs to spot bedbugs. A dog found some bugs in the mattress, the carpet, a drawer and behind a radiator. The house was sprayed with pesticides, and Ms. Fechtor says her Boston-area home has since remained pest-free.

“It was very stressful,” she says. “The idea that there were I don’t how many bugs on me while I was sleeping completely grossed me out.”

Pest-control experts and researchers say dogs can indeed be helpful for finding bedbugs humans might miss or to confirm a treatment has gotten rid of all the bugs. Pepe Peruyero, who last year started training bedbug-sniffing dogs for pest control companies at his J & K Canine Academy in High Springs, Fla., says the cost can be about $200 an hour, depending on home size and travel time.

Another solution is killing the bugs and their eggs by heating a room to between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit for several hours. ThermaPure uses infrared heaters to uniformly heat the room, says President and Chief Executive David Hedman. Treatment costs between $500 and $1,000 per room. (Easily melted items like candles and lipstick must first be removed.)

At the opposite end of the temperature spectrum, Cryonite, made by CTS Technologies, a unit of Venteco PLC in London, aims to eradicate the bugs by dousing them with a snowy spray of carbon dioxide. A drawback: Some bugs can survive if they aren’t directly hit by the spray. Treatments cost between $600 to $700 per room, or as much as 50% more than a conventional chemical treatment, says Douglas Stern, managing partner of Stern Environmental, one of the companies using the method.

Meanwhile, desperate homeowners who don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars are taking matters into their own hands, putting sticky tape on or near their beds to snare the bugs, vacuuming compulsively or ordering do-it-yourself solutions online. Entomologists say tape and vacuuming aren’t likely to eliminate the bugs and over-the-counter products might kill only the bugs that people can see. “It’s getting the ones that are hiding that is the problem,” says Susan C. Jones, an associate professor of entomology at Ohio State University.

Write to Sara Schaefer Muñoz at sara.schaefer@wsj.com