It's not an event you would expect to sell out. But it did — in a matter of days. Today, the first annual North American Bedbug Summit begins in a Chicago suburb. Hundreds of bug experts, vendors, exterminators, and scientists will gather under one roof in an attempt to combat the growing scourge of bedbugs. Joining them will be some of the hardest-hit — including college and university dormitories, military housing, shelters and group homes.
"This summit really represents access to the best information available on bedbugs," said Phillip Cooper, president of BedBug Central.
The two day conference includes seminars on detection devices and techniques and fumigation.
"Bedbugs hide very well, so a lot of times you can't get pesticides to these bugs because they're in areas you can't access and that's why it's such a difficult thing to control," said Jeffrey White, an entomologist specializing in bedbugs.
Vendors will also display some of the newest products to combat these pesky insects — including an in-home device that can super-heat your suitcase after trips, killing bedbugs and their eggs.
Adam Greenberg's company, USBedBugs.com, will show off a number of products including the Bug Zip — a plastic bag that zips over your suitcase to prevent insect invaders from getting in.
Another product, the BB Alert Passive Monitor, is essentially a bedbug hotel. You place the box near your headboard, and if you notice black spots on the box, it means bedbugs have moved in.
"It is kind of icky, but you find out early you have bedbugs, and can call a professional," he said. "It's better to know sooner rather than later."
There are also dissolvable laundry bags. Travelers can put their pajamas or other clothing inside the bag, seal it in the hotel room, and then drop it into the washing machine when they get home. The bag dissolves in the wash cycle, while the hot water kills any insect "stowaways."
The National Pest Management Association estimates the number of bedbug complaints have soared 500 percent over the past five years.
Federal agencies don't track bedbug complaints because the insects aren't known to transmit disease, and are not considered a public health risk. But the insects inflict irritating bites, and are hard to get rid of. What's more, there's the social stigma of an infestation.
In Chicago, bedbug complaints increased 75 percent over the past year.
New York City registered nearly 11-thousand bedbug complaints last year alone.
The bloodsucking insects have forced residents from their apartments in Lexington, Kentucky, and Fort Worth, Texas spent half a million dollars trying to rid housing authority apartments of the pests.
And bedbugs don't confine their bloodsucking activities to beds. These creepy critters have invaded movie theaters and retail stores — including NikeTown's flagship store in New York City, and chain stores Victoria's Secret, Hollister, and Abercrombie and Fitch, which had to close two of its locations to exterminate.
Exterminators can cost homeowners anywhere from $800 to $1,200 — a cost many insurance companies won't reimburse — and there are no guarantees the insects won't return. For businesses, the cost is even higher.
Entomologist White estimated the cost of bringing in bedbug-sniffing dogs.
"For a 12 theater metroplex, you could be looking at $2-4,000 or more every time they inspect it," he said. "That's just inspecting. That's not even treating."
The problem has become so pervasive, and so expensive, that at least five states have called on the Department of Defense for money to eradicate these pests. The state of Ohio was so desperate that it asked the Environmental Protection Agency to use a banned chemical to fight the bugs. The EPA said no.
Bedbugs were all but eradicated at the end of World War II — mostly due to the use of cheap, powerful chemicals like DDT. Those chemicals have since been banned because of toxic side effects — allowing bedbugs to make an explosive resurgence. Newer strains are resistant to some pesticides. The tiny bloodsuckers that burrow into mattresses and upholstery can live without feeding for up to a year, and females lay up to five eggs every day.
"There's something creepy about a bug that infests your house it gets in your bed and it comes out to feed on you at night while you're sleeping in your bed, which is your sanctuary," said White.
He and other experts say the best way to protect yourself and your home is to avoid secondhand upholstered furniture, and to know how to inspect your home and hotel rooms.
The areas that bedbugs commonly infest are the bottom of a bed's box springs and the back of the headboard. The best prevention, experts say, is to make sure the bugs never get a chance to hitch a ride into your home. Scientists are working on more effective chemicals and extermination techniques, but there is no "silver bullet."
"The bottom line is that bedbugs are here to stay, White said. "It's not a pretty picture, but that's the bottom line."