The Big Business of Battling Bedbugs

Bug Infestations Mean Big Bucks For Some

August 25, 2010, 10:55 AM

Aug. 25, 2010— -- In what some call America's most bedbug-infested city, a man named Frank reluctantly discussed the high cost of his bloodsucking guests.

"I had a bedbug-sniffing dog come out and then exterminator treatment," he said. "I spent $350 for the stupid dog and a few hundred dollars to send my clothing out for cleaning. That's more than $1,000 just to be safe."

Now the bugs were taking another bite out of Frank. He contemplated the ceiling-high display of mattress bedbug barriers priced between $59.99 and $99.99 at a Manhattan Bed Bath & Beyond store.

An entomologist appearing on a video as part of the display declared: "We're seeing an explosion of bedbugs!" Nearby, bright blue bottles of "Rest Easy Bedbug Spray" – at $9.99 each – dangled like ornaments above bedbug-proof box spring and mattress encasements. A Bed Bath & Beyond spokesman declined comment on sales.

From New York's handsome prewar buildings to the low-slung homes of the U.S. heartland, bedbug infestations are translating into big bucks for pest control companies and retailers selling protection against them.

"People are making a lot of money," said Larry Pinto, a Maryland-based pest control consultant and co-author of the Bed Bug Handbook. "Pest control companies specializing in bedbugs are making a lot of money.The ones that are good are making a lot of money. Probably the ones that are bad are, too. It is headache work. At the end of your day, you're totally, utterly exhausted."

This week, none other than extermination company Terminix ranked New York as the nation's bedbug capital. The firm based the ranking on the volume of calls to its offices around the country. New York surpassed Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati and Chicago, which rounded out the top five cities.

Over the last three years, Terminix said, the company's commercial bedbug business more than doubled, with a significantly higher number of calls from individual householders.

Overall, revenues from bedbug control jumped from $98 million in 2006 to $258 million last year, according to Missy Henriksen, spokeswoman for the National Pest Management Association. Still, that's just 5 percent of the $6.5 billion in total sales generated by the industry last year.

Terminix and independent pest control experts say international travel is partly to blame. The bugs have been reappearing decades after which they were believed eradicated.

The Big Apple had been hit hard. Former President Bill Clinton had an outbreak at his Harlem office, as did lingerie outlet Victoria's Secret, teen clothing store Hollister, the iconic Empire State Building, movie theaters, and countless hotels which lost thousands of dollars in revenue combating the bugs.

Now the bugs are feasting on hapless sleepers across the nation. They feed exclusively on the blood of warm-blooded animals and humans. They dwell in furniture, clothing and luggage. Occasionally, they hitch rides in the suitcases of business travelers, pest control experts said. They breed along wide swaths that stretch to the U.S. heartland.

"Now they're winding up in places without beds," Michael Raupp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland. "It's a boon and a bane because these things are not easy to control."

While they do not spread disease-causing germs, bedbugs can cause painful irritation and itching. They are hard and expensive to eradicate, often requiring the application of insecticides by pest control specialists or special steam treatments, according to experts. In rare cases, residents must leave their homes for weeks.

In the heavily traveled corridor between Texas and Louisiana, which is dotted with hotels, James Self has exterminated pests for three decades.

"I don't know if I'd say it's an epidemic or not," said Self, owner of Ameritex Pest Control in Beaumont, Texas. "I never actually had a call to go treat for any bedbug until about four years ago. In the last year and half, I'm getting three to five calls a month. Sometimes, I'll get 10 calls in a week. Bedbugs are great hitchhikers."

His initial inspection is free, Self said. "I'm kind of unusual at that. A lot of guys charge $100, $200 for an inspection."

His fee to treat an infestation: $500 minimum. "I use a product that mixes with water and then you spray," said Self, declining to reveal the ingredients. "I have an aerosol I use on mattresses and couches."

A small town of 15,000, Beaumont, with eight pest control operators, is a competitive market, according to Self. "I bid on a small, four-apartment complex for 2,000 bucks but a guy came in behind me at $600 for all of them. Sometimes you get what you pay for."

Douglas Stern, managing partner of New Jersey-based Stern Environmental Group, started a new division of his extermination business six months ago in response to the growing number of infestations.

His company's new "bed-bug-prep concierge service" helps large-scale clients prepare infested furniture, large objects and spaces for extermination. Stern said he's worked with a number of high-profile clients including airlines and department stores. About half of the firm's business now is bedbug related and Stern said plans are in the works to expand into other cities.

"This is just the beginning," Stern said. "What we're experiencing in New York City other cities are not yet seeing. The problem is spreading."

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