Family-Friendly Ways to Fight Bed Bugs

Read a chapter from Ralph H. Maestre's 'The Bedbug Book."

Feb. 23, 2011 — -- Bed-bug expert Ralph H. Maestre explains how to spot bed bugs, bed bug bites, how to get rid of them and how to protect against a bed bug infestation. Maestre sites the increase in travel and immigration for the resurgence of bed bugs. "The times were changing; new immigrants were moving into the neighborhood and were bringing the bed bugs with them," he writes in, 'The Bedbug Book.' He also sites used pieces of furniture as carriers of bed bugs, warning people against picking up furniture that has been discarded on the street. Read more below.

Chapter 5: Case Studies

First Encounter

My first encounter with bed bugs came during a routine visit to a small walk-up apartment building in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, New York. On the first floor in a railroad style apartment, I met a gentleman from Eastern Europe. He indicated that he was being bitten and pointed to the small bed that was up against the wall in a greatly cluttered room. In broken English, he explained to me that he believed he had brought over from his country some bed bugs. I didn't believe him—remember, bed bugs were not common until just a few years ago. I was repulsed at the thought. I examined the area and did find some. I collected some live samples to take back to the company I was working for at the time. I then treated the area with the only product I had inside my compressed air sprayer—it must have been an organophosphate or carbamate, which is what we used back then. I never treated the mattress directly. I moved the bed away from the wall and treated the cracks and crevices around the bed. I told him to wash the linen repeatedly. I explained that I had to come back to provide follow-up treatment and asked him to take the bed apart for when I returned.

With tremendous patience, this gentleman awaited my arrival one month later. He followed my instructions and had the bed dismantled, which allowed me to treat the bed frame. I also re-treated the perimeter of the entire room.On my third visit, this gentleman told me that he no longer had bed bugs. I was happy and he was happy.

What I learned was that I needed to overcome my own fear of bed bugs, and I was grateful that my first encounter with them was an easy one. I was amazed how patient and tolerant the gentleman was of the pest. He obviously had encountered them before and had learned to deal with them. I would later learn just how tolerant humans can be.

It was during this time in history that the Berlin Wall came down and the Eastern European countries began opening up to international travel and commerce. Bed bugs were about to explode into this country as a result.

Second Encounter

The second time I encountered bed bugs was in the Jackson Heights area of Queens County, New York. Queens is the most diverse borough, with over 140 different countries represented. Of the five boroughs, Queens also has the most trees. Jackson Heights has many prewar apartment buildings which surround interior courtyards. Within one of these apartments that consisted of approximately forty to sixty units in the early 1990s, I got a call to treat for cockroaches. At this time in my career, I was working for my own company.

A lovely young lady in her late twenties lived in a studio apartment. She requested monthly pest control service for cockroaches.

On this particular visit, she explained to me that she had been receiving bites at night on a regular basis for several weeks. Being late summer, I asked her if she kept her windows open at night or if she went for evening walks. She said that neither applied. I then asked a rare question. "Did you buy a used piece of furniture or pick something up used?" She said yes. "I picked up this used chair in the curbside trash."

Many individuals comb the trash for items that may be recycled, and furniture is one of the top items taken. This is actually illegal in the city of New York. Once an item is placed out for trash, then it becomes the property of the Department of Sanitation. They rarely issue a summons for such an act. At the time I had known some DSNY personnel to take furniture and bicycles to refurbish and resell. This practice is less common now.

I examined the chair and found evidence of bed bug fecal matter. I explained to her what the issue was. I had a product that was considered a wide spectrum insecticide in my compressed air sprayer which would take care of it. A wide spectrum insecticide covers many insects—the one I had included bed bugs on the label, so I knew it would do the trick. I treated the cracks and crevices along the bottom of the chair and around the perimeter of the bedroom, which had an open threshold to the living room where the chair was located.

About two weeks later, I received a call from her to please come by. She explained that although things had gotten better, she was starting to be bitten again. I then told her to have her apartment ready for my next treatment by removing her linens from the bed and vacuuming the entire apartment.

When I arrived, I saw that she had followed my instructions. She was a bit nervous and was worried that the materials I was using would cause her harm. I told her that once dried, the product would not harm her. I inspected around the bed and found evidence of bed bugs and live bed bugs in the joints of the bed frame.

This time, I attacked the cracks and crevices around the perimeter first. I had learned by doing this that I would prevent migration of the insects into adjoining areas, such as the next-door apartment. The organophosphates of the time had a relatively strong odor associated with them. Many customers of that time didn't believe the exterminator was spraying with something strong unless it had a foul odor.

I also brought with me an Actisol machine that I would use for deep penetration. This machine works like a large aerosol can. It is designed to push an insecticide deep into voids by using compressed air. I used it in the crevices on the hardwood floors. Her apartment had many small gaps and I was worried that the bed bugs would hide between the hardwood floor and the subflooring. I rarely used dust—one of the common treatments today—but in this case I used a pyrethrum dust common at the time. I asked her to vacate the apartment for several hours to allow the products to settle and dry.

On my next regular monthly visit, she was glad that the ordeal was finally over. She still had questions though. She asked, "Where do bed bugs come from and why did they hide in the furniture? I thought they stayed on the mattresses." I explained that the times were changing; new immigrants were moving into the neighborhood and were bringing the bed bugs with them. DDT hasn't been allowed to be used for many years. I also explained that the pest control industry was now moving away from routine baseboard perimeter spraying toward treating only the areas where insects hide and feed. Baits were now being used widely to attract cockroaches and ants to feed on the products and return to their "nest" and share the materials and die. Far less pesticides were being applied and more targeted applications were being done.

Reviewing this encounter, I realized that I could not put my compressed air sprayer away—it would remain a valuable tool regardless of the success of the modern baits for cockroaches and ants. As a matter of fact, I still have the same one with me. I will not let it go.

I would not have to deal with bed bugs again until 2001. Travel and new markets opened up in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. New immigrants moved into our country at astonishing rates. New York City grew to over eight million people by the 2000 census.

Remember, at the turn of this century very few individuals were studying bed bugs. One individual that has maintained a strain of bed bugs for study since World War II is Dr. Harold J Harlan. I have met him several times through-out the years at seminars sponsored by our regional and national pest management associations. He is a very nice man and willing to impart knowledge to anyone who wishes to listen. I believe it was during a visit to Purdue University's annual pest management conference that Dr. Harlan spoke about the effects of Gentrol IGR on cockroaches. He also mentioned the product may have some chitin-inhibiting qualities (chitin is the main component in the exoskeleton of insects). Gentrol IGR is an insect growth regulator that mimics the juvenile hormone found inside of insects. As long as the hormone is present, the insect can't reach maturity or reproduce. It sterilizes the eggs while the female carries them. This way the egg may be laid but will remain non-viable. Adults don't die from it—they just become sterile. But that aspect wasn't what interested me at the time. I had been dealing with a termite baiting system that was a chitin inhibitor. It disrupted the ability of the termites to complete the molting process. Knowing that bed bugs molt after each blood meal, I thought it may help in breaking their life cycle. Used with another adulticide, it could end bed bug infestations more quickly.

Dr. Harlan happened to have brought some of his bed bugs in a jar and while we were talking a colleague, Patrick Corallo, placed the open jar on his arm to feed them. We wondered if, because Gentrol had chitin inhibiting qualities, it might also be useful against bed bugs. Dr. Harlan soon after received a grant to study the effects of Gentrol IGR on bed bugs. Within a little over a year, the product received an additional labeling for use against bed bugs. I started to incorporate Gentrol along with several other products on any new bed bug jobs I performed.

A footnote to the meeting we had with Dr. Harlan. Several days later, Pat developed a circular rash on his forearm. He said to me, "Ralph I was taking a shower when I noticed this rash, but I don't know what it's from?" I said, "Pat, don't you remember, that's the spot you put the jar of bed bugs on." It was a perfect circle—and yet he hadn't felt any of the bed bugs bite.

As we continue with these stories, you will see that not everyone reacts to bed bugs in the same way. Pat's rash lasted well over a week.

Third Encounter

My third encounter took place in and around 2002. Both Pat Corallo and I serviced this client in Long Island City, Queens. By this time, we were becoming aware that bed bugs were on the rise. We never met the tenant since they had left for work. The superintendant let us in. Both Pat and I had asked the client to prepare for treatment by laundering their clothing. We asked that the linen on the bed not be moved so as to let us find the bed bugs and eliminate them. We spent a minimum of four hours in this apartment. It was a one bedroom. We vacuumed everything, the bed, baseboards, furniture, etc. We used a product called Suspend SC, a liquid suspended concentrate, according to the label. It was the only product that had a residual, which allowed us to treat both the mattress and furniture at the same time. We also used Gentrol IGR since it now had the label for bed bug use. In New York State, we need to have the pest approved for treatment on the label before it can be used. It was tedious.

This apartment had several pockets of bed bugs. Most were found along the bed frame. We had to use a screw-driver to disassemble the captain's bed, also known as a platform bed with drawers under it.It was in the corners of this platform bed that most of the bed bugs would hide. We found eggs, nymphs, and adults. Other areas that contained bed bugs were behind the floorboards or baseboard moldings. Several bed bugs would emerge once the treatment was performed.

Since we were so thorough in performing this job, we both felt confident that a follow-up treatment would not be necessary. As it turned out, it wasn't.

The lessons I learned during this job were how important it is to inspect carefully, have the client be prepared, be able to work with the client while they were out of our work zone, and to have the time to treat properly. All of these factors existed on this job and allowed us the comfort of knowing that an excellent job was done.Fourth Case Study

Within a year, everything was changing. The company I was working for was in transition from a small family business to a medium-sized company with individuals receiving job titles and specific duties. I was still in the field but trying to convince the owners that I should have a manager's position while continuing to work in the field. Hal Byer, the owner of Magic Exterminators, has been in the pest control business since 1960. He understood that for his company to reach the next level of service, professional individuals would need to take control and lead the company in a new direction. New technicians meant lots of training. It would take two full years before the technicians would be experienced enough to treat without assistance or guidance. Now the team is strong and experienced.

It was during this time that I had to service an account in Nassau County that consisted of garden-style apartments. There were two apartments per entry with one apartment above the other. In this case, the second floor apartment complained of getting bitten, but our inspection of the unit revealed a very clean apartment with very few items in it. We told management that we needed to inspect the ground-floor apartment.

Our inspection of the ground-floor apartment revealed a very serious infestation. The two-bedroom apartment had a queen-size bed in the master bedroom with an additional bunk bed setup. So in the master bedroom alone there were at least four individuals sleeping. The second bedroom had only one queen-size bed, but after interviewing the tenant I found out that four additional children slept there.

When I first entered the room, I thought I was looking at wallpaper with designs on it. Upon closer inspection, I found myself looking at squashed bed bugs or blood smears all over the wall. The children spent most of their time at night killing bed bugs by smashing them on the walls. I couldn't believe my eyes. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I thought I would be performing a casual inspection. Now I knew I had to look very closely at everything.

I found out that they had picked up used mattresses from the garbage, which is likely how the infestation began. I tried very hard to explain what they needed to do to get prepared for our treatment.

Within three days, we returned for the treatment. They tried their best to prepare. It wasn't good enough. They hadn't removed anything from the floors, and all of the bagged items were left on the bed. They didn't remove all the clothing from the closets. At this time, we didn't have a policy of walking away when someone wasn't ready. We just treated the best we could. The other problem was a warranty. We gave them one. What a mistake that was.

When a pest control company goes into an apartment such as this to treat for bed bugs, the technician tries to set up a safe zone. This helps in moving items around the room. There was a team of six technicians on this project. In this one building, we had both apartments to service: one team upstairs and one downstairs. One was an easy job to perform and the other a nightmare. Bed bugs were found everywhere in the first floor apartment. I would find out during treatment that this family was using the living room as a bedroom as well—that came to a total of ten individuals living in a two bedroom apartment. Wow! I felt very bad for them and the clients upstairs.

What we didn't know at this time was that one of the products we were using, Suspend SC, was no longer as effective against bed bugs. Resistance was developing. As each generation of bed bugs is born, they carry with them the genetic information from their parents. If we expose one hundred bed bugs to a product and kill 95 percent of them, those are pretty good odds. The five that are left will breed the next generation with more resistance so now you have 10 percent to 20 percent alive. The next generation after that may have up to 25 percent survivors.

This continues until as long as the same product or family of products is used. The problem is that until recently, the pest management industry has had primarily only one family of product available to use against bed bugs, the pyrethroids. It is now known according to a study by Dr. Michael Potter of the University of Kentucky, that a strain of bed bugs we supplied him from New York City, Far Rockaway region, is resistant up to three hundred times the label rate of Suspend SC.

We had to return to this location several times over the next thirty days to fulfill our contract and to control this infestation. We would have to perform many treatments over the next several months before the management would find it too expensive to continue working with us.

I don't know if they ever got complete eradication of the bed bug infestation at this location. We as a pest management company learned to change our preparation procedures and treatment procedures due to our experience with this account.

Again, the level of tolerance those individuals had amazes me. The clutter and level of infestation that would drive many of us mad or insane is just plain normal to many other individuals. When individuals accept that somehow it is OK to live under these conditions, that is going to allow bed bugs to escalate over the next several years as the infestations get worse.