Smaller than an apple seed, resilient as a cockroach, bloodthirsty as a vampire. Bed bugs: the cringe-inducing skin-drillers are back, nationwide, with a vengeance.
They're in Fort Worth, Texas, where earlier this month, 200 people were permanently forced from an apartment building after a year-long bed bug battle. The city housing authority spent a half-million dollars trying to rid the building of the pests. It didn't work.
They're in Seattle, where bed bug calls to exterminators are up some 70 percent in the last two years.
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"They want your blood, and that's just that," one Seattle victim said. "They want to eat."
And they're in New York City, where there were nearly 11,000 bed bug complaints last year alone. Where blogs track and map the latest infestations.
"About 10 years ago you would probably have one call maybe a year, and now we get on average about 10 calls a day," said Ken Unger, owner of Suburban Pest Control in Yonkers, N.Y.
There are so many of the pests in New York City that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has established a bedbug advisory committee.
Meanwhile, a third species has been recruited to join the battle between humans and bugs -- dogs.
Among these dogs are Cruiser, a highly trained "puggle," and his cohort, a beagle named Freedom.
They're working dogs, trained to pick up a scent from bed bugs. Jeremy Ecker of thebedbuginspectors.com is their owner and trainer. The rule for the dogs, he said, is simple: "Find a bug and get fed."
"The dogs only eat when they find bugs, so they always work, every day they're working, whether or not we have work, they're working," said Ecker. "They're not pets, so they have to work to eat."
Ecker is part of a growing number of owners of bed bug-sniffing dogs. He gets $350 a pop for every apartment and house his canines check for infestation.
Bed Bugs: How Dogs Find Bugs
What makes a good bed bug-sniffing dog?
"High energy, good demeanor and ready to work," Ecker said. "You know, a dog that's just interested in running around and finding its bugs."
And dogs are very good at finding bugs. Researchers say a well-trained dog is more than 95 percent accurate at discovering even one small bed bug in a home.
Last week, Cruiser, the puggle, came to an apartment in Yonkers, N.Y., where resident Nina Rinaldi had tiny red bite marks covering her body. She marked off on a calendar the nights she'd been bitten, just to keep track.
Cruiser went to work, and sure enough, Rinaldi's bedroom was infested.
"The alert is the scratch," Ecker said. "You have to constantly be moving when you have the dogs with you. ... They'll pace back and forth and pick up on a scent where they want to start hitting. And then they'll actually start scratching away."
For Rinaldi and the millions of other bed bug victims nationwide, the question is, "Why now?" The insects were all but eradicated a half-century ago, with the help of the pesticide DDT. But DDT has since been banned in the United States over health, environmental and other fears.
Entomologist Louis Sorkin knows all about the insects. New York's foremost authority on bed bugs, he keeps 3,000 of them jarred up in his office for research.
"They actually were never completely gone," he said Sorkin. "They were probably in low populations in various cities, and with ease of transportation, people taking vacations and not really knowing about bedbugs at all, the population seemed to increase invisibly until people started wondering what all these bites were. Or what all these insects were crawling all about. And also many people don't know what they look like."
We asked Sorkin how, on a day-to-day basis, bed bugs transfer from place to place.
"There's many ways actually," Sorkin said. "One way is the movement of bed bugs between apartments. People can carry bedbugs on clothing, materials on cases and boxes, whatever is infested. And those items are carried from one place to another. Some [bugs] can live an entire year without feasting on blood. And while they're not believed to transmit disease, they do carry a stigma."
After bed bugs were spotted in Rinaldi's apartment, Ken Unger's extermination team moved in. They use a treatment called ThermaPure Heat, an alternative to chemical treatments.
They cook the bugs, by essentially turning a house into a dry sauna.
Baking Bed Bugs Alive
First, plastics and anything that can melt are removed. Then heaters and blowers are brought in and turned on. The windows are covered in foil and the temperature cranked up.
Heat monitors and thermal imaging cameras gauged the heat as Rinaldi's place turned into an oven.
When the temperature reaches at least 120 degrees throughout the home and stays there for nearly two hours, all of the bed bugs should roast to death.
The heat stirs up the bugs, making them hop around. Then it dries out their bodies, baking them. Then they stop scurrying for good.
For Rinaldi, that brought some relief.
But for Cruiser and Freedom, the work isn't finished. It's off to another apartment, where a full day of sniffing out those blood-sucking pests still lies ahead.
Bed Bugs: Tips and Prevention
Courtesy of Suburban Pest Control, Yonkers, N.Y.
1. Identification: Adult bed bugs are brownish in color, about 3/16 of an inch long and are relatively flat. They are nearly as wide as they are long, and oval in shape. Immature bed bugs (nymphs) resemble the adults, but are much smaller and lighter in color. Newly hatched nymphs are translucent and are no bigger than a pinhead (1 mm). After feeding on a blood meal, the immature bed bugs may appear bright red in color. Bed bugs lack wings and therefore they do not fly, but they are capable of moving swiftly on both horizontal and vertical surfaces
2. Monitoring and Detection: You can detect a bed bug infestation by inspecting for the pests or their fecal spots, egg cases, and shed skins. Current research reports more than 85 percent of bed bugs are found in or near the bed, so inspections for infestations should focus on the mattress, bed frame, and headboard areas. Lift the mattress and inspect all seams and surfaces as well as the box spring. You may need to dismantle the bed. Use a flashlight to aid the inspection process.
3. Prevention: Bed bugs are "hitchhikers." People usually bring bed bugs into their homes, in luggage or on clothes, after visiting an infested dwelling or hotel. If you travel frequently, watch for signs of bed bugs in your hotel room by checking under sheets, inspecting mattresses and headboards (tip: spraying a little Lysol behind the head board will usually flush them out). If you suspect bed bugs, check your luggage before leaving and place all clothing into a plastic bag. Wash all your clothes in hot water and place in dryer on high heat as soon as you get home. Vacuum your suitcase thoroughly. You also can bring bed bugs into your home on bedding or furniture. Stay away from second-hand furniture and mattresses on the curbside awaiting garbage pickup.
4. Reduce Clutter: Manage your home or apartment. Try to eliminate things you do not need, i.e. paper, boxes etc.
5. Protect your Bed: Installation of mattress encasements and climb-ups (a device that is placed under each leg of the bed which traps the insect) are great ways to prevent or limit an infestation. Mattress Encasements are great at eliminating harborage areas and/or containing an infestation in or around the mattress and box spring. Climb-ups act as a trap that bed bugs crawl into and cannot climb out. Since bed bugs cannot jump or fly, the only access to a bed is through climbing up the legs of the bed (as long as the bed is not touching the wall and the blankets and bed skirts are not touching the floor).
6. Active Conditions: If you have or feel you have an active condition, try not to panic. The first thing you should do is contact a pest control professional to do an inspection. Early detection is key. If you remove infested items from your home they must be wrapped in plastic and thrown out immediately.
7. Cooperation: Your pest control professional should provide you with a preparation sheet prior to treatment. It is extremely important to follow protocol when having a chemical or thermal treatment performed in your home. Many bed bug treatments fail due to lack of preparation.