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Bedbugs tuck into Southland

Bed feeling a little crowded? Maybe you have company.

The Cimex lectularius, better known and despised as the common bedbug, is snuggling into households across Southern California, giving people the heebie- jeebies. The blood-sucking, heat-seeking, pint-size parasites aren’t believed by the experts to transmit disease, but they do have a way of cranking up stress levels.

“It was just horrendous,” said a West Hollywood middle-school teacher, who, like others who have been horrified to have lived with the uninvited guests, asked that she not be identified. “Think of how you wouldn’t sleep at night if you had roaches, and this is even worse,” she said. “These roaches feed on you.”

They used to be associated with cramped and dirty living quarters, grimy motels and high-rise living in places like New York. For much of the second part of the last century the liberal use of the eventually banned pesticide DDT seemed to all but do away with them. Now bedbugs have moved into single-family homes with a vengeance and taken up lodging in schools, hospitals and college dormitories too. The wide-open spaces of the West are no defense.

“Bedbugs are just going ballistic everywhere,” said Michael Potter, a professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky. “It is going to really rock this country. I’m not trying to sound sensationalist.”

Bedbugs hitchhike on humans or in luggage and burrow into bedding, books, sofas and just about any cozy place, even picture frames. Once they establish squatter’s rights, evicting them isn’t easy. Or cheap. Casting them out of the average house in Southern California can cost thousands of dollars and require multiple visits.

“The last customer we dealt with compared it to having her home destroyed by fire or flood,” said Sean Murray, manager of exterminator Orkin’s branch in Pasadena.

Seven years ago, a pest control company may have received one or two bedbug calls a year, according to the National Pest Management Assn. Now there may be 50 or more calls a week.

Western Exterminator Co., which serves California, reported a 240% increase in bedbug work from 2000 to 2006. Isotech Pest Management Inc. in Pomona is conducting about 1,000 inspections a month — 700% more than last year.

It’s “a huge problem,” said Isotech owner Mike Masterson, whose staff includes a pair of beagles professionally trained to sniff out bedbugs.

Neither the California Department of Public Health nor county officials keep statistics on what the department recently called a bedbug “resurgence,” and the state is surveying local public health agencies to get a handle on the size of the problem.

A number of reasons are cited for the infestations, among them the DDT ban and an increase in international travel. “It’s not a case of being a lower socioeconomic thing,” said William Brogdon, a research entomologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “These things can happen to anybody.”

Like the West Hollywood teacher. She had just outfitted her apartment with a new bed, sofa and window treatments when a mysterious rash blanketed her body, sparing only her face, hands and feet. Her students took note. “It was like, ‘Miss, you’re scratching again,’ ” she said. “It was just such a nightmare.”

Doctors were stumped by her condition, which continued to worsen. When she noticed fluid settling in her ankles and at the back of her neck, she went to a hospital emergency room, where she got relief for her symptoms in the form of a cream that she slathered all over her body, including under her fingernails.

It took “divine intervention” — actually, the Internet — to pinpoint the cause. She clicked on “bedbugs” and raced to inspect her bed, first finding black marks on the mattress, then the bugs themselves. She tossed out her down pillow, sheets and every blanket.

When the Orkin man arrived, he served as part-pest controller, part-therapist, calming her as one bug marched across her pillow and an adult one, about the size of a large apple seed, scaled her curtain.

He said, “Don’t worry, we’ll get rid of these.” He did, but it took three visits.

Because the strange bedfellows are so tenacious, pest controllers have added heat and steam to their arsenals.

“A bedbug is really a wonderful survivor” that can persevere for as long as 18 months without nourishment, said entomologist Frank Meek, a technical director for Orkin. “They can hide and live a long time.”

Which is why one former Glendale family now lives in Pasadena. The wife, a new mother, had “a meltdown” after discovering a plague in her box springs and spent weeks debugging her home. In the end, she decided to move.

There wasn’t much to pack. She had thrown out beds, dressers, clothes, shoes, an alarm clock, a television set and five boxes of books. Stuff that was too precious to dump went into storage to give bugs time to die.

“The losses are astronomical,” the woman said. Worse yet was the psychological toll. “I didn’t sleep for five weeks. I don’t believe I’ll ever be the same.”

Now she’s a bedbug expert, having given herself a crash course on insects she considers “biblical.” It particularly creeps her out that they like to stay close to their hosts.

“Host is the word,” she said, drawing it out. “They are parasites.”

Bedbugs are established members of the global community. Archaeologists in Europe have found bedbug fossils dating back 3,500 years, the University of Kentucky’s Potter said, “and they go way back before that.”

They arrived in the New World with the first colonists and were plentiful until about the 1940s, when DDT seemed to do away with them.

Their comeback means public education is vital, Potter said. For example, it’s foolhardy to retrieve a mattress or couch from a curb or a dumpster. “That,” he said, “is going to have to stop.”

Of course, retailers are aiming to cash in. Target and Macy’s sell mattress and pillow covers meant to form a barrier between bugs and sleepers. Home Depot sells Sprayway “Good Night” for $6.48 with the familiar refrain “Don’t let the bedbugs bite!” on the can.

Mattress and box spring encasements can be helpful, Potter said, but he generally advises against trying to get rid of the bugs yourself.

He’s not optimistic about the future, given current restrictions on powerful chemicals and the bugs’ knack for adapting to them. “Our arsenal is depleted of effective products,” he said, and there’s no “silver bullet in the wings.”

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