Bed Bugs – A Serious Problem for Property Owners

Bed bug infestations have increased exponentially over the past three years causing panic among homeowners, coop members and property managers. In New York City 1,800 bed bug complaints were received in 2004. By last year complaints had more than tripled, topping 7,000. Concern that 2008 will see even more bed bug activity prompted the city to recently sponsor educational seminars for residents and property managers.

The problem is not limited to New York City and other large metropolitan areas. In recent years the age-old scourge has cropped up in all 50 states. The nightly news, local newspapers and blogosphere are full of reports of bed bug infestations. Numerous websites dedicate themselves to pinpointing the latest infestation sites and warning buyers and renters to steer clear. Luxury hotels have been sued by irate guests. Bed bugs have been reported in the tony co-ops of the rich and famous, in fashionable condominiums, in luxury apartments, in college dorms and in upscale suburban homes. Noted bed bug authority Michael Potter, an urban entomologist at the University of Kentucky, calls bed bugs the pre-eminent household pest in the U.S., on a par with cockroaches and rats. “This is one serious issue,” he recently told the New York Times. “This will be the pest of the 21st century – no questions about it.”

“History is repeating itself,” Potter said, explaining that many American beds were crawling with bed bugs before World War II. After the war, the use of potent chemicals like DDT spelled the death knell for bed bugs in America and most industrialized countries; but they continued to flourish in many other parts of the world. With environmental consciousness came less powerful, but safer chemicals that have allowed bed bugs carried in on the clothing and suitcases of international travelers to dig back into American beds.

“If bed bugs transmitted disease, what’s happening would be considered a huge epidemic,” says bed bug expert Dini Miller, an entomologist at Virginia Tech. “Though bedbugs have been shown to harbor 28 pathogens temporarily – including HIV and hepatitis B – numerous studies have shown the pathogens fail to thrive in the host enough to spread disease to people,” according to an article in the July 16, 2007 issue of U.S. News & World Report.

While they don’t pose a health threat, bed bugs routinely throw people into a state of hysteria. About the size of an apple seed, bed bugs have flattened, oval, wingless bodies that are a light to reddish-brown in color. Feeding on human blood for 3 to 10 minutes at a time, the proliferate nocturnal pests carry a psychological punch out of proportion to their size. “They come in the dark; they feed on you; they scurry away when you turn the light on,” said Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology at the University of California-Davis. Their bites can raise itchy red welts that bedevil their victims. There are stories of people dumping gallons of insecticide on their mattresses and dousing themselves with bug spray before they go to sleep. “I have people who call me in tears. They’re in hysterics,” admitted entomologist Richard Pollack of Harvard University.

Bed bugs are tough to kill. They have a hard cuticle for protection, can live for more than a year without feeding, and hide in tiny cracks and crevices making it hard for exterminators to reach them. Their eggs are tiny (about the size of a pin head), translucent and pearly white. Household insecticides won’t kill bed bugs and can actually cause them to spread as they seek new harborage. In fact, Potter and University of Kentucky researchers are starting to find bed bugs that are resistant to the pesticides commonly used to kill them.

In laboratory tests these “super bed bugs” have survived commercial pesticides at more than 10 times the recommended dose. Researchers sprayed laboratory bed bugs and bugs from four different apartment colonies with pyrethoid insecticides, the most common professional insecticide used to kill bed bugs. When sprayed, the laboratory bed bugs, which had never been exposed to the insecticide, were decimated completely; however, there were few mortalities among the apartment bed bug populations. In fact, those insects were immune to sprays that were two to three hundred times the recommended dosage prescribed by the insecticide manufacturer.