An exterminator, dressed in white disposable coveralls, walked to a couch in a north central Indiana home and pulled back a cushion from its frame. His partner, Willie Burt, shined a flashlight into a cloth crevice as Rick Mouser, the senior of the two exterminators, prodded with his pen at the dozens of creatures, all about 1/2-centimeter in size, that were scurrying around in their hidden niche. He plucked one and placed it upside-down in his rubber-gloved hand, poking at it as it pummeled the air with its legs.
“I know it seems like we’ve done a lot more of these fumigations this year,” he said as he scrutinized the insect with one eye. “That’ll be a growing trend for the next few years to come.” The bug was one of thousands the home owner awoke to find. The Peru resident, who asked to remain unnamed, fell asleep on the couch. When he woke up, he found dozens of bites and blood marks on his legs. He originally dismissed the bugs as beetles or ticks, but Indiana Pest Control determined the insects were ones straight from nursery rhymes — bed bugs. He said he would have even preferred fleas.
For the past decade or so, the prehistoric pests have re-emerged as a household nuisance throughout the U.S., experts say, and Kokomo and its surrounding areas are no exception. Kokomo-based Indiana Pest Control, which exterminates insects and rodents around the region, treated 23 homes for bed bugs last year, said J.R. Campbell, the company’s owner. This year, it has had about 100 cases. The number of cases is about one-fourth of the company’s most common infestation, ants. But despite there being no known health problems connected with bed bug bites, he said, the growing problem has caused the company’s clients to be more paranoid.
There was about a half-century hiatus from the six-legged blood suckers before they returned to the U.S. “It’s a prehistoric bug that doesn’t want to die,” Campbell said. After World War II, they virtually disappeared in the U.S. and other developed countries, said Kurt Saltzmann, a professor of entomology at Purdue University-West Lafayette. The bugs began creeping back into people’s beds about 10 years ago, Saltzmann said. “We went from a near absence of bed bugs after World War II … and now it’s a real issue for lots and lots of communities throughout the country,” he said.
There are two theories about the cause of the resurgence. After WWII, exterminators began using more toxic pesticides, such as DDT. But in 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the pesticide. In more recent years, exterminators have been using less toxic chemicals to fumigate, Saltzmann said. “As we’ve become more green and had more toxic pesticides removed from the home, we’ve seen more bed bugs,” he said.
The second theory ties it to an increase in international travel, Saltzmann said. The insect typically thrives in hot, tropical climates, such as South America, India and East Asia. They withstand the Midwest’s cold winters because they live indoors. “We think of them as hitch hikers,” Saltzmann said. “They literally latch onto luggage, bags, clothes, that sort of thing.”
It is probably a combination of the two theories, and other factors, that has caused bed bugs to return, Saltzmann said. It was about seven years ago that people began reporting cases locally, Campbell said. The more densely populated an area is, the more easily the bugs can spread. The higher a turnover rate for a building’s residents, the more likely bed bug infestations are. Hotels and apartments are the worst, Mouser said. “It’ll make you rethink your vacations,” he said.
Disposing of the infested belongings has proven to spread bugs as well. Mouser said he has seen cases where he has removed an infested couch or bed and placed it on a curb for trash pickup, but neighbors come by and take the bug-ridden furniture home. For the couch Mouser was fumigating, the answer was an archaic one — fire
Annoying, Not Dangerous
Bed bugs live up to their names. They are mostly nocturnal, Saltzmann said, and they feed on mammal blood. By living in a bed, couch or anywhere a large mammal, such as a person, lies unconscious for several hours a night, which is when the insects are awake, it is like having midnight buffets in their back yards. Despite their diets of human blood, there are no known diseases they spread. According to a 2007 Mayo Clinic report, only in the most rare cases do people experience strong enough allergic reactions to need medical help. In most cases, the bites leave only small, itchy bumps, the report states. People more commonly experience psychological effects, Campbell said. “It’s an invasion of your space and your sleep, and people become very neurotic,” he said.
Battling the Bugs
It was a two-hour process for Mouser and Burt to spray one room. “It’s pretty light because it’s contained to one couch,” Mouser said as he sprayed in the Peru garage. “… Bed bugs are by far the hardest to treat. [It’s] their size and it’s just really meticulous, as far as you’ve got to treat everything. You can’t imagine what it takes for a whole house and all the furniture.” The bed bugs appeared to have remained on the one couch, but the two exterminators had to check every other piece of furniture nearby, every crack and outlet in the walls and every box, panel, light fixture or any other possible hideouts. At a glance, the insects on the couch were invisible. Once the exterminators flipped the piece of furniture, they found the underbelly was home to hundreds of the critters, dead, alive and in unhatched eggs.
“The dander flakes are actually eggs,” Mouser said as he examined a few of the white specs. “Once they’re hatched and [had] their first blood feeding, they can lie dormant for a whole year.” Saltzmann said that longevity between meals is part of the reason why bed bugs are more rampant in apartments and hotels. “Even if you have, say, an apartment that’s vacant, [and] it’s been vacant for several months, it’s possible they would be able to survive, lie and wait if you will, for a new host,” he said. After dousing the couch and dusting all cracks and crevices with a pesticide, Mouser thoroughly sprayed every inch of the open carpeting. It was a process the men will have to be repeat at least three more times.
There is not a whole lot that can be done to keep the unwanted guests out of homes and hotel rooms, Campbell and Saltzmann said. The best way to avoid letting a bed bug latch on is to inspect beds and couches, especially in hotel rooms, they said. “It’s a little tough if somebody doesn’t know what they’re looking for,” Saltzmann said. “Take a close look around the bed, the edges, the mattress, the box spring.” Temperature can affect the bugs, but people wanting to kill off bed bugs would have to crank their thermostats up to about 150 degrees F.
People who think they have a bed bug infestation need to try to save some of the insects, preferably dead ones, in a closed container and take it to an exterminator to identify them, Campbell said. But most importantly, he said, don’t panic. “Do your research,” he said. “There’s so much out there before they start believing everything. There’s a lot of horrific things on the Web.”
• Daniel Human is a Kokomo Tribune staff writer. He can be reached at 765-454-8570 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Original article can be found at kokomotribune.com