Watch out for bedbugs: how to deal with these pests
I hope you are not sleeping in a bathtub, stressed to the point of tears, sleep deprived, and peppered with itchy red bites and welts—courtesy of bedbugs. Watch out for these blood-sucking vermin, as they are on the rise in British Columbia—the Lower Mainland particularly. The West End and Downtown Eastside are the hardest-hit areas, and the bugs are currently making inroads into detached dwellings and Vancouver’s posh neighbourhoods, as well as the suburbs. Live bedbugs were also found in library books across the Lower Mainland in 2011, leading librarians to trash books and close branches in a bid to stop the bugs from spreading.
The bedbug problem is expected to worsen. In North America, the bug’s numbers have increased as much as 500 to 600 percent in the past decade, costing businesses and homeowners billions of dollars annually to deal with the outbreaks. Infestations have occurred in homes, hotels, hostels, hospitals, cruise ships, airplanes, trains, schools, and long-term care facilities.
British Columbia needs a broad strategy to tackle the growing bedbug problem. Ontario recently committed $5 million to help public health agencies tackle the problem, while Manitoba announced a bedbug strategy that will see every municipality participate. Some mattress retailers in Western Canada and Maritimes have ended exchange policies due to bedbug concerns.
Bedbugs are small insects with oval-shaped flat bodies and no wings. Adult bedbugs are about five to seven millimetres long (about the size of an apple seed). They are brown but darken to a blood red colour after feeding. They can live without food for more than one year. Young bedbugs (nymphs) look similar to adults, but are smaller in size and lighter in colour.
Bedbug eggs are white, about one millimetre long, and are very hard to see on most surfaces. The female bedbug lays about 200 eggs in her lifetime, at a rate of two to seven eggs per day. The eggs are laid in cracks and crevices, behind woodwork and other hidden locations, and usually hatch in six to sixteen days.
Bedbugs normally come out at night to feed, attracted by the carbon dioxide we exhale. Both adults and nymphs feed on the blood of people and animals. Bedbug bites may not be noticed right away because they typically feed at night when people are asleep. Bedbugs do not transmit any known human diseases, although occasionally bites may become infected.
Bedbugs prefer locations where they can hide easily and feed regularly, like sleeping areas. Their thin and flat bodies allow the bedbugs to hide in extremely small spaces, such as under wallpaper, behind picture frames, in electrical outlets, inside box springs, and in mattress pads. They struggle climbing metal or polished surfaces and cannot fly or jump.
How do you keep from bringing bedbugs home when you travel?
Taking the following precautions while travelling helps to ensure a bug-free stay at your hotel and to keep bedbugs from coming home with you:
• Inspect the room before bringing luggage, pets, or other items in. Do not put your luggage on the bed. Place it on a tile floor, away from any upholstered surfaces. Once you have checked the luggage stand, keep your luggage on the stand instead of unpacking your belongings and placing them in the drawers.
• Inspect the sleeping area. Slowly lift up each corner of the mattress and examine the creases and tufts of the mattress and box spring, behind the headboard, and the wall behind the bed, the pillows, bed coverings and bed skirt, the bed frame, and legs. Do not store anything under the bed. Check any chairs before you sit down.
• After your trip, unpack your clothing and check personal items such as hairbrush and cosmetic case. Wash all clothing and fabric items in hot water immediately after returning from a trip, regardless of whether you wore them or not.
How do you prevent bedbugs from entering your home?
Following these steps can help to reduce the chances of bedbug infestations in your home:
• Be careful about what you bring into your house or buy. Check every item you bring into your home for the first time, including used books, new furniture, and garage sale or antique store furniture. Be very cautious with second-hand or refurbished items. New mattresses are often delivered in the same truck that carries away old mattresses, so insist that your new mattress be sealed before it is delivered. Never take a mattress, bead frame, or sofa from a curb.
• Reduce places where bedbugs can hide. Clean up clutter and vacuum often, including under and behind beds. Seal all cracks and crevices between baseboards, on wooden bed frames, floors, and walls with caulking. Repair or remove peeling wallpaper.
• Inspect your home regularly for bedbugs. Check on, under, and beside beds, couches and upholstered furniture. Look for black or brown spots (dried blood or feces), and live or dead bedbugs. In case of infestation, bugs can also hide in picture frames, light fixtures, smoke detectors, or other wall mounted items. If you have a pet, check areas where your pet sleeps.
How do you get rid of bedbugs and protect yourself from being bitten?
• Bedbugs are very hard to get rid of. If you do have bedbugs, consider hiring a licensed pest control specialist. Professional operators use a variety of tools to control bedbugs, including chemical insecticide, pressurized carbon dioxide snow, and heat treatments. They also use trained dogs and multi-attractant traps for bedbug detections.
• A treatment will only be effective if physical control methods (steam cleaning, vacuuming, heating, freezing, washing, and discarding affected items) and preventative measures are used together. For households, it is best to use a vacuum with a HEPA filter to avoid putting insects back into the air. Insecticide, heat, and cold treatments should be left to the professionals.
• Enclose your mattress and box spring in zippered bed encasements. Put duct tape over the zipper, because zippers have a space where bedbugs can enter or escape.
• Use bed leg interceptors. Coat bed legs with double-sided carpet tape or petroleum jelly, or place the legs of the bed in leg protectors or glass jars with a bit of baby powder to trap the bugs on their way up or down the bed leg.
• Remove headboards completely. Replace upholstered furniture with metal or plastic, or material that can easily be cleaned with soap and water.
Rana Sarfraz is an entomologist who is currently working at the University of British Columbia.