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Bedbugs biting again

Travel, resistance to pesticides cited; tough to eliminate

A live bedbug provided by Terminix in Bothell, Wash., crawls across a dime. (MCT / The Spokesman-Review)
A live bedbug provided by Terminix in Bothell, Wash., crawls across a dime. (MCT / The Spokesman-Review)
Mark Rahner Seattle Times

From Conan O’Brien on Monday’s “Tonight Show”: “Former President Clinton recently had to clear out of his office for a few days because it’s infested with bedbugs. Experts are calling it the 500th reason President Clinton shouldn’t be allowed to have a bed in his office.”

Like the joke, the bedbugs suck. But they suck your blood. And their resurgence prompted experts and exterminators to hold a “Bed Bug Summit” at the Westin Seattle last week. Representatives from hotels, hospitals, pest-control companies and the like attended.

Hosted by the National Pest Management Association, it’s one of several gatherings sparked by one the Environmental Protection Agency held in April to address the issue, which is preventing a growing number of people from sleeping tight.

“We call them the new flea,” said Daniel Valenti, Terminix International’s Seattle branch manager. “They’re tenacious creatures. They can survive six months without feeding and they’re extremely difficult to get rid of.”

While nobody seems able to quantify the problem, Valenti said, “Two or three years ago, I’d be lucky to get one bedbug call in a month. Now in my branch alone, I may get two dozen.”

Why bedbugs in 2009?

Bedbugs had virtually disappeared by the ’50s and ’60s after the advent of DDT and other pesticides, as well as increased cleanliness standards, Washington State University entomology professor Rich Zack explained.

But DDT and other pesticides have been banned, and “a lot of the pesticides we developed don’t work any longer. The bedbugs have become resistant to them.”

Super bedbugs? Not quite. Think natural selection.

Another cause: travel. Some have pointed to the dollar’s lower value and the foreign tourists it has drawn. In any case, Zack said, “bedbugs are very easily transported from one area to another. Someone who has an infestation in a dorm, if they take things with them such as suitcases or shoes, there’s a very good chance bedbugs will be in that suitcase or their clothing.

“There is a true resurgence going on and it is becoming a significant problem again,” Zack said.

The things are essentially little vampires. Roughly the size of a tick, they hide during the day, mainly in mattresses and behind headboards. At night, they come out to feed on you.

Instead of a pair of puncture wounds on the neck, these guys typically leave little red welts on your skin and tiny droplets of dried blood on your sheets – which compounds the rudeness, as those droplets are defecation from your blood, which has passed through them as they left.

The fact that a former president had a bedbug problem shows that the insects are found in all walks of life, said Dr. Dan Suomi, pest-control-operator specialist for the Washington State Department of Agriculture. “This is not a pest that is restricted to any one income class. Anyone can get them because we interact in our travels and day-to-day activities.”

Soumi said they’ve been seen “more in hotels and motels on the West Coast. But that’s not an issue hoteliers want to discuss.”

For obvious reasons.

Olympia-based Eden Advanced Pest Technologies said bedbugs are “causing major issues for the hospitality industry.” But also: “Airline pilots, people in movie theaters, owners of nursing homes, day care centers, anywhere people congregate there could be a bedbug infestation.”

No need to sleep sitting up yet, though. Here’s what to do if you think you’ve got ’em:

First, research.

“Don’t overreact,” Soumi said. “Don’t grab the first can of pesticide or set off 10 bug bombs inside your house because that’s not going to work.”

If you call an exterminator – or “commercial applicator” in the business of applying pesticides – make sure it’s someone licensed with the Department of Agriculture. You can look them up here: Fert/LicensingEd/Search/.

As someone in the business of profiting from the problem, even Seattle Terminix commercial-branch service manager Troy Kleghorn advised against getting drained: “Get at least three bids, same as you would a car repair. Don’t settle for just one person.” Estimates, he said, should be free.

The job can run several hundred dollars and typically involves taking the bedroom apart to inspect every nook and cranny – as well as a follow-up visit.

“Even for us it’s tough,” Kleghorn said.

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