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23 September 2010

Death to the bedbug

Killing a single bedbug can be as easy as rolling on top of it in your sleep. Ridding a home or hotel of many bedbugs is an exhausting and expensive task.

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Killing a single bedbug can be as easy as rolling on top of it in your sleep. Ridding a home or hotel of its siblings and cousins on the other hand, is an exhausting and expensive task.

Nearly eliminated a few decades ago, bedbugs are back with a vengeance.

They've overtaken college dorms, military barracks, apartment complexes, office buildings and even forced the closure of Niketown's flagship New York store.

They are big business: $258 million (about R1.8 billion) in the United States last year, according to the National Pest Management Association.

Bedbug extermination summit

Leading experts gathered in a Chicago suburb for a two-day summit on eradicating the hardy critters, which can live a year without feeding and like to explore at night, often catching rides to new homes in luggage, handbags and clothing.

"It's easy to come in and kill bedbugs with insecticide, but it's much harder to get to the point where you can be confident that they're gone," Kenneth Haynes, an entomologist with the University of Kentucky, told AFP.

Bedbugs are very good at hiding, he explained, and the problem is finding a poison which is powerful enough to kill all the bugs and their eggs but safe enough to be used indoors.

The summit's showroom was filled with potential solutions: massive room heaters to bake the bugs, carbon dioxide sprayers to freeze the bugs, high powered steamers to boil the bugs, plastic moats and barriers to block the bugs from getting into beds, tight-fitting mattress protectors, and even specially-trained dogs to sniff out their hiding spots.

Bedbug hysteria

"There's so much bedbug hysteria and 75% of it is well-founded," said David James, whose company Packtite sells portable heating chambers designed to kill any critters that crawl into luggage or non-washable possessions like books and shoes.

"They're so bad out there and they're so hard to kill," James said as he manned a busy display at the sold-out show.

"I've had people call me and say they've gone bankrupt trying to get rid of them because they keep replacing their clothes and furniture." There is unfortunately no silver bullet for eradicating bed bugs, said Phillip Cooper, president of BedBug Central, a for-profit educational organisation which hosted the conference.

"Nothing works on its own," said Cooper, who also runs a pest-control company founded by his father in 1955.

Inspecting the main suspects

The best thing to do is try to keep bed bugs out of your home by carefully inspecting hotel rooms, washing all clothes taken on a trip in hot water and vacuuming or treating your luggage.

If you end up picking up the critters at work, a movie theatre, church or work, hope that you find them quick and call a professional right away.

A moderate infestation can be eradicated with a single, properly-applied treatment of insecticide, Cooper said. But serious infestations can require several treatments and a multiprong approach costing thousands of dollars.

One way large hotel and apartment complexes are cutting their costs is hiring sniffer dogs to pinpoint exactly which units are affected and find the nests.

Getting into business

A property manager at a large apartment complex outside Chicago, Shellie Beno, got into the business last year after residents started bringing her bags filled with bedbugs.

Pest controllers would spend hours tearing an apartment apart looking for nests. Her three dogs can search a typical unit in about five to seven minutes. And their noses can sniff out places people can't, like behind the walls.

Another advantage is the dogs are much less intrusive and residents don't have to worry that their neighbours will know they've got bugs.

"Would you rather have me going through your dresser drawers or my dogs?" said her Detective Bedbug partner David Bohannan.

(Sapa, September 2010)

 
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