By Adam Voiland
For Kyle Anderson, 19, the battle began with a row of welts on his stomach. Soon the Arizona State University student, who was living in a private apartment complex in Tempe, was waking up repeatedly at night to smash anything that moved.
His prey? Cimex lectularius, those notorious nocturnal, lentil-size bedbugs that feed on human blood, can travel on anything from luggage to a used sofa and are now popping up everywhere across America—from homes to hotels to summer camps—in surprisingly large numbers. "History is repeating itself," says Michael Potter, an entomologist from the University of Kentucky and a leading bedbug expert, who notes that most American homes were crawling with the bugs prior to World War II. The widespread use of potent insecticides such as DDT nearly wiped them out. Experts aren't sure what's spurring a comeback now, but they theorize it's a combination of international travel and the move away from strong pesticides.
"If bedbugs transmitted disease, what's happening would be considered a huge epidemic," says Dini Miller, an entomologist at Virginia Tech who, like Potter, is one of only a handful of researchers studying live bedbugs in the lab. 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.
Psychological pest. There's no doubt, however, that the wingless bugs, which inject an anesthetic to mask their feeding, make some people itch and spread the willies. "They come in the dark; they feed on you; they scurry away when you turn the light on," says Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology at the University of California-Davis. And they are indeed tough to beat. Their waxy cuticle resists desiccation, and they can live for more than a year without a blood meal. Unlike head lice, which tend to die once they drop away from the scalp, they scatter into the cracks and crevices of a room, so exterminators have to track down and kill bugs individually. The eggs are tiny and easy to miss; overlook a few, and the bugs bounce back.
Moreover, says Potter, many have grown resistant to the chemicals used to fight them, mainly a class of insecticides known as pyrethroids. Potter and University of Kentucky researchers showed that bedbugs collected randomly around the country were up to thousands of times more resistant to the chemicals than a nonresistant laboratory strain of bug.
"We make no guarantees," says Matt Nixon, CEO of American Pest Management, an extermination company that serves the Washington, D.C., area. Exterminators say eradicating bedbugs usually requires a multipronged approach (for example, the use of chemical agents, targeted vacuuming and steaming, and possible disposal of infested furniture) and a number of follow-up visits to confirm that no stragglers remain. The entire process can easily run more than $500.
Business is booming. Nixon's company treated nine homes and hundreds of apartments for bedbugs in May alone—up from zero jobs during May of 2002. The National Pest Management Association, the trade group of more than 5,000 companies, reports a 71 percent increase in bedbug calls between 2000 and 2005. Entomologists say their phones are ringing off the hook with pleas for guidance. Stephen Kells, an entomologist from the University of Minnesota, estimates that as many as 1 in 6,000 single-family homes is now infested.
You May Not Be Alone
Here's how you can keep those bedbugs from biting
By Adam Voiland
Page 2 of 2
Some people take bedbugs in stride; for others, killing them becomes almost an obsession. Exterminators, entomologists, and Internet forums are full of war stories: a girl from New York who dumped 5 gallons of insecticide on her mattress; people who have claimed multimillion-dollar damages in court; a photographer from New York who started microwaving her books; and a woman from West Virginia who sprays herself with pesticides before climbing into her bed.
Such stories of misery cause some experts to argue that the problem has been blown completely out of proportion. "Some people in the industry are grandstanding," says Richard Pollack, an entomologist at Harvard University, who notes that mosquitoes, which spread a number of deadly diseases, are a greater health threat. "People have to make sure they don't fall prey to stories that are more alarming than they are factual," says George Rambo, former technical director of the National Pest Control Association and a consultant who points out that even with rising rates of bedbug infestations, the overall number remains relatively low. People who are alarmed should keep in mind that most don't react to the bites—which not that long ago were a fact of life.
Anyway, Pollack says, with time and patience, most infestations can be eliminated. "I have people who call me in tears. They're in hysterics," he says. "My response is to put things in perspective. This is not a terminal illness. Being upset is not going to kill any bedbugs."
Occasionally the critters win. Kyle Anderson tried bug bombs, obsessive vacuuming and laundering, and pleading with his landlord to get the pests under control, but nothing worked. After more than seven months of waking up with bites, he surrendered and moved.