Bedbugs have turned up in hotels, offices and movie theaters recently. And while they aren't a severe health threat, they are creepy and crawly, and everyone wants to know why they have become so common — and how to avoid or get rid of them. Writing a book on household pests is environmental historian Dawn Biehler, assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She's concluded that communities need to work together to eliminate bedbugs in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way.
Question: How long have bedbugs been around and where do they come from?
Answer: Literary references and linguistic evidence show that bedbugs have been human bedfellows for all of recorded history. Their ancestors lived on animals like bats and swallows that roosted in caves and early human dwellings across Eurasia. Over time, they adapted to humans as an alternative food source. They came to these shores with Europeans, and colonized the continent by hitchhiking with human migrants. They have become adept at exploiting our behaviors to follow humans almost everywhere we have settled.
Q: Why are we hearing so much more about them now?
A: Bedbug infestations in the U.S. decreased dramatically following the introduction of persistent, broad-spectrum pesticides like DDT and malathion starting in the 1940s. They never went away entirely, however. Bedbugs endured in some places where people were transient or lacked the resources to achieve permanent control, but such people receive little public attention. Any affluent family that became infested hired discreet professionals to solve the problem. These scattered infestations might be the source of our current outbreak. Whatever the source of the resurgence, the bedbugs are more tenacious now because our pest-control methods have changed and the bedbugs themselves have changed. We have moved away from persistent, broad-spectrum pesticides, which is a good thing for our health, and bedbugs have evolved to resist many of those chemicals anyway. These factors have enabled the current resurgence. In some ways the current attention to bedbugs reflects the fact that they are new to most of us, and many people of all socioeconomic levels are affected. Residents of low-income rental housing have been struggling with cockroaches for decades, for example, but we seldom hear about their troubles.
Q: How can you check a hotel, or even your house, for them?
A: Use a flashlight and magnifying glass when traveling to inspect hotel beds and rooms for bedbugs. Focus your attention on the bed and immediate vicinity, and check both upon arrival and the next morning. The same items can help with home inspection. There are also monitoring devices available for purchase that can be set out to detect bedbugs in your home. Save any specimens so, if you choose to hire a pest management professional, he or she can identify them.
Q: Why do they come with such a social stigma?
A: As with other pests, many people blame residents' hygiene or housekeeping when a home becomes infested with bedbugs. This is seldom the whole story for any pest, and especially not for bedbugs. Bedbugs can live anywhere with a supply of human blood; a home need not be dirty to sustain them. The stigma also goes back to the early 20th century, when upper-income people had the economic means to rid themselves of bedbugs but lower-income people did not. Then as now, effective bedbug control could be expensive and labor-intensive. Some lower-income families did eliminate bedbugs through hard, time-consuming work, but many were unable to do so. As most affluent people eliminated bedbugs, these insects became associated with poorer folks, through no fault of the people who struggled to get rid of them.
Q: Can they cause health problems?
A: Science has not verified any infectious diseases that are spread by bedbug bites and, unlike cockroaches, they do not seem to be an asthma trigger. Other kinds of health problems are still significant, however. Many people experience extremely itchy welts when bitten. If scratched open, bites can become infected from other sources of germs. Furthermore, many people in infested households suffer emotional stress and sleeplessness. Every creepy or itchy feeling, every reddish-brown spot they see sets off anxiety and paranoia. Even after the bugs are gone, some people continue to suffer anxiety, a condition called delusory parasitosis.
Q: Do you have to use poison to get rid of them?
A: Many companies have taken advantage of fear about bedbugs to sell chemicals online or over the counter. We should be skeptical of these because of widespread pesticide resistance among bedbugs and the human health risks of indoor chemical use. Pesticides applied by untrained people can also just cause the bugs to find new hiding spots. There are definitely non-chemical means of controlling bedbugs; it is necessary to combine multiple methods with ongoing monitoring, a process known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM). There are many excellent online resources that explain effective procedures for encasing mattresses, vacuuming, laundering and eliminating bedbug hiding spots. A pest management professional who upholds the principles of IPM can provide heat or steam treatments, expert monitoring and, perhaps, judicious application of low-toxicity chemicals. Furthermore, because bedbugs spread quickly, it is often important to make IPM a community effort to alleviate stigma, support all people trying to control bedbugs and prevent reintroduction.