The nursery rhyme is right: Bedbugs do, in fact, bite. And it is preferable to not be bitten by them.
The bites itch and are annoying, as insect bites tend to be.
The good news is bedbugs don’t transmit disease to humans, so despite the gross-out factor, the irritation and the general unpleasantness that would come from an infestation of the Cimex lectularius, at the very least, they won’t make anyone sick.
Bedbugs have leapt and crawled their way into the news cycle with increased reports of infestations nationwide, showing a similar spike recently in Nashville. According to statistics from the Davidson County Department of Health, there have been 131 reports of bedbugs infestations thus far in 2010 — up from 71 last year and 56 in 2008.
Experts have tried to pin down the reason for the rising tide of bedbugs. Theories include the discontinuation of the dangerous synthetic pesticide DDT; increasing travel to south Asia, South America and parts of Europe where bedbugs are more prevalent; and ineffective curbing techniques as pest control companies move to baits rather than sprays to combat more common insects like ants and cockroaches.
For the most part, Nashville’s problem has been confined to extended-stay hotels, though there are reports of apartment and dormitory infestations, as well. The fact is, though, the high number of reports could be related as much to the increased media attention as an actual increase in bedbug population.
“When there is a huge amount of media attention on anything considered health-related, we will get more calls with complaints or service requests just based on that surge in attention,” Bill Paul, director of the health department, said in a written statement.
“There has been a huge amount of national media attention on bedbugs lately, and we are not surprised that we are getting more calls,” he said. “However, there is nothing that indicates something new or unusual going on in Nashville.”
In fact, the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service estimates the increased number of bedbug reports statewide could be as low as 18 percent. And while serious infestations probably need the services of a professional, there are home remedies.
Bedbugs can’t stand the heat, and experts say they can be killed with a high-heat hair dryer or by drying laundry on the hottest setting. And for those unsure whether they have a bedbug problem — or those unsure where the little beasties are hiding out — a Franklin company can sniff them out.
Chuck Nelson of Dog Inspectors, which uses canines to find bedbugs (with a self-reported 95 percent-plus accuracy rating), said his business has increased twelvefold over the past six months.
“People are finding they’ve got problems,” Nelson said. “They aren’t new problems necessarily; they are just willing to talk about them.”
Nelson said scientists he’s talked to predict this latest wave of bedbugs may be a “30- or 40-year problem,” but we should look back to see how to deal with them going forward.
“Until the ’40s or ’50s, we had just learned to deal with them, and now we’ve had two or three generations of people that haven’t been used to them,” he said. “We’ll have to learn new practices.”
In the meantime, German shepherd Carley and Dutch shepherd Mattie are staying busy, traveling throughout the Southeast, looking for bedbugs to earn the reward of a red rubber ball.
And what if the pooch finds the bedbugs in the bed?
“Eliminating bedbugs is difficult, but it is not impossible. Don’t throw out all of your belongings; most of them can be treated and saved. Throwing out belongings is costly, may spread the infestation, and could be unnecessarily stressful,” the Environmental Protection Agency warns.
Vacuuming can take care of the problem, as can dry steam. Unless, of course, the mattress has a hole in it, in which case the bedbugs have likely laid eggs deep inside. The good news is, of course, it’s relatively easy to fend off an infestation, even for globetrotters. Keeping luggage off the ground in a hotel room and looking for tell-tale signs like rusty marks or tarry deposits — again, more gross than dangerous — in an unfamiliar room is a good first-line strategy to avoid bringing home a hitchhiking insect.
But the fact remains that most people aren’t going to have a problem. The infestation rate is certainly higher than it has been in a generation, but it is not astronomical. The creepy-crawlies are relatively easy to detect and, for the most part, they are relatively easy to destroy.
Some annoying itches aside, bedbugs aren’t a major threat. Just a major news story.