Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, November 24, 2023

Bedbugs: Your holiday guests are on their way

They’re spreading fast and hard to kill. But you’re not defenseless

The graphic photographs from Paris this fall were horrifying. Bedbugs by the bushel, not just in hotels but at movie theaters, on trains and even at the airport. An army of pest control specialists have used heat guns, cryogenics and steam treatments to get rid of the pests, which laugh at traditional insecticides.

That’s the bad news. The worse news? They’re not just in Paris, meaning your holiday guests might be bringing the unwanted companions with them when they arrive at your house.

“Paris is the first big city where the problem became obvious, but other cities will follow,” says Dr. Stylianos Chatzimanolis, a professor in the department of biology, geology and environmental science at University of Tennessee in Chattanooga. “I don’t think there’s anything particular about Paris.”

The Rise of the Bedbug has been accelerated by several factors. First, after the pandemic more people are traveling, and hordes of bedbugs are hitching a ride. If you were at a hotel in New York City where there were bedbugs (more common than you want to know about) and left your suitcase open, there’s a good chance the pests climbed in. Then they crossed the Pond and took up residence in your new hotel room or Airbnb.

Quite possibly, global warming and bedbugs haven’t been a topic of conversation yet. Experts say it should be.

Heat accelerates a bedbug’s life cycle, entomologist Jean-Michel Bérenger told Wired magazine. He should know. He co-founded the National Institute for the Study and Fight Against Bed Bugs in 2018. The average temperature was 4.5 degrees Celsius above normal in Paris during September and October.

“When the temperature inside your house is 25 to 26 degrees Celsius (77 to 78.8 Fahrenheit), it takes only five days for the bedbug eggs to hatch,” he says. “In normal conditions, when the temperature is around 20 degrees Celsius, it takes 10 days.”

More bad news. The pests are so insecticide resistant that homeowners will have a very hard time getting rid of them without expensive professional intervention.

The good news (finally!) is that bedbugs don’t carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans. The bites clear up without treatment in a week or two, the Mayo Clinic reports.

“Bedbugs are scary because they can cause a psychological fear of insects,” says Chatzimanolis. “I will happily take a bedbug over a mosquito or tick bite. They carry serious diseases. Bedbugs don’t carry any diseases. From a medical point of view, they’re not a problem.”

But still. If having hundreds of bloodsucking bugs the size of apple seeds crawling around your mattress at night creeps you out, you’re not alone. One hundred percent of people who’ve encountered them agree: They’re just…well…yucky.

A brief history of the bedbug

You might think bedbugs are just recent unwanted guests in cheap and sketchy motel rooms, but they’ve been congregating in the places humans love most for centuries. They’re equal-opportunity interlopers; unwelcome guests in places both high and low.

Dr. Karen Vail of the University of Tennessee’s entomology and plant pathology department aggregated everything you probably don’t want to know about bedbugs.

Greece recorded the first appearance of the pests in 400 B.C. The beds back then had wooden frames with bands of animal hide and skins laced across them, sufficiently fluffy to accommodate a bedbug infestation.

The bugs migrated around Europe for centuries. A recent scientific review reports several London hotels infested in the 1800s cautioned their lodgers “to become half-drunk to obtain some sleep.”

Depending on the construction of beds and bedding, bedbugs have waxed and waned throughout history. In the mid-1700s, cast iron bed frames replaced wooden ones. The cast iron made for a difficult environment for the bugs, and the metal could be easily disinfected. The cotton mattresses that replaced animal hides could be boiled to eliminate the insects.

The pests were nearly eradicated in developed countries after World War II due to the increased use of insecticides. But the pesky insects developed a resistance to the poisons over time. They made a comeback in the 1990s due to that resistance, an increase in human travel and more secondhand furniture sales.

Today, bedbugs are again found worldwide. Antarctica is the only bed bug-free continent. Let’s all move to Antarctica.

In 2019, Orkin released a list of the Top 50 Bedbug Cities in the United States. Baltimore was at the head of the pack, followed by Washington D.C. and Chicago. Knoxville and Nashville weighed in at numbers 23 and 24. Chattanooga wasn’t on the list. If we can’t make it to Antarctica, let’s all move to Chattanooga.


Jason Oliver’s adult son fears bedbugs. He has good reason.

Dr. Oliver is a research professor in entomology at Tennessee State University, but it’s his personal experiences with bedbugs that give him the willies. His son was starting medical school in Memphis and moved into an apartment. Then everything went downhill. He discovered his new roommates were bedbugs.

“It was a traumatic experience for him because the apartment complex said he was the source and made him pay for the extermination treatments,” says Oliver. “It was a waste of money because they move from room to room or floor to floor. He was trying to deal with medical school, and he ended up sleeping on a cot with sticky traps on the legs. They were biting him at night and even in the morning. It affected him emotionally a little bit.”

The treatments were ineffective because over decades the bugs have outsmarted them.

The pesticide of choice in the mid-1900s was DDT. DDT would kill the insects by disrupting their nervous systems. It was popular because it vanquished the existing pests and continued killing insects for months after it was applied. But by the 1950s, bedbugs had become resistant. And it was banned in the United States in 1972 because it posed dangers to both humans and wildlife.

What took its place were pyrethroid pesticides. Turns out bedbugs are resistant to them, as well. Chow-Yang Lee, a professor of urban entomology at the University of California Riverside, is the co-author of a recent review on bedbug eradication reported in the National Institutes of Health.

“Insecticides, especially the use of pyrethroids, are useless,” he says in an article by Vox. “That will never get rid of bedbugs.”

Chatzimanolis says the bedbugs’ resistance to pesticides is much the same as humans’ reaction to antibiotics. The more you use them, the less effective they are.

“We spray pesticides on them,” he says. “Most of them will die, but maybe one or two out of a thousand will have random mutations that allow them to survive. You’re going to kill 998 bedbugs and two will survive. They’ll produce the next generation and they’ll also have the resistance.”

One of the favored ways of getting rid of a bedbug infestation these days is extreme heat. Temperatures around 113 degrees Fahrenheit kill bedbugs, and research shows the pests aren’t likely to develop a tolerance for heat. Very cold temperatures can do the trick, too. Often, exterminators use a combination of heat and chemicals to treat infestations.

But the cost can be prohibitive. This Old House estimates you can expect to pay from $300 to $5,000 to get rid of bedbugs depending on the area of infestation. And you’ll have to have multiple inspections since the pests can live more than a year without a food source. That will cost up to $150 extra for each inspection.

Keeping an eye out

At this point, you might be thinking that bedbugs may be a problem for other people but not for you. Think again. One in five homeowners report some level of bedbug activity. Usually, the pests are brought into the home via your luggage, backpack, purse or other personal items that spent time in an environment already occupied by bedbugs.

“Well, I come from the interesting perspective of owning a hauling company that used to haul items from bedbug ridden rooms,” says Caryn Hatcher, now a travel agent who has also owned a trucking company. “It could be the hayseed across from the stadium or it could be a high-end hotel. Bedbugs don’t care how fancy you are.”

So now that you’re thoroughly paranoid, here’s what to look for in your home if you suspect a bedbug invasion, This Old House reports.

• A strong odor similar to the smell of rotten raspberries

• Tiny eggshell-colored skins on your mattresses

• Dark brown or black spots in your mattress seams or bed-frame slats

• Blood stains on pillowcases or sheets

And then, of course, there will be the inevitable tiny red bumps on your skin if you’ve been bitten.

So keep an eye out now that you know what to look for in your house or apartment. And keep in mind the nursery rhyme that may have sent you off to slumber as a child.

Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.