Bedbugs – they’re back. After a worldwide 30-year near-extinction, the creepy, crawly, miniscule, blood-sucking insects have found their way into homes, dormitories, hotels and homeless shelters since the turn of the century.
Not only have bedbugs snuck back into beds, but they’re tougher to kill and there is little data on them.
Enter assistant professor Stephen Kells, an entomologist at the University who researches bedbug behaviors and how to exterminate them.
Kells said heavy use of pesticide helped fuel their near-demise in the 1970s, but the bugs returning now are up to 12,000 times more resistant to the poisons. He has a mini-fridge filled with thousands of them to find a nonchemical killer.
Bedbugs, scientific name Cimex lectularius, are small, flat, reddish-brown insects that feed off sleeping humans with painless bites. They are less than a centimeter long and look similar to a tick, but only have six legs.
About 80 percent of people will have reactions to bedbug bites, some as severely as hives, Kells said. Jay Bruesch, technical director for Plunkett’s Pest Control, said many of his customers’ worst reactions are psychological or emotional.
“The knowledge that something is sharing your bed with you while you’re asleep at night – in your most vulnerable state – they crawl onto you, stick a needle in you and drink your blood, it tends to fill people with disgust and dread,” he said.
The bedbugs resurgence started during the late 1990s in hotels and motels but moved onto apartments and single-family homes. Many scientists have attributed the bugs’ increase in population to a boost in international travel and changes in pesticide use.
Even University residence halls are not immune to the pests. Bruesch said Plunkett’s Pest Control, which handles pest inspections and exterminations for University residence halls, has responded to reports of bedbugs on campus, but would not confirm if any had actually been found.
Connie Thompson, assistant director of housing and residential life facilities, said no bedbugs have been found in any residence halls.
Kells said it’s a misconception that the bugs only live in poor housing conditions or among immigrant populations. He estimated that one out of every 6,000 mid- to upper-class homes is infested.
The insect is fairly unknown in a scientific sense. Kells said there is “literally a 30-year void” in research on the bugs. He added that the little information available is often outdated and inaccurate.
Kells said it’s exciting to study an insect with a blank slate, but wishes more research was available.
“We need these answers now, because we’re dealing with the problem now,” he said. “We have people who are undergoing severe anxiety now, because they’re trying to find answers to questions and in many cases we don’t have those answers.”
The problem with bedbugs, beyond their physical and emotional tolls, is that they are difficult and expensive to kill. The bugs can survive without oxygen for more than 24 hours or food for up to a year, conserve water as well as desert insects and tend to scatter from the bed then hide.
Kells has found that heating the bugs to about 130 degrees or freezing them to negative 16 degrees instantly kills them. Pest control agencies are currently using heat techniques Kells has researched to kill bedbug infestations.
Bruesch said bedbug infestations are some of the most costly, with exterminations typically averaging more than $1,000 for a single-family home.
“Treatment has to go very slowly, you have people inspecting and treating every crack, crevice, nook and cranny in a single family home that is 1/64 of an inch or larger,” he said.
Kells predicted the spread of bed bugs will continue during the foreseeable future, and thinks they will become a bigger problem in homeless shelters.