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Bedbugs are here to stay - what can we do about it?

Marcos Michelet, with Care Pest and Wildlife Control, checks a room with Vegas, a beagle specially trained to sniff out bed bugs. Michelet says infestations of the tiny blood-sucking insects have been on a steady increase over the last six years, and they were recently discovered in library books. - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
Marcos Michelet, with Care Pest and Wildlife Control, checks a room with Vegas, a beagle specially trained to sniff out bed bugs. Michelet says infestations of the tiny blood-sucking insects have been on a steady increase over the last six years, and they were recently discovered in library books.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER

Bedbugs are nothing if not big news these days.

Whether it’s reports of the blood-sucking pests appearing at even the poshest hotels or rental apartment buildings being treated to prevent their spread, or even the fact that bedbugs can hitch a ride on clothing or in luggage, it’s all enough to make your skin crawl.

And your wallet bleed. BC Housing spent more than $721,000 over a 12-month period fighting bedbugs at 43 of 49 of its housing complexes in the Lower Mainland, according to recent media reports.

The bedbug-aversion effect is also spreading through online bedbug registries where people can report finding the pests in hotels and apartments, and the fact that it’s now next to impossible to find a charity thrift store that will accept soft furniture such as sofas.

More recently, public libraries in Burnaby and New Westminster have had to inspect and treat its facilities. In Burnaby the issue was raised after bedbugs were discovered, ironically, in the mystery and thrillers section of its Metrotown branch in September.

So it’s no surprise that bedbug control now makes up 40 per cent of the business at Burnaby’s Care Pest and Wildlife Control Ltd., where its team of four bedbug-sniffing dogs and their handlers are in high demand.

Care Pest was called in to inspect the Burnaby library branches which, when bedbugs were found, treated shelving with steam and the books with heat to kill the bugs and their eggs.

The dogs are trained to detect live bedbugs or viable eggs, said Marcos Michelet, manager of Care Pest’s dog unit.

“We don’t really care about dead ones because a dead bedbug is a good bedbug.”

On the wing

Bedbugs are nocturnal pests that feed on human blood. They’ve always been around, said Michelet, but first became a major issue right after the Second World War.

When bedbugs became resistant to the highly-toxic pesticide DDT, it was replaced with a class of chemicals called organophosphates. Those were highly effective in killing bedbugs but their residual effects were extremely long, he explained, leading to them being banned out of concern for its longterm toxic effects on the environment.

Today, the pest-control industry uses organic products derived from the chrysanthemum flower. The drawback is they don’t work as well and don’t last as long. Essentially, the chemical must hit the bedbugs directly to kill them off, not always the easiest thing to do especially when they’re known to hide in bedding, furniture, and inside walls.

One theory is that the fall of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and early ’90s led to increased travel to and from Eastern Europe which had a nasty bedbug problem, he said. Combined with the ease of travel today, it’s led to a worldwide spread of bedbugs.

Treating the problem is easier said than done.

Bedbugs can stay alive for up to a year without feeding. The oval bugs (female are rounder, like an apple seed) generally only come out at night and their black droppings, each about the size of a grain of sand, are the first telltale signs. Unlike other pests like mice and cockroaches, they don’t carry disease.

In an apartment building it’s often residents a few doors down from the source of the problem that first complains.

That’s partly due to the stigma of bedbugs which is often wrongly associated with lack of cleanliness, Michelet said.

“A lot of people think if I say anything my landlord is going to make me pay for treatment or evict me. It’s not true.”

By the time someone complains, often 10 per cent of a building will already be infested, he said.

“The government says it’s not a health issue but it is a mental health issue.”

A large part of the fear around bedbugs is that they attack at night, when people are asleep, “in your bed which is a most sacred place.”

While Care Pest will sometimes treat with chemicals, after one of its sniffer dogs detects bedbugs present, it advocates heat treatment. In that case, rooms are sealed off and heaters and fans used to mimic a convection oven, bringing the temperature up to 50 C, hot enough to kill bedbugs.

Clutter is the greatest challenge to all forms of bedbug treatment, Michelet noted. During heat treatment, clutter can prevent the hot air from circulating to kill off all the pests. Otherwise, the heat treatment is 90 per cent effective with just one treatment.

Increasing complaints

New Westminster Coun. Jaimie McEvoy has heard an increasing number of bedbug complaints through his role as director of the Hospitality Project, a charity that supports the New Westminster Food Bank among other services.

He said bedbugs are hard to control but even more so when landlords don’t know how to deal with the problem properly or are slow to respond.

Nevertheless, the problem is everywhere. The independent online Bedbug Registry recently had 19,444 bedbug reports for Vancouver with 180 reports in New Westminster.

“They’re in apartments, hotels, hospitals, and now they’re in our libraries,” said McEvoy. “Anyone can get bed bugs, from a typical rental apartment to high end condos and homes.”

McEvoy said in New York, the problem has gotten so bad the city formed a Bedbug Task Force to deal with the issue. He believes the Fraser Health Authority should follow suit, and intends to present a motion to council asking Fraser Health to do so.

Michelet, who is the handler for bedbug-sniffing beagle Vegas, said his dog sees his work as much as a chance to eat as an opportunity to work.

In a demonstration, Vegas was quick to find the live bedbugs inside vials hidden inside a roomful of furniture at Care Pest's offices. Each time he sniffs out a bug, he sits, pointing his noise at the source.

With each successful detection, he gets a bite of kibble.

The four dogs used by Care Pest are trained in Florida and are all smaller breeds—beagle (Vegas and Ranger), terrier cross (Duke) and whippet-beagle cross (Sky)—since they're less threatening to clients who are then more willing to use them, Michelet said.

In the worst cases, it appears the dog isn't even necessary, as he shows photos on his cellphone of a side of a bed absolutely covered with the bugs. In that case, the boy whose bed it was is among the 50 per cent of people who don't react to bedbug bites, he explained, so he never noticed the bugs which were on the side of the bed against a wall. It was a neighbour two suites over who first complained.

Then there's the other extreme.

Lately, they've been getting numerous calls from people who think they have bedbugs because they've had to scratch a sudden itch, or think they felt a bite while getting a towel out of a linen closet, for instance.

Michelet has gotten pretty good at assessing such calls in a pest-control version of triage.

"We get these calls on a daily basis."

And then there was the time Michelet was called to a house of a woman convinced she had bedbugs. She was itching and scratching and found dark spots on her bed which turned out to be lint.

Vegas didn't detect anything, but that wasn't good enough for the client. So over four months, each week one of the company's four dogs did another inspection—and never found anything.

Then the woman finally went to the doctor who diagnosed her with scabies.

"I'm glad to know all my dogs were right," he said with a laugh.

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