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National Pest Management Association Claims Bedbug Surge of about 70% in the Past Five Years;
Experts Unsure About the Cause, The Six-legged Bloodsuckers Will Infest a
 One-star or a Five-star Hotel Just as Quickly
By Sabine Hirschauer, Daily Press, Newport News, Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Sep. 8, 2008 - -- You probably remember your mom's warning before tucking you into bed not to "let the bedbugs bite."

Easier said than done.

The six-legged bloodsuckers, which after a big meal look like black apple seeds, ARE biting, and making strange bedfellows on the Peninsula and elsewhere in Hampton Roads.

"We are seeing more and more complaints," said Larry Payne, senior codes compliance inspector with Newport News. "Up until two years ago, I didn't know anything about bedbugs. Last year, I might have one (complaint). Now we have several complaints every couple of weeks."

The well-traveled bug, which first landed in North America during the 17th century -- catching free rides across the Atlantic with the colonists -- was mostly eradicated in the U.S. after World War II but is making a comeback nationwide.

The National Pest Management Association confirmed a bedbug surge of about 70 percent in the past five years.

In 2000, pest professionals might have received one or two calls a year. Now they are receiving 10 to 50 calls or more a week, association officials said.

"We have to give credit to the bedbug," said Greg Baumann, the association's vice president of technical services. "Once they are in an area, they are pretty much there to stay."

They'll catch a ride on suitcases, shoe soles or moving boxes, check into run-down motels and fancy hotels, lounge around movie theaters, on cruise ships and in airplanes.

They hitchhike from dormitory to dormitory, apartment to apartment, and find permanent housing in used and antique furniture. They'll invade poor and wealthy homes alike, experts said.

They're elusive and secretive, and they usually dine at night.

"Bedbugs don't care. They don't discriminate," Baumann said. "They're feeding on one thing, and that's blood. Cleanliness would not really matter. They will infest a one-star or a five-star hotel just as quickly."

Throughout the 1990s, bedbugs still had a novelty image, and complaints were rare.

"It was more of a mystical beast like the unicorn that has once been and has not been any longer," said David Gaines, a public health entomologist with the Virginia Department of Health.

By 2000, people started to itch, and bedbug complaints began to trickle in, especially in large metropolitan areas such as New York and San Francisco, where people at home, in movie theaters and even on subways found themselves under siege by the pesky critter.

But the bug isn't suburbia shy, nor does it shun more rural areas.

"We've seen from a few complaints in 2001 to a complaint coming in almost every week this year," Gaines said. "It's a progression. And it's becoming more and more a problem."

In Newport News, Payne said, people in apartment complexes and hotels and motels have been bit and hit hard by the bug.

In Hampton, environmental health officials said they've seen about one complaint every other month in the past 1 1/2 years from people staying in motels and hotels. In previous years, it was only about one complaint a year.

"We've told our hotel manager if there is a complaint, they immediately have to take the room out of service and have to call an exterminator," said Dr. William Berg, director of the Hampton Health District.

The busy bug means booming business for local pest control companies.

Keith Bales, president of Bales Termite & Pest Controls in Newport News, said he's seen the number of calls for help from hotels, motels, private homes, apartment complexes and Section 8 housing double this year, compared with last year.

"They are showing up everywhere," he said.

Bales, whose company treats homes from West Point to Virginia Beach said even "health facilities" -- he wouldn't give names -- throughout Hampton Roads are calling with bedbug issues.

"And here we are talking about extreme sanitary conditions," he said.

Nationwide, university dormitories from Vermont to California also suffered from the bedbug surge but so far, local universities such as Christopher Newport University and the College of William and Mary have been spared, officials and students said.

While the bedbugs do bite, there is good news -- they are not a health threat.

"Nobody wants them, and they are unpleasant, but they don't spread diseases," said David Jordan, environmental health manager for the Peninsula Health District, which covers Newport News, Poquoson, Williamsburg, and James City and York counties.

In the district's hotels and motels, which get annual inspections, health officials report about 12 complaints so far this year, which is similar to last year.

Bedbug experts are still scratching their heads about the cause of the surge.

One reason might be that people travel more, especially internationally, and bedbugs have adapted to the global jet-setting.

In addition, tough pesticides such as DDT have been prohibited for decades because of their potential health risk to humans, and have been replaced with specific bug killers for more common insects, such as roaches.

To keep your home free of bedbugs, experts suggest buying bedbug-proof mattress covers. They also recommend thoroughly checking bedsheets and mattresses in motels and hotels for telltale black blood spots.

What do you do if the bedbugs are biting you?

Don't call your mom. Call the exterminator.

"They are here, and they are here to stay. People have to get out of the panic mode," Bales said. "It's not a shame to get the bedbugs. It's a shame to keep them."

What are they like? --The bugs are mahogany- colored to rusty brown, red or black after a meal.

--They're flat, oval-shaped, have six legs and about a quarter-inch long.

--They're so named because they prefer to live in beds.

--They like to hide in small cracks and crevices and behind baseboards, picture frames, wallpaper and furniture and upholstery.

--They dine primarily on humans.

--They don't transmit diseases, but their bites can become red, itchy welts.

Source: National Pest Management Association

More information How to prevent getting them

--Vacuum suitcases after returning from vacation.

--Immediately check mattresses and sheets where you're staying for telltale black spots.

--Carry large plastic trash bags to store your suitcase in during hotel stays.

--Don't unpack -- just take out the clothes you'll wear.

--Inspect antique and used furniture immediately after purchase.

If you get them

--Call an exterminator.

Source: National Pest Management Association

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Copyright (c) 2008, Daily Press, Newport News, Va.

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