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The Common Bedbug, Cimex Lectularius,
Makes Big Comeback
By Edward Ortiz, Providence Journal, R.I.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

Jan. 5, 2004 - For years the bedbug has made benign appearances in our homes as part of a nighttime rhyme that counseled sleepers to sleep tight. 

But the bedbug is back, and in some places, it's back with a blood-thirsty vengeance. 

The parasite has become so prevalent lately that pest-control specialists are scrambling to deal with infestations by training workers who know nothing about them. 

Bedbugs have been feeding on mankind for centuries, and their pestilence has been documented since the 17th century. Bedbugs were a common pest in the United States in the years before World War II. 

Today the common bedbug -- its scientific name is Cimex lectularius -- is invading the beds of posh hotels and college dormitories, as well as homes and tenements. 

The return of the pest in the United States has been traced to 1999, said Frank Meek, national technical manager and etymologist at the exterminating company Orkin, which is based in Atlanta. 

Data from Orkin shows a 300-percent jump in calls about bedbug infestation in homes and commercial buildings from 2000 to 2001. There has been a 70-percent increase in calls in each year since then. 

The return of the bedbug has been reported in 28 states, including Rhode Island, and three Canadian provinces. 

In Rhode Island, the appearance of the bedbug has increased exponentially in the last two years, said Tony DeJesus, director of training at New England Pest Control. 

DeJesus has worked for the Providence pest control company for 25 years, but before 2001 he had only heard of two bedbug exterminations. In the last two years, the company has been hired to do more than 24 eradications. 

DeJesus believes that bedbug eradication is a growth industry. 

"Within a few years, these bugs will be a problem in movie theaters, subway stations, and airports," said DeJesus. 

Transportation, both global and local, has been implicated in the spread of the bedbug. 

A recent outbreak in England, where a group of women was afflicted with bedbug bites, was traced to a particular trolley that all the women had ridden to work. 

Two college dormitories in the Boston area were infested with bedbugs, DeJesus said. Two local colleges have reported the pest to DeJesus. He would not identify them. 

The common bedbug is a flat brown insect, a quarter-inch long, that feeds on human blood. It is drawn to body heat and prefers to feed just before dawn. It hides between floorboards, in bed frames, and in the seams of mattresses. 

After grasping human skin with powerful forelegs, it sinks a feeder into the skin and injects saliva containing an anticoagulant. After that the blood sucking begins. It is not unusual for the bedbug to suck in as much as three times its weight in human blood. The feast usually takes from 4 to 12 minutes. Bites are often seen in a cluster of three linear bites, which used to go under the folksy moniker "breakfast, lunch, and dinner." 

The bedbug can move from room to room within 24 hours, and can go up to six months without feeding. It is also known to carry 20 different kinds of pathogens, including hepatitis B, although studies have shown that transmission of those pathogens to humans is extremely rare. 

Bedbugs can enter a home or hotel room through luggage and clothing or furniture. 

Though the increase in global travel has been implicated, many believe that the resurgence of the bedbug is due to the ban of pesticides such as DDT -- a chemical crucial to the eradication of bedbugs and malaria after World War II. 

Bedbug expert Harold Harlan said he believed that the restricted use of pesticides has given the bedbug a leg up on other pests. 

Harlan, a senior entomologist at the National Pest Control Management Association, keeps a permanent colony of bedbugs in three pint-sized jars in his office outside of Washington, D.C. 

When Harlan is not letting the pesky insects feed on his forearm, he's studying their behavior to assess the best way to eradicate them. 

Harlan said that today's environment-friendly pest eradication approaches -- putting out traps and bait -- are worthless for getting rid of bedbugs. At one time, every room of a house would be sprayed with pesticides such as DDT, but public awareness and a ban on certain chemicals have put an end to such wide-scale pest eradication practices, Harlan said. 

Harlan added that after DDT was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972, many other chemicals crucial to the eradication of insects were also taken off the market. 

Pesticide manufacturers have been reluctant to reenter the bedbug eradivation market with new chemicals, he said. 

DDT was banned because research found that the chemical thinned the thickness of eggshells. DDT also remains in the environment for a long time. Effects on humans showed that prolonged exposure to the chemical caused numbness, tremors and memory loss. Although many countries have banned the chemical, some countries -- most of them in Africa -- are using DDT to combat a malaria epidemic that one study said kills one child every 40 seconds in sub-Saharan Africa. 

DeJesus said that the absence of DDT and the changing cleaning habits of Americans are contributing to the bedbug comeback. 

"In the '40s and '50s, we used to treat every room in the house and we used to do spring cleanings. That's not done anymore," he said. 

DeJesus said he believed that the bedbug is here to stay because they are difficult to eradicate and most people who have them are not aware that they are harboring bedbugs. 

The eradication of the pest includes the use of peremithrin, said DeJesus. The treatment is time-consuming and costly. Beds must be taken apart, furniture closely examined, and carpeting pulled up, DeJesus said. A typical eradication costs more than $500 and takes several hours. 

-----To see more of the Providence Journal, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to 

(c) 2004, Providence Journal, R.I. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. ROL, 


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