Morgan McTavish woke up in her Ottawa hotel covered in welts. They were on her arms, her neck and her torso. “I must have eaten something to give me hives,” she thought in dismay. The welts were in clusters and some had red centres.
However, the spots didn’t go away. By the time she was back home, she was one big itch and some of the welts had become scabby spots from all her scratching. “This is clearly not just a case of hives,” she concluded and called her doctor.
The diagnosis? Bed bug bites. But this was just the beginning of the horror story. Unbeknownst to Morgan, her luggage carried home more than just her dirty laundry. Hidden in the cracks and crannies of her favourite bags were a few hitchhikers. Not only was she very uncomfortable with severe itching for nearly a month, but because she had assumed the welts were from hives, she didn’t take any precautions with her luggage. By the time she figured out what was going on, it was already too late. The bed bugs quickly migrated to her furniture. It cost her several hundred dollars to get rid of the pests.
Infestations were up 30% per cent in 2010 over the previous year. Downtown apartment blocks seem to be home to the biggest infestation, but the bugs are showing up in private homes and even in businesses. You can pick them up at hotels as did Morgan, from visitors who may have recently stayed at a hotel or even at local theatres.
What to watch for
The bugs are oval in shape and about a quarter-inch long – about the size of a ladybug. They are flat and a translucent,whitish colour when unfed, and they can exist for as long as 18 months without a meal, swelling and turning red after a feed. They prefer human blood but will also go after animals and birds.
Attracted by body heat and carbon dioxide, they feed at night, when the victim is asleep, latching on for five to ten minutes in areas where blood is close to the skin – on neck, face, arms, upper torso, but also on ankles and lower legs. They inject an anti coagulant to make the blood easy to ingest.
In Morgan’s case, she had an allergic reaction to the bite, which is very common, but some people have virtually no reaction to the bites. In this case, their only clue to the infestation may be dark spots on their sheets or pillow cases, signs of dried blood or squashed bugs or their feces.
Bed bug habits
Over her lifetime, the female will lay hundreds of eggs which are covered with a tough adhesive that makes egg clusters hard to dislodge – you have to scrape them off furniture or mattresses. The eggs hatch in seven to 14 days.
Bed bugs are very good at hiding, laying their eggs and living during the day in crevices in mattress and box springs, upside down on the underside of bed frames, behind cracks in wallpapers or loose moldings. They quickly move from room to room, traveling along electric wiring, which is why they are such a problem in apartment blocks.
How to kill them
Bed bugs are susceptible to heat: a 125 degree F washing water will kill them and their eggs, so there is no need to discard sheets or washable clothing if you have been infested. Even 15 or 20 minutes in the dryer on high will do the trick. Cold will not harm them.
Bed bugs were brought to North America from Europe in the early part of the 20th century and up until the fifties almost one-third of homes were infested. Then the chemical, DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), invented in 1943, came on the market and the bed bugs were all but eradicated. DDT was widely and perhaps recklessly, used as the“everything-pesticide” to kill crop pests – even to de-louse immigrants.
In the 1960s, the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published. It had a tremendous impact because she outlined the environmental effect of the product: the peregrine falcon was beginning to decline because DDT caused the thinning of their egg shells. DDT soon disappeared off the shelves to be replaced by much less effective products: plant-produced permethrins and pyrethrins are most commonly used now.
At the same time, exterminators, who had previously shut down a household
and sprayed everything to kill any pests, suddenly started using insectspecific bug traps. If they were after roaches, the bed bugs got off scot-free.