You probably hate reading about bedbugs.
Believe me, I’m not too crazy about having to write about them.
But bedbugs are an increasingly vexing problem in our region. Orkin recently ranked the Cleveland-Akron-Canton area eighth in infestations in the United States; Terminix ranked Cleveland 15th.
Granted, those rankings are based on reports to the pest control companies and are skewed to their experiences and the places where they operate. But experts say there’s no dispute that bedbugs are spreading north in Ohio and that infestations are widespread enough to be troubling.
Last week, I had the good fortune to attend a bedbug update led by Susan C. Jones, an urban entomologist at Ohio State University and a nationally recognized expert on the creepy critters. Along with a case of phantom itchiness, I came away with some good strategies for battling the bugs.
First, the bad news.
There is no magic bullet. People want a cheap and easy solution, but Jones insisted there is none.
Bedbugs — at least the ones in our area — have developed resistance to most of the pesticides that are considered safe for indoor use today. While some over-the-counter products will kill bedbugs if you manage to spray it right on them, those products stop working as soon as they dry. So even though you might be able to kill the bugs you can see, multitudes of their friends are hiding safely in your box springs, behind your baseboards, inside your electrical outlets or in any number of other places.
“These bugs are unbelievable. … They’re the ultimate survivor,” Jones said.
Now the good news.
The increase in bedbugs is getting people’s attention. And Jones said awareness can go a long way toward keeping the bugs at bay.
If we learn to recognize signs of infestation and get in the habit of taking precautions to prevent the bugs’ spread, we stand a decent chance of keeping them out of our homes. Should the insects get in anyway, our awareness will help us notice them faster and boost our chances of eradicating them quickly and without great expense.
So what do bedbugs look like?
The best description I’ve heard is an apple seed with legs. The adults are about that size, shape and color.
But don’t expect to find the bugs themselves. They hide during the day in any tiny space they can find and come out at night to suck our blood.
Yeah, I know. Gross.
What you need to learn to recognize, Jones said, is the evidence of their presence. Itchy, red welts from bites are an obvious clue, but not everyone reacts that way when they’re bitten, she said. And not all bites are caused by bedbugs.
That’s why it’s important to recognize other signs of the bugs.
Probably the easiest to spot are the black dots of their feces. Those dots point to the places bedbugs hang out. Often the black spots are found on mattresses and box springs, particularly along the welting; on the bed frame; and behind the headboard.
But bedbugs don’t always live on beds, and their fecal spots can be found just about anyplace that’s near where humans sleep or spend a lot of their time.
Look behind pictures on the wall, along baseboards, around window and door frames, in drapery pleats, under the bed skirt, around outlets and switch plates, in the drawers of night stands and along the edges of carpet.
Check your couch or favorite easy chair and the area nearby.
Look from floor to ceiling, Jones counseled. Bedbugs like warmth, so they’re often found high in a room where the rising warm air reaches.
Other signs are white eggs resembling sesame seeds, which are stuck in place by a glue the female produces; shed skins and eggshells; and bloodstains that result when the bugs are crushed.
Obviously you want to keep an eye out for these signs in your home, but you should also search diligently for them when you stay in a hotel or other overnight accommodation, Jones said.
If you find evidence of bedbugs, ask to be moved to a room in a different part of the hotel. Don’t accept a room that’s next to the infested one or directly above or below it, because bedbugs can travel through walls, floors and ceilings.
Even if you don’t find any signs of bedbugs, don’t let your guard down. “I’m good [at inspecting],” Jones said, “and I miss bedbugs.”
That’s why she strongly advises taking precautions with your luggage and belongings so you don’t unwittingly take home a hitchhiker.
Don’t put the suitcase on a bed, on the floor or on a piece of upholstered furniture, she said.
Use a luggage rack instead, but only after you’ve checked it for signs of bedbugs. Better yet, put the rack and suitcase in the bathtub.
Keep your clothes in your suitcase instead of moving them to a chest of drawers, and keep the suitcase zipped. Even the closet can be suspect, she said. If you need to hang clothes, use the shower curtain rod.
When you get home, inspect your luggage and then store it far away from living and sleeping areas, possibly in the garage and preferably in a tightly closed plastic bag.
Hotels aren’t the only place you can pick up bedbugs, though. Your child might bring them home from school in a backpack. You might have them crawl into your purse or the treads of your sneakers at a theater.
Even brand new clothes can harbor bedbugs, especially if someone else took them home to an infested house and then returned them.
I’m not trying to make you panic or turn you into a hermit. I just think it’s best to realize that bedbugs can come from just about anywhere, so you’ll stay vigilant.
Luckily, you probably have a bedbug prevention device right in your home. It’s your clothes dryer.
Heat kills bedbugs, so use your dryer in a proactive way, Jones advised. She always launders and machine-dries her clothes as soon as she returns home from a trip, and you might even want to pop new clothes or other dryable items into the machine as soon as you get home from the store.
A half-hour on high heat will do it, she said. Some dryers have a rack inside that can be used to heat shoes and other items that shouldn’t be tumbled.
Be careful about bringing secondhand items into your home. Put them in the dryer if you can; inspect them carefully if you can’t.
I’ve been told by another bedbug researcher that in hot weather, you can heat items enough to kill bedbugs by encasing them in a dark garbage bag and leaving them in a hot car for a few hours.
Designate a place for kids to keep their backpacks that’s away from the bedrooms. It’s not even a bad idea to keep them in a plastic tote with a lid that can be sealed.
But what if it’s too late? What if you already have bedbugs?
We’ll get to that next week. Stay tuned.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.