Released: May 21, 2004
Bedbugs: They’re B-A-A-C-K
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Kansas already has three cases of bedbug infestations on the books for 2004. All three were in apartments, one in Lawrence and two in Manhattan.
But the list could easily grow longer and include other types of housing, as people travel on vacation this summer, according to Ludek Zurek, Kansas State University entomologist. More than half of the U.S. states have reported cases in hotels, motels, dormitories and homes since the year 2000.
“Why bedbugs are becoming a problem again isn’t clear, but it may tie to the rise in international travel. The bedbug (Cimex lectularius L.) become a rare pest in the United States and Europe during the last half of the 20th century. In many other countries, however, it’s remained a continual problem,” said Zurek, the medical-veterinary entomologist for K-State Research and Extension.
The bedbugs aren’t flying or blowing into the United States. They aren’t arriving attached to foreign travelers. These bugs can’t fly. They’re only active at night. They crawl and bite while people are sleeping, he said.
Through the daylight hours, bedbugs hide in cracks and crevices. This includes the spaces found in or around baseboards, windows, doors, light switches, upholstery seams, mattress tufts, bed foundations, rug edges, trash, pictures and loose wallpaper.
The bugs also may hide, however, in clothing or a suitcase. That fact alone can carry them into an unsuspecting hotel and then help them travel again in a later guest’s luggage.
Bedbugs are survivors, Zurek said. They can live up to several months without feeding.
But, under favorable conditions, the females lay three to four eggs a day, for a lifetime total of about 200. Those little white eggs stick to the surface where they’re laid. They hatch six to 17 days later, and the newly emerged nymphs immediately start feeding. Nymphs need five blood meals and five skin molts to reach maturity and begin producing offspring.
“That cycle can fit quite nicely with the average family vacation schedule,” the entomologist said. “It also can lead to a lot of eggs and a lot of bedbugs, produced fairly quickly.”
Public health records include no documented case of a bedbug’s transmitting a disease to humans. Still, Zurek recommends that travelers start routinely unpacking directly into the washing machine. Steam and hot water can kill bedbug eggs, nymphs and adults. He also suggests that they vacuum out suitcases and other travel items and then immediately freeze and dispose of the vacuum cleaner bag.
Many humans can share a bed with bedbugs and never realize they are providing blood meals, he explained. The pest’s biting equipment is so small that its bite isn’t painful.
Some people, however, are allergic to bedbug saliva – they wake up with chigger bite-type itching, and with bull’s-eye red zones around each bite site. Beyond that, bedbugs leave behind droppings that create a unique, sickly sweet odor in bedclothes.
Those droppings and that sweet stench may be why bedbugs for centuries have been associated with a lack of sanitation, Zurek said. The odor also is often the first clue that bedbugs have moved in and made themselves at home.
“If you suspect you may have an infestation, abruptly turn on an overhead light during the middle of the night. If you’ve got them, the bedbugs will be pretty obvious. The adults are quite big – bigger than a ladybug – so you can easily see them with the naked eye. They’re about one-fourth to three-eights of an inch long. They‘re flat and brown if they haven’t eaten. They’re three times bigger around and a dull red if they’re engorged,” the entomologist said.
People who find an infestation should immediately collect samples in a jar or plastic bag.
“The Cimex lectularius is the only bedbug that truly prefers human blood. Sometimes, however, related species accidentally enter human dwellings and – for lack of anything better – feed on humans or domestic animals,” Zurek said. “For example, the other species most likely in Kansas is the one that feeds on bats, although the United States also has Cimex species that prefer poultry and swallows.”
Fortunately, these species can’t develop – grow – on human blood, he added. So, they won’t establish permanent or big infestations.
“Kansans can take their sample to a county Extension office, which will send it to the lab here at K-State. Or, homeowners can call a pest control company and ask for an identification,” Zurek said.
The next step is efforts to sanitize and eliminate hiding places – ceiling to floor, he said.
Although bedbug-controlling insecticides are available, the final step may be to call in a professional pest controller, Zurek said. Using many of the insecticides requires special training and certification. Besides, the chemicals’ safe use will be vital, since bedbug controls often involve mattresses, as well as the vast array of other hiding places in the bedrooms where humans spend many hours each day.
More information about bedbugs and their control is available at K-State Research and Extension offices, as well as in the Kansas Insect Newsletter on the Web at http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/dp_entm/extension/KIN/KIN_current.htm (see 4/30/04 and 8/1/03).
K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.
Ludek Zurek is at 785-532-4731