Bed bugs: Small, resistant and very hard to fight | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 08.08.2018
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Bed bugs: Small, resistant and very hard to fight

They're the worst kind of vacation souvenir — parasites that you unwittingly bring home in your luggage. Once bed bugs are in your home, getting rid of them is hard. Take it from someone with first-hand experience.

One of the worst things about bed bugs that they don't tell you about is the panic they still inspire years after you had to deal with them. Got a sting that looks the least bit different from your typical mosquito bite? Could be bed bugs! How about some weirdly linear-looking pimples? Could be bed bugs! Found some unidentifiable insect on the floor of your apartment? You got it — bed bugs!

The paranoia struggle is real. Trust me, I know it first-hand. After a vacation in Romania in the summer of 2016, I found small, extremely itchy bumps on my skin a couple of days after returning home. A visit to the doctor confirmed my fear: Bed bugs.

The parasites were common during the early 20th century before they disappeared for decades. But since the late 1990s, bed bugs have been staging a comeback. They're everywhere, not just in dirty hostels, but also in swanky hotel suites, on used furniture you buy from ebay, and in the suitcase standing next to yours in an airplane cargo hold. And from there, they'll enter your apartment.

Beware the super bed bugs

"There's loads of evidence to suggest that over the last ten years, their numbers have increased exponentially," Heather Lynch, a professor of social work at Glasgow Caledonian University who has done research on bed bugs, told me. Claudia Kasig of exterminator company JamiroTec estimates their numbers have increased by 4,000 to 6,000 percent over the last ten years.

Lynch says there are several reasons for the resurgence. Travel has become more affordable, so more people fly, stay in hotels, and can spread bed bugs that way. But the researcher also warns that recently, more and more bed bug species have become immune to the chemicals used to fight them.

"Super bed bugs" is what Lynch calls the stronger and more resistant parasites. Super bed bugs. That'll do wonders for my nightmares.

By now you're probably wondering how to double and triple-check for these parasites. The bites themselves, which show up in linear groups of around three little welts, are a give-away, of course. But you'll also find drops of blood and tiny black stains on your bedsheets from where the bugs were feeding on you. (Yes, it sounds gross, but that's the harsh truth.)

Strip off the sheets, check the mattress, and, most importantly, lift it up and check underneath as well — this is where you're likely to see the small, oval-shaped, brown bugs.They're only about 4.5 millimeters (0.18 inches) long.

Found them? I'm sorry. This is when you call the exterminator. Getting rid of bed bugs by yourself is almost impossible. The people of the Glasgow tenements where Lynch did her research have a thing or two to say about this, but more on that a little further down. 

Read more: Dr Karolina Bauer-Dubau about the fight against blood-suckers.

'Extremely hard to fight'

So what do exterminators do to free your place of the pest? Not all of them use poison.

Claudia Kasig, Prokuristin bei JamiroTec Schädlingsbekämpfung, mit Wanzenspürhund Jamiro und Wanzenspürhund-in-training Ramirez (JamiroTec)

Exterminator Claudia Kasig with her two bed bug sniffer dogs Jamiro and Ramirez.

"We bring equipment and heat up the client's house or apartment to between 60 to 70 degrees Celsius," Kasig told me. She is a manager at JamiroTec, an exterminator company in the northern German city of Bremen. "That brings the core temperature of the bed bugs to 48 degrees, at which point the protein inside the bugs get destroyed and they die."

Kasig explained they do use poison on the bugs' "exit routes" to try to ensure that as few of them as possible get away. JamiroTec also employs a bed bug sniffing dog, Jamiro, and a smaller apprentice, Ramirez. Still, the bugs aren't always caught on the first try.

"They're extremely hard to fight. They hide inside power-outlets, switches and behind base boards. They sit inside your laptop, inside your camera or in that fat book at the bottom of a stack," Kasig said. "And they can survive for almost a year without feeding."

The bugs might also lay their eggs in any of these hidden places. So you might think you've made it — and then the surviving parasites, or new ones that hatched later, pop up after months of peace.

Living alongside bed bugs

It's a pricey endeavor. I ended up paying around €600 ($690) in exterminator fees and hotel costs — since you can't stay at your own place while it's treated — but the only other option I saw for myself was to burn everything and I decided against that.

Residents in the Govanhill neighborhood of Glasgow have found another way, though not entirely by choice. Govanhill is Scotland's most ethnically diverse neighborhood with 64 languages spoken there, Lynch told me, but it's also known for poor housing and poverty.

Bed bugs have become so endemic there that the residents are now trying to live alongside the parasites. The district even has its own pest control unit, but the people affected have realized that the exterminators aren't very effective because they tend to only spray one apartment at a time.

One woman told Lynch she saw that her neighbor had the exterminator in his flat a short while after she herself had the pleasure. She taped a piece of cloth over the vent in the shared wall and removed it after the neighbor's apartment had been sprayed. On the cloth: bed bugs. They had escaped the gas by going through the vent back into her place.

A bed bug held by a pair of tweezers (Dr. Heather Lynch)

Bed bugs, here one from a Govanhill resident's apartment, are hard to spot. Check for black traces and blood on your sheets!

But aside from a lack of money to hire better exterminators or even move away, many residents of Govanhill have stopped having their apartments sprayed with chemicals every six months for health reasons as well.

"They bought steamers that they use, and they have very strict cleaning regimens — non-chemical ways of dealing with the bugs that are healthier for their families," Lynch said.

She also emphasized the environmental perspective. "If you have money, you can buy yourself out of a bad bedbug situation. We all want this sanitized, clean, super-comfortable [life], but in order to achieve that, we've caused lots of harm. These pollution problems are not going to go away, so I believe we can learn from the people of Govanhill. They don't see themselves as victims, but as resourceful and pragmatic."

How to keep the bugs away

The best way around all of this is to prevent bed bugs from taking over your apartment. Duh. When you travel, if possible, put your luggage into the room's bathtub as soon as you enter. The bugs can't scale the smooth walls. Check under the mattress and around the headboard for the tell-tale black spots or bugs. During your stay, make sure to keep your dirty laundry under wraps and not lying around the room — a new study from the University of Sheffield in England showed that bed bugs are particularly attracted to the smell of dirty laundry.

When you return home, the best thing you can do is put everything you traveled with into the freezer and leave it there for 48 hours. Washing your clothes at 60 degrees Celsius is supposed to kill the bugs as well, but Kasig cautions that this might not always do the trick.

"Efficient washing machines today only achieve 60 degrees for a couple of minutes, so some bugs might survive that." 

At Frankfurt Airport you can actually have your luggage checked for bed bugs by a team of bug-sniffing dogs. It's the first airport in Germany to offer that service and you have to sign up for it in advance, with a cost of around €100. But that's still a lot cheaper than dealing with the parasites once they're in your apartment - and it'll save you all the drama and headaches that come with it.

If you're not traveling through Frankfurt, remember to check your beds, sleep tight, and don't let the bed bugs bite.


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