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Our Sleeping Foe – The Bed Bugs

“Good night!, Don’t let the bed bugs bite!

A phrase we probably all have heard at some point in our lives. Bed bugs are a feared and horrid bug that has plagued mankind for centuries. They were mentioned in ancient Greece over three thousand years ago. It was even written in ancient Rome that bed bugs are of medicinal value in curing ear infections. I wouldn’t want to be that patient! “Ok, come here Romulus Maximus”, ”I’m going to put some little bugs in your ear” . ”Yes, it’s perfectly safe”, ”the oracle has approved”, ”this is state of the art medicine” -in this case, we do not do as the Romans do.

Bed bugs have been with humans since written history. New research has provided information that the first bed bugs were hosts to bats, and they adapted to humans who were living in caves. Bats would also roost in church steeples and attics which would also provide opportunities for bed bugs to feed on humans. As we traveled the world in exploration and trade, these tiny bugs have been along for the ride. Imagine the conditions our ancestors lived in. They had no pest control or ways to fight them off. Washing machines, dryers, showers and chemical pesticides wouldn’t be invented for hundreds of years. I suppose they would just burn any clothing or bedding if an outbreak would occur.

By the twentieth century, 1 out of 3 Americans had bed bugs. The problem grew as populations grew. Most Americans who lived in cities, lived in tight close quarters. Bed bugs reproduced easily and spread unencumbered. Bed bugs feed on you at night when you are asleep. They inject chemicals such as an anticoagulant and anesthetic so you do not feel a thing. This gives them a nice steady stream of uninterrupted blood. After a blood meal, the bed bug will crawl back into the seams and folds of your mattress and wait for the next night. Most people will develop an allergic reaction to the bites, such skin infections and rashes as well as itching sensations. Pain and swelling are the most common reactions to being bit by bed bugs. They can also cause psychological issues due to poor sleep and and anxiety. Even years after a bed bug infestation, you can still have anxiety, paranoia and trouble sleeping. Seeing every dark speck as a bed bug when getting into bed would drive anyone mad.

 

Insects Bring Disease, and Disease Brings Death.

 

Pest Control really began with mosquitos and war. When mosquitos would feed on us, they would transmit diseases like dengue fever, yellow fever, and malaria. Malaria was the biggest killer of humans in history. The malaria parasite would be transferred into our blood. Malaria would cause fever, loss of blood, convulsions, brain damage and coma. Military troops that got these diseases were decimated in weeks. The entire history of our civilization has been a battle against pests that cause sickness and death.

During WW2 , the US army worked on fighting bed bugs, mosquitoes and disease. These were major problems that plagued our troops. Bed bugs could infest a whole barracks. Early in the nineteenth century, pyrethrins were extracted from flowers and were manufactured into a chemical pesticide. Eventually, pyrethrins in chrysanthemums were purified for commercial and home use. In addition , a new pesticide called dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or more commonly known as DDT, was manufactured in laboratories. It was easier to produce. It was easy to apply, and persisted for a long time. Re-applications were seldom needed. Rain and weather would not wash it away. It was seen as safe, effective and hailed as a modern wonder. When sprayed or dusted along entry points, insects would die. Finally, after living with bed bugs for thousands of years, we can sleep in peace.

By the 1940s and 1950s, the use of pesticides, like DDT, was extremely widespread and common. Farmers were able to produce more crops per acre than ever before. As people fled metropolitan cities and moved to the suburbs, the use of pesticides doubled and were seen as a blessing by keeping unwanted pests from entering a home. Specialized fogging trucks were designed to disperse DDT. Trucks would drive up and down city and suburban streets to rid neighborhoods from mosquitos. There are stories of children chasing and running behind these trucks as they fogged the streets.  DDT was responsible with saving thousands of lives and improving the quality of everyone’s life in America and worldwide. DDT was sprayed by air planes and helicopters on hundreds of acres of crops bound for the dinner table. The modern homes of the 1940s and 1950s that were treated with pyrethrins and DDT were bed bug free, and their presence faded into memory like a bad dream.

 

A New Era is Born

 

In 1962, a book called Silent Spring was published. It made claims that harmful and everlasting damage to our planet was being caused from pesticides like DDT. Soon, grassroot organizations formed and called for new laws from government. Eventually calling for a complete ban of many pesticides that were being used. This officially ended the “golden years of pesticides.” A new counter culture emerged and rejected the old way of life. Embracing not science, but holistic and “natural” remedies for bed bugs. Salt, vinegar and a host of other home treatments were used to combat these pests. Diatomaceous earth is another example of using alternate methods for control. Results from these methods were poor at best. Bed bugs were too resilient and were not going down without a fight.

With the official ban of DDT in 1972, the path was cleared for stricter regulations on the use of pesticides for commercial and home use. Scientific studies were finding pesticides like DDT would bioaccumulate in fat tissues of exposed animals. Since it degrades so slowly in the environment, it moves up the animal food chain. Highly toxic to birds and fish, it has the potential to cause irreversible damage to the environment we live in. Other formulations of pesticides such as organophosphates do not persist as long, but are possibly more potent per application. While these pesticides worked extremely well in killing bed bugs, the cons were too much to ignore.

 

Welcome to the New Age

 

As usage of these pesticides declined, the rate of bed bug infestations increased. By the 1990s a huge resurgence was underway. This new breed of bed bugs were also showing signs of chemical resistance. Studies have found bed bugs have built up an immunity to the most commonly used pyrethroid pesticides today. They have faster metabolisms to strengthen their natural chemical defenses.  Researchers also found modern bed bugs have a thicker skin helping them to survive. In New York City between 2004 and 2009, bed bug infestations rose by 200 percent. That is an alarming number!

In addition to chemical treatments, pest control companies are also using heat and steam more and more to eradicate bed bugs. They cannot survive in temperatures over 115 degrees. Using a steamer along the seams of a bed mattress or a couch will instantly kill any live bed bugs and their eggs. Using heat is an effective way to kill off a large colony of bed bugs in a room. Heating a room up to 120 degrees for 30 minutes will do the trick. This will also ensure that the eggs are destroyed. Chemical treatments do not kill eggs and by the time bed bugs hatch, the residual of a chemical can be reduced enough that they will not die if the treatment is not thorough.

The future story of bed bugs is unknown, but we are continually developing new methods for dealing with these pests. What may work for one home, may not work for another. What is clear is that bed bugs are changing their own internal chemistry to combat our efforts to eradicate them from the planet. As they change , so are our methods. In addition to new safer pesticides and using steam, we are successfully winning the war against bed bugs. Our ancient enemy , our sleeping foe, one bug at a time.

 

Dan Coffey

dcoffey@davespestcontrol.com

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