Bedbugs are jostling celebrities for headlines this summer.
First came pest-control industry reports warning of spikes in bedbug cases in dozens of cities nationwide. Then the Environmental Protection Agency cautioned consumers against spraying dangerous, often ineffective pesticides all over their homes and themselves. Finally came the psychologists and entomologists to dispel the stigma that traumatized bedbug victims were feeling.
Experts say we can't expect to be saying bye-bye to bedbugs anytime soon. Not only has the number of nasty little biters burrowing into Minnesota grown, but so have the places they're doing it.
Recent reports compiled by two giants of the pest-control industry, Terminix and Orkin, place Minnesota 15th and 12th, respectively, in the number of states with the biggest problems. The ranking is based on the number of bedbug complaint calls and confirmed sightings by exterminators.
Most area exterminators report steady increases in bedbug calls over the past several years, with a spike for some this year due to more infestations in apartment buildings and other multiple-unit housing units.
Adam's Pest Control has treated several hospitals in the Twin Cities, clinic waiting rooms, ambulances, a movie theater and several homes, including a 5,000-square-footer in Edina, in the past two months.
"Bedbugs don't care if you're clean or dirty, rich or poor, " said Nathan Heider of Adam's, nicknamed King of the Bed Bugs because he's been dealing with them daily for the past three years on his route along Interstate 494. "Their only food is our blood and they'll go wherever we are."
A scan of the website www.bedbugregistry.com, where people can report incidents of bedbugs in hotel rooms, indicates that four-star outfits are as likely to have problems as roadside motels. (Take what you read at this site with a grain of salt, because accounts are not officially corroborated.)
The critters are growing resistant to pesticides, and the only other way to treat them, with heat, is very pricey.
Most experts agree that cranking up heat to 140-plus degrees, which bedbugs can't survive, is the most effective eradicator and is the most environmentally friendly, but the cost is too daunting for many customers. A heat treatment for a 3,000-square-foot home costs roughly $3,000, and for a large apartment building, office complex or hospital, the cost could run to six figures.
The increase in travel is often cited as a reason for the return of bedbugs, which were rare in the United States for most of the last half of the 20th century. Exterminators now actually have fewer resources for killing bedbugs since the pesticide DDT was banned for its effect on the environment, and other chemicals unhealthy to humans have been restricted.
Like other insects, bedbugs are developing a resistance to pesticides. Since that's the only method many people can afford to use, entomologists say a bedbug-free future is unlikely.
Stacy O'Reilly, third-generation owner of Fridley-based Plunketts Pest Control, had eight workers out on bedbug calls one recent afternoon, some in private homes, others in apartment buildings. She estimates her crew gets 80 to 100 bedbug calls a month, up from about 20 a month in 2006. She put the current spate of bedbug calls, and the preceding nearly bedbug-free period spanning nearly four decades, in historical context.
"My dad ran the company for 35 years and never killed a bedbug," she said. "They were gone for a generation. But back then, they had a lot more tools than we do now."
"Tools" like DDT and other potent chemicals were used as a preventive measure, as well, and often were sprayed indiscriminately.
"We're certainly not interested in soaking anyone's home with pesticides," she said. "But they're really durable little guys. They can hide anywhere. They could be in the clock across the room. People who have been trying to do it themselves for six months, they call us crying. This is not a do-it-yourself kind of thing."
As for what people who live in apartments can do to keep bedbugs from another unit from slipping into theirs, O'Reilly said that "apartment dwellers are at the mercy of their neighbors for a lot of things, and one of them is bedbugs."
The Minnesota Multi-Housing Association has offered classes on minimizing bedbug infestation risk and the best ways to get rid of them for its 2,000-plus members, all of whom own multiple-unit dwellings.
"We'd been bracing for it," said association spokeswoman Tina Gassman. "It's a widespread problem over all different types of spaces and socioeconomic status. All we can do is educate people and tell them to be prepared."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046