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A Growing Infestation

April 2, 2011

Imagine waking up covered in little red bumps. Maybe you’re allergic to your laundry detergent, you might have a rash, your dog may even have fleas. However if you’re one of the unlucky, but growing number of Californians, you may have bed bugs.

The common bed bug, or Cimex Lectularius, is a small parasitic insect that feeds on human (or sometimes animal) blood. The problem of bed bug infestation gained national attention with hotels in New York reporting a record number of infestations.

For one 3L at Thomas Jefferson, bed bugs turned his life into what he calls a “living nightmare.” The student, who wished to remain anonymous moved to The Franciscan apartment complex in Mission Valley when he arrived to San Diego. In September, a month or two after he and his girlfriend moved into their two-bedroom apartment, the student started to get small bites all over his body. His girlfriend, who remained bite less, assumed the problem was a rash. Friends recommended changing laundry detergent. When the problem became worse, the student became worried. It wasn’t until they woke up with blood in their sheets that they began to investigate further. When his girlfriend suggested they check the bed, the student discovered his mattress covered in small bugs. The landlord was immediately called. After thoroughly searching, the parties found a company which would guarantee their work and even recommended a cleaning company.

“We weren’t sure if we brought them in,” said the student. “We used movers and a moving truck, and after researching we found out the cloth pads you use to move often carry bed bugs.” The student began to look into options for ending the lease.

“You’re obligated to uphold the terms of your lease, but when the conditions become unlivable, it becomes a gray area,” said the student. “My girlfriend and I almost broke up from the stress of it.”

Because they couldn’t prove they didn’t bring the bed bugs in the student and his girlfriend ultimately decided to stay in their lease. The company treated their unit with chemicals and the student didn’t stay in his apartment for four days. The cleaning and fumigation bills were over $800. The landlord covered this cost. The dry cleaning bill, which was over $400, was split between the tenants and the landlord. Everything cloth had to be treated with industrial strength cleaning and heat. As a result, the student threw away a lot of personal items. None of the students’ neighbors reported an infestation, but the effects of the ordeal have had a lasting effect.

“It was a long time before we were even comfortable going into that room again.”

Pest Control Operators of California received increased calls at the beginning of this year. Kristy Gardiner, Service Manager of Orkin Pest Control’s Pacific Division, said it’s hard to put a cap on how bad the problem is becoming. Orkin has received increasing phone calls for issues with bed bugs. A lot of people shy away from the issue, are afraid to talk about it, or don’t know what they’re dealing with. As a result, many cases go unreported thus it’s difficult for experts to gage the severity of the problem.

According to Gardiner, “[Bed Bugs] are travelers. You go to a movie, you can sit in a chair and pick them up there, set your purse down and take them home with you.”

Gardiner graduated from Falco K9 Academy with her black Labrador Bo. Falco K9 Academy, located in Brea California, trains dogs and their owners in detection of bed bugs, as well as the detection of bombs and narcotics. Andy Falco, the president and director of the academy has worked with police dogs since 1986. The academy is becoming widely known and Rob Wallace, owner of K9 Scentry Bed Bug Detection in Novato, California, believes it will become one of the most known and respected facilities in the country.

Wallace’s dog Dash, who also graduated from Falco, is used to detect bed bugs. Wallace said the training consists of imprinting the scent of bed bugs in the dog’s brain. The trainers begin by having the dog sniff bed bugs in a vial. They then teach on a toy reward program. Each time the dog picks up the bed bug scent, they receive their toy reward. According to ABC News, 30 bed bug sniffing dogs have been trained at the Falco Academy in the last 30 years.

Both Gardiner and Wallace believe that K9 detection is more efficient than human detection.  In order to detect bed bugs, a pest control specialist must have a license through the state pest control board. In addition, a well trained K9 can canvas a hotel room in as little as five minutes while it may take a human specialist much longer to detect bed bugs.  Furthermore, bed bugs like small dark places. It’s possible they’re hiding in your baseboards and even light switches. Thorough human detection can cause more damage than K9 detection when inspecting these places.  For example, Gardiner had an instance where no bed bugs were found in an entire room, but ten feet away, high off the floor in a mirror, her dog detected the scent. They then found bed bugs. Dogs have also detected bed bugs behind mirrors and clocks, inside wooden bed frames, and behind light fixtures.

It’s important to remember that the dogs aren’t perfect, and it’s often the handler that can hinder the detection process of a K9.  “We use the dog as a tool,” said Gardiner. “They show interest in an area and we look there. You have to learn to read the dog well enough to know when they detect something.”

The Falco Academy puts handlers through a minimum of 40 hours of class time and training where they learn a complete detection program. The handlers then spend time training with their dog.

The problem is becoming more prevalent in Southern California because travelers from the East Coast most often fly into Los Angeles. Wallace says that they are in both Northern and Southern California. “The bugs are so good at hitching a ride, they’re becoming more prevalent in Southern California, but they’re working their way up.”

There is no guaranteed way to prevent a bed bug infestation. It is important to remember places with infestations aren’t necessarily dirty environments since the bugs are so adept at traveling. However, there are some things you can do to ensure you’re not an easy target. Be aware of where you put your luggage in a hotel. Gardiner said bed bugs are usually within five feet of their host so check under sheets, behind headboards, and in cabinets.  Also check luggage racks and don’t place your luggage against a wall. Try not to put your clothing on the floor and keep your shoes off the floor as well. When returning home from travel toss everything in the dryer on high for 20 minutes to kill anything you may have brought home.

If you do suspect an infestation call a pest control company. For quicker, more efficient detection, find a company with K9 detection, like Orkin. Constant checks keep the infestation levels low and more manageable.

Once you’ve discovered you do have an infestation, a pest control company will come with low grade or natural pesticides and most often will treat the problem with heat. The pest control company will protect your belongings but most everything should stay inside while the home is heated high enough to kill all the bed bugs.

For travelers who are weary of where they stay, your fears may be quieted with  The website is free and is full of user-submitted reports of infestations across the country. The site emerged in 2006 and consists of 20,000 reports of bed bugs. A quick search revealed 42 hotels in San Diego with reports of bed bugs. Travelers should make a quick check before booking any hotel rooms or vacations.

There are some things to look for even if you don’t have the tell tale bug bites. Check the seams of your mattress for little black specs, which are the bed bugs fecal matter. The bed bugs also shed their skin six times in their life cycle, so you may be able to see that as well. Sometimes you can see the bugs themselves, when full of blood they are about an eight of an inch, otherwise they are smaller and a reddish tan color.

Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite!!!