Once thought to be eradicated, bed bugs are making a comeback -- by hopping onto the luggage of tourists and military personnel returning from overseas.
They often crawl onto luggage in the baggage compartment of an airplane. You might pick them up in a hotel room or college dorm room. Another way to bring them in is through buying second-hand furniture.
Five years ago they began showing up in hotels on the East Coast and most recently they've been seen in St. Louis hotels -- including one hotel holding a convention of chemical representatives who sell to exterminators, according to Gene Schuessler of Advanced Pest Control in Cape Girardeau.
Cape Girardeau hotels have not seen any infestations, but a hotel between here and St. Louis may have some, Schuessler said. Some local private homes and apartments have been infested.
Unlike cockroaches, bedbugs thrive on blood, not filth. They have been found in luxury five-star hotels in Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., New York City and Orlando, Fla., said Elizabeth Knote, owner of Cape-Kil, a pest control company in Cape Giradeau.
"They are a formidable pest," Knote said.
Bedbugs have been around since ancient times and are mentioned in Medieval European texts and in classical Greek writing. Knote said some research has shown that bed bugs evolved from tiny bugs that live on bats and developed a taste for human blood.
Bedbugs have no known natural enemies, Knote said. They feed once a week, then hide in tiny cracks and crevices until they feed again.
"They can drink seven times their body weight in five minutes," she said. "That's equivalent to a man drinking seven kegs in five minutes."
Bedbugs sleep during the day and come out to feed at night. Some bugs have been known to live more than 500 days without a meal.
In a six-month period, one female bed bug can produce more than 5,000 larvae.
Unlike mosquitoes, bed bugs inject an anaesthesia-like substance into human skin before they begin drinking blood, so people who have been bitten don't realize it until they find the welts. Bedbugs often follow an artery, Knote said, and many of the bites will be in a line.
Some people develop a welt after they have been bitten. Some have little or no reaction. One woman in Chicago sued a hotel for $20 million after waking up one morning with more than 500 bug bites.
Knote said that bed bugs are not associated with viral disease but have been connected with such bacterial diseases as brucillosis, leprosy, Q fever and Oriental sore. They are not associated with HIV or hepatitis, she said.
An indication of the presence of bedbugs is usually tiny brownish or reddish dots on bed linens. This can be fecal material, nymphs, molted skins or adult bugs that have been crushed while feeding.
Knote and Schuessler both advise travelers to inspect the bed in the hotel room when they're traveling. Pull back the covers and look for small red or brown specks. If you find any, notify the manager immediately and ask for another room.
"The hotel manager will want to know about their presence," Knote said.
Once bedbugs settle in, they're hard to get rid of. They can get into tiny spaces in mattresses, box springs and in upholstered furniture and carpet, Schuessler said. They can also get behind baseboards, in clock radios and telephones, behind switch plates that regulate lights and behind electrical receptacles.
The only way to get rid of them is to destroy the bedding and furniture. Then professional pest control companies come in and treat the premises, often several times before eliminating all the bugs. Getting rid of bedbugs is costly due to the products used for treatment, the number of treatments that are often necessary and replacement of furniture and bedding.
After World War II and into the 1950s, when exterminators used DDT as a pesticide, bedbugs were believed to be wiped out, Knote said.
"We did not have any for 30 or 40 years," Knote said.
However, DDT was banned in the United States and many developed countries. Safe products are available that are as effective as DDT, but getting rid of bedbugs is not for amateurs. If you think you have them, call a professional.
335-6611, extension 160