They are devious hitchhikers, uninvited houseguests of the worst kind.
Bedbugs - those tiny bloodsuckers that sneak into your home, hide in cracks and crevices and come out at night to feast. On you.
While bedbugs have been around just about as long as man has - they were found in Egyptian tombs and Aristotle wrote about them - their presence started making headlines a few years back, as hotels, apartments, dorms and homeowners battled the little buggers.
In Tucson, bedbugs weren't much of a problem until fairly recently, when local pest control professionals started noticing a steady rise in reports.
"It definitely seems to be an increasing problem," said Dawn Gouge, public health entomologist with the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
"But we certainly are getting better at learning how not to invite them home and what to do if we find out they have arrived."
So how do you keep bedbugs from invading your home? And what should you do if you suspect you are not alone in your bed?
"First of all, don't panic," Gouge said. "Breathe. Understand that bedbugs are not associated with unclean environments and they do not transmit disease. But they should be taken extremely seriously."
Signs that you may have bedbugs include finding the bugs themselves, eggs or excrement; small spatters of blood on your sheets and, in some people, red, itchy welts from an allergic reaction to their saliva.
Gouge said having bedbugs - which can live weeks, months or even a year between feedings - can be one of life's more stressful situations. Recent studies have linked bedbug infestation to reports of anxiety and even suicide.
While it takes dedication and persistence - and a really good pest control professional - you can win the war over bedbugs, Gouge said.
"The sooner you contact a pest management professional, the easier, the faster and the cheaper it will be," Gouge said. "There are no over-the-counter products that will eradicate bedbugs. You can kill them, but to truly eradicate them you need pest management professionals that have equipment, access to specialized products and the knowledge of how to use them."
She said frustrated victims of bedbugs can make the problem worse.
"A lot of the things people do are often far more damaging and dangerous than the bedbugs themselves," Gouge said. "People will put gasoline or rubbing alcohol around the edges of their mattress. They will spray pesticides on their bed, they will apply pesticide even to their own person. You should never do that."
She said following fairly simple rules can prevent infestation and minimize treatment.
Doug Brunner, contract administrator at University Termite and Pest Control in Tucson, said residents often wait until the problem is out of hand.
"Residents are reluctant to make that call because of the social stigma," he said. "It's the impression that if you have bedbugs you are obviously doing something wrong, and that is not the case."
He said people can pick up bedbugs anywhere and bring them home. "Bedbugs are everywhere. They are in restaurants, movie theatres, on trains and airplanes. bedbugs are kind of like hitchhikers. It's an accidental introduction."
University uses integrated pest management - everything from vacuuming to targeted pesticide application - to kill the bugs. Residents must follow a protocol that will keep pests from resurging. In general, treatment costs $70 an hour, with an average home requiring three to four hours, Brunner said.
Treatment is followed up two weeks later with reinspection and more treatment, if needed.
Vacuums and pesticide are not the only methods effective in killing bedbugs. Burns Pest Elimination also uses dogs and heat to find and eliminate bedbugs.
Sage Garvey, director of technical operations at Burns, said the company has 13 specially trained dogs that sniff out bedbugs statewide.
The team of canines includes labs, beagles, Bassett hounds and others trained on the scent of bedbugs.
"They are far better and faster at detecting bedbugs than humans," Garvey said. If dogs smell the bugs, they alert the handler, who makes visual confirmation.
Burns uses chemicals or heat - which is pricier - to kill bugs. Treatment can cost $400 to $2,000, depending on the size of the property and extent of the infestation.
Garvey said a convection oven is built in a home or business. The building is heated to 138 degrees for up to 10 hours, killing the bugs.
Garvey said the increase in bedbugs "took the pest control industry by surprise."
"We are just now probably at our peak in terms of incidence," he said.
Prevent bedbugs from taking up residency in your home:
• Never move furniture from the curb-side or from a dumpster into your home.
• Avoid moving secondhand furniture, especially a mattress or box spring, into your home.
• Inspect rented furniture before accepting it into your home. Avoid renting bedroom furniture.
• When traveling, check motel/hotel rooms before unpacking. Check the mattress, box-spring, and behind the headboard for signs of bedbug activity. Do not place luggage on the bed or on the floor near the bed. The safest place to stow luggage is in the bathtub or shower.
• Upon returning home, leave your suitcase in the garage and machine-wash and dry all clothing at a high temperature or dry clean.
• Reduce clutter. An uncluttered home is much easier to monitor and remediate.
• Wash bedding weekly and dry items on high heat (140 degrees) for an additional 40 minutes after they are dry.
• Do not take blankets, pillows or stuffed animals to hotels or other homes.
• Consider placing bedbug monitoring devices such as ClimbUp Interceptor traps under bed legs.
• Vacuum weekly at a minimum and discard bags or canister content into outdoor receptacles.
• Fit mattresses and box-springs with encasings designed to prevent the movement of bedbugs in and out of bed sections. If an encasement tears, it should be replaced immediately.
Common bedbug myths
Myth: You can't see a bedbug.
Reality: You should be able to see adult bedbugs, nymphs and eggs with your naked eye.
Myth: Bedbugs live in dirty places.
Reality: Bedbugs are not attracted to dirt and grime; they are attracted to warmth, blood and carbon dioxide. However, clutter offers more hiding spots.
Myth: Bedbugs transmit diseases.
Reality: There have been no cases or studies that indicate bedbugs pass diseases from one host to another.
Myth: Bedbugs won't come out if the room is brightly lit.
Reality: While bedbugs prefer darkness, keeping the light on at night won't deter these pests from biting you.
Myth: Pesticide applications alone will easily eliminate bedbug infestations.
Reality: Bedbug control can only be maintained through a treatment strategy that includes a variety of techniques plus careful monitoring. Proper use of pesticides may be part of the strategy, but will not by itself eliminate bedbugs.
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Did you know?
In 2011, Arizona joined several other states enacting bedbug legislation. The legislation assigns specific responsibilities to landlords and tenants in multifamily housing. This law does not apply to a single-family residence. Landlords are required to provide existing and new tenants with educational materials on bedbugs. Additionally, landlords are prohibited from knowingly leasing a bedbug-infested residence. The legislation requires tenants to notify the landlord of a bedbug infestation.
If you detect bedbugs:
• Do not panic.
• Call a pest control professional.
• Do not move items in or out of infested rooms, including electronics, which can harbor pests.
• Do not use foggers or bug bombs. Certain products encourage the movement of bugs into wall voids, making remediation more challenging and expensive.
• Do not host visitors while you are battling bedbugs.
Source: University of Arizona Cooperative Extension and UA entomologist Dawn Gouge
Contact local freelance writer Gabrielle Fimbres at firstname.lastname@example.org