Bedbugs, those hated little bloodsuckers ranked right up there with ticks, mosquitoes and uku, are making a comeback in the islands.
Once thought to have been pretty much wiped out in the United States with the widespread use of DDT, bedbug infestations are making news in New York City, Ohio, Arkansas and elsewhere. According to the Hawaii Department of Health’s Vector Control branch, calls about bedbugs here are averaging one to two a day, roughly double what they were a year ago.
State entomologist Jeomhee Hasty, however, cautions that the department’s recording procedures have changed during the last year, and there are not enough data yet for hard figures. And the frequency of calls dropped a little during May and June, likely because of the heat (bedbugs like it cool).
Overall, through, the number of calls is up. For all of last year, there were about 70 calls that required follow-up; there have already been about 80 this year.
Some of the reports were from high-end Waikiki hotels, which called for swift action from hotel managers. Others were from clothing stores.
"They like being around humans and they come out at night. So they are usually around the bed. The problem is, they are very hard to kill," Hasty said. "Even if you use chemicals and clean, clean, clean for 10 weeks, you might get 95 percent but not all. They live in cracks and don’t come out. They can live without food for a year. Sometimes only fumigation can get them."
Heat works, too. Bedbugs die at temperatures higher than 113 degrees, and some pest-control companies use a combination of heat, steam-cleaning and fumigation to eradicate the little suckers.
Although some Oahu pest-control companies report a minor surge in bedbug treatments, others have seen a big jump. "The increase has been tremendous, way more than usual," said Frank Gomes, of Diversified Exterminators. "It’s just an epidemic."
Gomes said some hotels are treating two to three rooms a day, and since bedbugs travel through walls and electrical outlets, it’s hard to get them all. "They come in from infested places like New York City on suitcases, and they travel from suitcase to suitcase on the plane, and then they get in the trunks of taxicabs and then older folks use taxis to go shopping in. … They’re getting around more than you think.”
There are travel advisories suggesting that guests keep their suitcases in the hotel bathtub or up off the floor on tables.
Bedbugs like to nest in dark, tight places, venture out at night and feast on our blood. They do so carefully and quietly, inserting a proboscis syringe and sucking it up, and then retiring back into the deepest, most inaccessible constructions of the bed frames.
"Blast ’em with steam, that helps, and then all drawers and things have to be emptied out and dried. A house with bedbugs that’s tent-fumigated can use three times the amount of gas normally used, which can add $800 to $900 to the bill," Gomes said. "And then you need a 10- to 14-day follow-up to make sure. Even so, there are no guarantees. Bedbugs are really hard to kill."
Gomes has seen houses completely infested with thousands of bedbugs, and still, humans weren’t being bitten. He’s also witnessed frightened residents flinging their entire bed out on the street, which does no good, as the bedbugs are likely hiding elsewhere.
Even though bedbugs pose little health risk beyond the occasional itchy rash, the idea of being an all-night blood bank for hungry insects simply freaks humans out.
Why are bedbugs back? Nobody knows for sure. Scientists have noted that newer strains of bedbugs have wide genetic variations, suggesting they adapt quickly to changing conditions. Plus, DDT was banned in 1972 as too toxic to wildlife. The current crop of bugs isn’t as susceptible to modern insecticides.
Bedbugs are about the size of apple seeds, are reddish-brown and crawl to get around. They can squeeze into very tight spaces and like to lay eggs in the hems of sheets. They’re not ticks or lice. They look a lot like little cockroaches.
The natural enemies of bedbugs are cockroaches, ants and spiders.
The good news, Hasty said, is that while reports of bedbugs are up in Hawaii, the upswing is "nothing like other parts of the country," she said. "New York City is far worse." There were more than 10,000 official bedbug infestation reports in New York City last year, up from 500 in 2004.
Unsure whether you’ve got bedbugs? One trick is sticking double-sided carpet tape on the sides of the mattress and around the bed. Leave it there for a week or so and then check to see whether there are any little buggahs stuck there.
You can also seal your entire mattress inside a plastic or hypoallergenic-fabric zippered wrapper, which costs $60 to $100. The bedbugs will be trapped in there and can’t get out, and will eventually starve to death — in a year or so. Keep it zipped.