A Bug's Life: Dealing with bedbugs

There’s a new war going on in homes all over North America. After decades of peace, bedbugs are back and infesting buildings both fancy and plain. The battle against these nasty little critters goes on amid shame and embarrassment in penthouses and flophouses everywhere.

There are few things more upsetting than finding out your home is infested with bedbugs. This is a problem we haven’t had in Canada for many years. Some experts figure the extensive use of DDT in the 1940s and 1950s wiped bedbugs out. In those days, they sprayed everything in sight with the stuff. It wiped out the little nasties and almost destroyed the ecosystem.


Now with so much international travel, they’re back with a vengeance. They crawl into luggage overseas, then disembark wherever they smell blood. And they’re not just in low-rent, poorly maintained buildings. Google Vancouver’s bedbug registry and you’ll see that they’re in every neighbourhood in the city. Some of the fanciest hotels in the world now have heat rooms where they treat mattresses between guests. So don’t take it personally if you find them where you live. They’re here, they’re there, they’re everywhere!


How can you tell if you’ve got bedbugs? Most people’s first clue is the itchy red spots on their face, arms and legs, but some people don’t react to the bites. Just like black flies, bedbugs inject a substance that numbs the skin as they’re feeding so that they can suck away for up to five minutes without disturbing your sleep. This is what causes the itching when they’re done. You can use camomile lotion, “Itch Stop” sticks or witch hazel to treat the itch. 


There is no danger of catching any disease from them. They’re attracted to the heat of your breathing so you’ll often find them under your pillow. Yeah, gross, right? All the experts say to look around the edges of your mattress for the bugs. When they first hatch, they’re the size of a pinhead and can grow to about half a centimetre. They’re oval shaped and start out pale coloured, getting darker as they mature until they’re black. After they’ve filled up on your blood, they’ll be dark red. They feed about every five days and, after five feasts, they’ll be ready to reproduce.


Females will lay up to five eggs a day. They’re fast and hide easily in the tiniest cracks and seams. The spots they leave behind are much easier to find and never go away. After they eat they need to defecate and this is how you can tell if bedbugs are getting up close and personal while you’re snoozing. Little black spots on your bedding are sure signs that you’ve become McDonald's for creepy crawlies.


Once you face the fact that bedbugs are your newest problem, the trouble really starts. They’re tough. Their eggs can survive for years and adults can go for up to eighteen months without feeding. Heat is their enemy. You need to take everything you own, bag it up and get it washed and dried at the highest setting possible. (There are organizations that offer laundry services if this is going to break your budget.) Dry cleaning also works. If some of your stuff is not washable, you can throw it in the dryer for 20 minutes and that will kill the bugs and their eggs. Freezing also works, but it takes six weeks. Make sure you get all bedding and clothing start the whole process all over again.


That’s just the tip of the iceberg. You’ve also got to treat your bed, furniture, carpets and pretty much everything you own. They love wooden furniture, but will hide on metals as well. Vacuum everything and empty the vacuum as soon as you’re done. Steam cleaning is effective. And of course, there are bug sprays that will kill them. Make sure to check the label; if it says “bedbugs”, it will do the job. God and Dow Chemical only know what effect they have on people though, so be warned.


Diatamceous dust and pyrethrin are organic alternatives. You need to sprinkle a barrier of this powder around your bed—when the bugs get it on them, they will die in about three days. If your place is being fumigated by the landlord, you will probably need to repeat the treatment in 10 days because the chemicals that kill the bugs do not work on the eggs. You have to wait for them to hatch (eight to 10 days) and spray again.


Bedbugs will also get into electrical equipment, drains and plug-ins. They squish really flat, so they can go under baseboards and travel between suites in the wiring. There are companies that have dogs trained to sniff out bedbugs. This is an expensive service but if you or your landlord could afford it, it’s probably the best way to make sure that the whole building is bug-free. Make sure to check anything you’ve got on the walls. Bedbugs will get into wall hangings, posters, baskets, curtains—anything organic. In fact, since these kinds of items are seldom disturbed, they seem to be favourite hang outs for whole bedbug families. They destroy organic material, rotting it black and leaving a rustlike residue on metals. In really bad infestations, it’s said they create quite a stench. If they’re in your couch or arm chairs the best bet is to toss them. There are just too many cracks and crevices for them to hide in to be sure you’ve got them all.


If it sounds like a lot of trouble, it’s because it is. The best bet is to avoid getting them to start with which, as you can imagine, is easier said than done. With the housing market the way it is, few of us can afford to move just because we see the neighbours being fumigated. To keep your home safe from bedbugs, give it a thorough vacuuming before you unpack. Steam clean everything, if at all possible.


Then use your substance of choice, chemical or organic, around all baseboards, electrical outlets, doorways and on the bedframe. And put your mattress in a bedbag. You can buy one for between $20 and $60. If the pennies are pinched, you can use plastic bags and packing tape for under $5, but this makes for a sweaty sleep. If you use plastic storage containers for clothes, bedding and laundry, you will reduce the risks of infestation and make treatment that much easier if they get past your defences.


This is war, people! Success depends on knowing the enemy, a ruthless offence and a rock solid defence. Don’t take it personally and don’t for a second think that denial will work. The longer you leave the infestation untreated, the worse it will get. Like most of life’s problems, when we realize that we’re all in the same boat and share our resources and experience, we can make dealing with them that much easier.

Photo by Sappymoosetree

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