Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) have gone from relative obscurity to becoming a leading pest in America and a number of other countries. In a curious mimicry of their individual behavior, the U.S. population of bed bugs once fed upon their human hosts as common pests. Then they went and hid from public view for a long period of time, recently returning to feed on their preferred host again.
The first few years of their return to prominence as a pest in the U.S. were tumultuous, accompanied by a frenzy of media attention. Pest management companies were scrambling to devise controls for a cryptic and unfamiliar insect. Customers were demanding answers and sometimes even threatening to sue for relief. A federal work group was organized to find answers, professional associations assembled guidelines and best practices. University studies of biology, controls, medical impacts and DNA ensued.
Due in large part to these efforts, we should be much more familiar today with the biology and control of bed bugs as an industry. As a whole, we also better understand some of the limitations that we must operate under, such as the lack of new actives on the horizon and the legendary resistance to pesticides that bed bugs demonstrate. Does this improved understanding equate to improved controls for our commercial customers? Does the continued spread of the bed bug population to new areas and commercial industry segments signal a missing link in our control efforts?
If we take a look at the elements of infestation — human traffic; a distracted host that stays in proximity long enough for feeding; and a place of harborage nearby — a wider range of commercial accounts may come into view. This means that commercial accounts previously considered “non typical” for bed bug infestation are finding themselves devising protocols to deal with these parasites.
CASE STUDY: COFFEE SHOPS. A good example of an account with site-specific needs is a coffee shop, where free Wi-Fi areas also provide comfortable furniture with plenty of hiding spaces and distracted hosts that sit for long periods of time. They have electronics for warmth, and plenty of cracks and crevices to hide in. While markets vary for individual pest management professionals, other growing commercial segments may include office spaces with large cubicle areas, healthcare facilities, movie theaters and child care facilities.
Because it is not typically feasible (or sometimes even possible) to prevent the introduction of new bed bugs in most commercial accounts, it is important for commercial customers to partner with pest management professionals in establishing a sustainable control program. Unlike most residential accounts, commercial accounts do not typically have a single source of introduction. Customers, vendors, merchandise movement and sometimes even employees can contribute to the problem.
Commercial control efforts should include multiple control methodologies to be consistently successful, such as education, behavioral changes, physical removal, desiccants, excluding harborage access and the implementation of temperature-based controls. When pesticides are applied, wisdom may indicate using existing technology to determine which product that particular strain of bed bug is susceptible to, when current controls don’t seem to be working. And we can’t assume that every customer location has the same strain of bed bugs, even in the same city. Sometimes, even in the same building.
CUSTOMER CONSIDERATIONS. Thanks in part to the Internet, our customers also have a better understanding of bed bug behavior and control. Due to the risk of litigation and negative publicity that can be associated with the presence of bed bugs, commercial customers may also seek out other credible resources to educate their staff. They even employ the same consultants that the pest management industry uses for information and often attend industry events to learn more about bed bug behavior and control.
Thus, many commercial customers understand that the application of pesticides alone can provide limited benefit, and are looking for the methodologies, education and assistance in building effective bed bug protocols that the experts say they should expect from us. This in turn challenges us to be more informed and professional in order to meet those expectations.
While expanding commercial segments and expectations can keep us on our toes, finding the harborage used by bed bugs in any type of account is critical to control. Due to their cryptic nature and small size, that can be easier said than done. Areas where bed bugs are commonly found may include bed components, electrical sockets and switches, crown molding and the void behind baseboards, but are we also investing in our customers by taking the necessary time to expand our search to less typical areas?
After exhaustively searching an area where repetitive bed bug appearances were trying the patience of both the customer and service technician, I once found 50 or so bed bugs in the hollow rod that is used to close the blinds. That hollow rod was as far away from a host as you could get in that room and it was hidden inside the curtain.
Was heat from sunlight on the window a factor? I don’t know, but I do know that we must be at least as creative and determined in our search for areas of harborage as the bed bug is, in order to be successful in providing control.
I have also discovered them in such unlikely places as HVAC systems, under refrigerators and in prosthetics. After education, a comprehensive inspection is one of the most important elements of providing effective control for bed bugs in commercial accounts.
CASE STUDY: HOTELS. In another example, an Ohio-based hotel, performing its own pest control, recently asked for assistance with control of bed bugs. Though they had a good bed bug protocol and regular training with housekeeping and maintenance, they continued to find new bed bugs randomly distributed throughout the hotel and received complaints from customers of bed bugs in luggage. They treated room after room, the housekeeping carts and the laundry area, but continued to have new sightings.
By taking the pest service note entries and transferring them to a simple graph of the structure, a pattern emerged and the culprit was identified — the luggage cart. Most of these are constructed of hollow tubing and a carpet base on wood or metal. The hollow tubes and the wood under the carpet were full of bed bugs and eggs.
They traveled throughout the hotel stacked with luggage and out to guests’ vehicles. Though they had a great protocol and treatment program, it took some simple documentation to find out that the luggage cart was the source of infestation for the rooms and the luggage. The carts were taken apart and sanitized, and added to the maintenance list for regular inspection. The property also decided that there was great value to be found in the experience and perspective offered by a professional pest management company.
BETTER DAYS AHEAD. As an industry, I do believe we are doing a better job controlling bed bugs for our commercial customers. And since humans are assisting bed bugs with their entrance to commercial accounts and are providing their meals, it seems only fair that we humans also do all we can to assist with their exit. By investing time, educating customers, and assisting them to develop or improve a meaningful protocol to address the challenges that bed bugs pose in commercial accounts, I believe we will be successful in doing just that.
The author is a board certified entomologist with two decades of experience in the pest control industry. In his role at as the technical lead at Terminix, he works with leaders in the entomological, medical, pest control, legal, and educational fields focused on minimizing the negative impacts of arthropod activity on businesses and homes.