A Norwalk-based exterminator was called to an apartment building in the New Haven area and, entering one unit, he found the walls “dripping with bed bugs.”
The same company, Bliss Pest Control of Connecticut, answered a call from a Greenwich resident who had recently returned from one of his frequent business trips. His family was regularly waking up with bites. The culprit? Bed bugs.
“Bliss gets calls all the time for that very story,” Michael Lawrence, area district manager of Bliss, wrote in an email.
It’s been several years since bed bug hysteria gripped the Northeast, with New York City as the focal point. The media feasted on the fear. One cheeky headline in September 2010 on a shopping industry news website read: Bed Bugs Free With Purchase at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s.”
Although the din has dimmed, it doesn’t mean that bed bugs are gone, or even that their numbers have diminished—it means that insect and human have settled into the same relationship we’ve had for thousands of years: opportunistic parasite and frustrated host.
Bed bugs are a potential public health nightmare that can show up almost anywhere. For an individual homeowner, the cost of eradication can be devastating. To cope with an infestation, many people dispose of their furniture and clothing—which may, or may not, be necessary. This can be after trying store-bought insecticides, whose effectiveness can be iffy.
Professional extermination services are more effective, but can be pricey. Angie’s List says, “For a full removal, expect to pay anywhere from $500 to $1,500 … [most exterminators] will charge you a fee for consultation, which includes visiting your home and doing a thorough inspection.”
Resources are spent at every level of government—from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on down—to educate and disseminate bed bug-related information. Managers of almost any kind of facility, even those that have escaped infestation, are well aware of the risk. Jaimie Mantie, executive director of the Windsor Locks Housing Authority, responded in this way to a question about the presence of bed bugs: “Nothing, thank god.”
Bed bugs live with us: in apartments, single-family homes, schools, dormitories, camp bunks, military facilities, hotels, prisons, churches, hospitals, homeless shelters, libraries (and in library books), retail establishments, theaters, on buses and trains and even in cars.
The apple seed-sized cimex lectularius can be found in every city and town in Connecticut, although nailing down numbers of cases or complaints is impossible, in large part because of their stigma.
They are “wildly underreported,” said Gale Ridge, whom many state housing and health officials inevitably refer to in any conversation about bed bugs. “She is our guru,” said one health official.
An entomologist and researcher at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, Ridge fields thousands of questions a year about many types of bugs. The facility’s website includes Ridge’s fact sheets about cat fleas, cluster flies, Japanese beetles and pepper maggots, among others.
But a good 30 percent of her time is devoted to the ubiquitous bed bug. As chairwoman of the Connecticut Coalition Against Bed Bugs, her mission is getting out the word—via posters, lectures, bill boards, etc.—that they are something that can be controlled and eliminated, if people can only contain their panic.
“Bed bugs have this visceral effect on people. [They give us the] sense that we’re not in control,” Ridge said from her office, where on a counter is a lazy Susan crammed with bell jars filled with dark vegetation and insects.
“I’ve seen perfectly collected people come in [with an insect] and say, ‘I think this is a bed bug!’ And I say, ‘Yup!’ And within 10 minutes, their cortisol levels have gone through the roof, and they’re going through the five stages of grief.”
Myths and Smears
Two things bed bugs do not do: They do not bite—they have a beak through which they suck blood, feeding off of us for three to 15 minute sessions before scurrying off. (They inject an anesthetic, so people don’t feel the “bite.”)
And, they don’t necessarily scurry off into the night. Although they often feed at night, there’s a reason bed bugs have been around since cave man times. They’re adaptive. Do you work the night shift and sleep during the day? Bed bugs can work with that.
And although they’re sky high on the “Ick!” scale, they don’t appear to carry disease.
Tom Stansfield, deputy director of the Torrington Area Health District, referred to bed bugs as “a public health nuisance, though not necessarily a public health threat,” although people can get infections from scratching.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does say, however, that although the physical effects of bed bugs appear to be rare, “Bed bugs may also affect the mental health of people living in infested homes. Reported effects include anxiety [and] insomnia …”
Lawrence, district manager for Norwalk-based Ehrlich Pest Control in Connecticut, which bought out Bliss in 2014, said he’d been in the pesticide business for five years before, in 2000, he saw his first bed bug.
A few years ago, he said, “It was just hysteria,” and although it’s calmer now, “that individual pest is 30 percent of our total monthly business.” He paused. “It would be hard to say what’s second.”
Mary Royce, executive director of the New Britain Housing Authority, is frank about the agency’s ongoing battle.
“You can get rid of roaches and mice, [but] it’s very difficult to get rid of bed bugs,” she said. “I don’t think people realize how difficult it is, and it’s very costly. They’re so small, they’ll get into everything and they travel with the person.
“You can end up with millions,” she said.
Betty Evans, assistant housing manager, is in charge of pest control for the authority’s 803 units. Her experience is that once an apartment is infested, “you have to get rid of everything.” The mattresses and bedsprings need to be cut up, bagged and locked up until they can be carted away—in case an unknowing resident decides to help himself to what he thinks is an ordinary, unused mattress.
Hartford’s housing authority pays Connecticut Pest Elimination $12,500 a month to perform an “integrated pest management” program that deals with bed bugs, and all other pests. The program includes quarterly inspections of all units and office areas, daily work orders and follow-up treatments.
With rare specificity, and, perhaps, debatable accuracy, Bridgeport reported 53 bed bug complaints in 2014 and 2015, including three at day care centers, almost certainly the result of home infestations.
Tom Closter, director of environmental services for the Norwalk Health Department, said the city receives at least a complaint a week, versus a few years ago, when it got at least two to three complaints a week. Although people are more aware now, Closter said, “Tenants are still afraid to complain, they’re afraid they’ll be evicted.”
Famously, or infamously, hotels can be major bed bug hangouts, and the online Connecticut bed bug registry—where individuals can anonymously report, and vent about, their experiences—is a testament to the insect’s ubiquity. In 2015 alone, bed bugs were reported in hotels or inns in Farmington, Kent, Waterbury, Manchester, New Haven, Trumbull, Windsor Locks, Cromwell and Glastonbury.
The state contains a virtual bed-bug-battling army, often unseen, from inspectors to exterminators, from trained dogs to the Department of Consumer Protection’s trade practices division, which regulates and licenses thousands of importers and sellers or bedding and upholstered furniture in Connecticut.
But the bed bug problem, ultimately, comes down to how an individual deals with the insect—human vs. bug.
Ridge, of the agricultural station, sees bed bugs as a window into the country’s growing economic gap, which has “created a demographic here of people who have no resources.
“So when a bed bug shows up, I’ve known so many cases where people just lose everything,” she said. “They spend thousands of dollars, unnecessary dollars, because of misinformation, misguidance.”