Rachel Perrott knows bedbugs.
"They've kind of dubbed me the Fairfax County bedbug expert," the 33-year-old entomologist says. "Whenever the [Virginia] Health Department has a really strange or hard-to-deal-with bedbug project, I get called in to fix it."
But when Perrott and her husband, Edgar Mendez, a pest-control specialist, developed an itchy rash that covered their chest and arms, it took them two weeks to identify the tiny, blood-sucking culprit.
"Here we are teaching people all over the county and in the area about bugs, and when it's our own house and our own situation, we couldn't identify what was going on for 14 days or more," Perrott says.
Nearly four months after treating the problem, they were still finding the wingless critters scattered through their Fairfax County townhouse.
Bedbugs have made an astounding resurgence in the past few years. A recent study conducted by the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) in partnership with the University of Kentucky found that 95 percent of U.S.-based pest-management companies surveyed had encountered a bedbug infestation in the past year. Prior to 2000, only 25 percent of respondents had encountered such an infestation.
"We've seen an increase in incidences of reports, without a doubt," says Conrad Lyons, operations manager at PestMasters. "Over three years, we've seen about a 300 percent increase." The Richmond-based pest-control company hired additional employees to deal exclusively with bedbugs. "The fact is, we've got them in the Far West End, we've got them in Petersburg, we've got them in the East End," Lyons says. "They're everywhere."
About 80 percent of Richmond apartment communities have had to deal with bedbugs, says Patrick Ward, chief executive officer at the Central Virginia Apartment Association. In rented properties, the resident is responsible for the exterminator charges, Ward says, because it is something the resident brings in.
According to Arthur V. Evans, entomologist and co-host for the WCVE public radio feature "What's Bugging You," which airs during NPR's Morning Edition , bedbugs hang out anyplace where people gather. Hotel rooms, motel rooms and movie theaters are popular spots because bedbugs like dark rooms where people are sitting or lying down for long periods of time. But offices and public-transportation vehicles are also likely places to pick them up.
"Bedbugs are great hitchhikers," Lyons says. "In our transient society of people intermingling, things spread rapidly. Anywhere where you have a large congregation of people and there is a cycling of people through those areas, there's a high likelihood of having a problem."
Evans recommends not unpacking when you travel or, if you want to be extra cautious, "keep your suitcase on the rack or in the bathtub." Other preventive steps include keeping personal belongings in a desk drawer at the office, rather than setting them on the floor, and thoroughly inspecting used furniture for infestations before bringing it into your home.
If you do find bedbugs in your home, don't panic. But once identified, the infestation should be treated immediately. The eggs develop to sexual maturity in about 35 days, Lyons says, and the female lays about one to five eggs per day, so when the cycle starts, the bedbug population doubles every 16 days. "It goes from being one to a hundred or so very quickly," he says.
The oval, flat insects are about a quarter of an inch long, and they range from white to burnt orange in color. Like mosquitoes, they will inject their victim with an anti-coagulant to keep the blood flowing, and then they will feed. One way people realize they have been bitten is from noticing itchy welts when they wake up or from the dark-brown or reddish fecal stains that the bugs leave on bedding.
When Perrott saw the first bedbug scamper across her sheets at 11 p.m. on a summer night last year, she knew exactly what she needed to do. She stripped the bed, bagged all of the laundry in the room — including the curtains — and pulled everything off and away from the walls, because if the infestation spreads inside the walls, the problem can increase exponentially.
"We were up until 4 in the morning that day," Perrott says.
Later, her husband treated the room with pesticides.
Perrott recommends getting professional help as soon as possible, because do-it-yourself methods do not work on bedbugs.
"Because of their cryptic nature of wanting to hide everywhere and their resistance to pesticides, this really is not something you can fix on your own if you don't have the background to do it," Perrott says. "For Edgar and I, knowing exactly what we were doing, it took us from July until October to get rid of a very small infestation."