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Turkey Tracks:  September 7, 2012


My mother had a horror of bedbugs.

She inherited that horror, of course, as she grew up before DDT mostly eradicated bedbugs by the 1950s.  She told a story about someone bringing an old table into Big House in Reynolds, Georgia, when she was a child.  My grandmother saw a bedbug on it and had the table taken immediately to the back yard and burned.

Mother and my Aunt Susan, many times, told how each week all the household laundry went out to the farm where it was boiled, hung on lines and bushes and fences to dry, ironed, and returned—spotlessly white and, now I realize since heat kills them, bedbug free.

Well, like a recurring nightmare, bedbugs are back and they’re back in force.  Now, they’re pesticide resistant, and these opportunistic hitchhikers are spreading like crazy since everyone is traveling so much more and so much wider in the world than ever before.  Acquiring bedbugs is a factor of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, not a factor of how clean or dirty your house might be.

I discovered them in our master bedroom three weeks ago when I went to change the sheets, which I do without fail every single week.  Their presence was signaled by what looked like a spray of black ink spots on our very pretty ecru-colored bed skirt.  On the underside, lay an adult, some smaller ones about the size of fleas, and my, to date, unmitigated horror.  This bed sits right next to a large, dry storage room under the eaves, where we stored our luggage.  We had been in the wrong place at the wrong time on our May/early June trips to Charleston, SC, and Essex, NY.  Both times we stayed in a hotel or an inn.  And, of course, our luggage rubbed up next to other luggage on all of our flights.    

If I can get bedbugs in my house, which I keep clean, which gets professionally cleaned every week, which isn’t cluttered, which is a place where “everything has a place” and where things are returned promptly to that place, which is a place where laundry is done promptly, you can too. 

So, what to do next?

Every web site I investigated cautioned against trying to deal with bedbugs yourself.  Any of you who read this blog at all know that I am categorically against spraying toxic poisons to kill bugs except in extreme circumstances—and then with the knowledge that the spray may be more harmful, long-term, than the bug you want to kill.  However, we did spray a few years back when carpenter ants in those same dry storage rooms under the eaves (there was a small leak in the roof and the wet wood drew them inside) were making 6-inch piles of sawdust every single day.  Three years later, we are still finding dead ant bodies that fall to the floor if they cross the toxic barrier.  And, for months and months afterwards, any time I spent in the room outside the dry storage room where the ants had been the worst resulted in dizziness, headaches, and nausea. 

Nevertheless, we felt we were between a rock and a hard place with the bedbugs.  They were spreading, clearly.  They were tucked into the outside seams of the mattress and the box springs in several places.  And, since I dragged laundry down two floors of stairs every week, we feared we might have spread them to the laundry room area and god knows where else. 

We called in Modern Pest Services, and we discussed options.  Doing a “green” heat treatment of the whole house (heaters and big fans) would have cost almost $4,000 and had no guarantee and did not put up any additional protection against further hitchhikers that may come in.  After a home inspection, we opted for the spray, and MPS sent us a pre-spray prep sheet that made us realize the full extent of the process of getting rid of bedbugs. 

The master bedroom and everything on that whole floor had to be completely stripped of anything that might harbor any part of the two-week life cycle of the bedbugs—from the hard-to-see translucent eggs and first nymphs to the adults, which can be about the size of your little fingernail.  (There are many good web sites with pictures and good information—so take a look so you’ll recognize them.  The adults look like wingless roaches.) 

Before the sprayer came, I had to strip, wash, and, most importantly, dry for at least 45 minutes in a hot dryer, everything I could.  Only heat kills bedbugs reliably.  We have feather beds on all the beds, and they don’t fit in our washer, so that meant dragging them to the local Laundromat and sitting for nearly two hours while they washed and dried.  Feather beds are big and bulky; they take up a huge amount of space in the car, and there is only one washer big enough for one of them at the Laundromat, so that meant many separate trips and lots and lots of money. 

The 11-year old washer had been acting up—not pumping out water properly—and it, of course, went almost right away.  (There’s some sort of cosmic law about machines or plumbing breaking when you need them to perform.)  So, that meant EVERYTHING had to go to the Laundromat.  All the bedding from five beds—the kiddos had just left.  The curtains from the master bedroom.  All the clothes in the drawers.  (We determined one day that John has at least a hundred pairs of socks that had to be heat treated and rematched.)  Shoes had to be dragged out of closets so the sprayer could get to the closet floor and to the four dry storage areas in the upper two bedrooms which are behind two of the closets.  All the luggage had to be taken down three floors to the garage—where they are awaiting treatment still on the garage’s second floor. 

All the treated clothes had to be put into plastic bins or bags so they would not be reinfected.  We had to vacate that master bedroom, of course, so we risked spreading the bedbugs to the middle floor and the guest bedroom.  One night I was so tired that I could not physically carry the plastic bins I had filled at the Laundromat from the car back into the house and drag them up two floors.  The next day, a friend came and carried them all back inside for me.  I am and will be eternally grateful to him.   

All the furniture had to be pulled out from the baseboards—which means intensive vacuuming behind everything.  (The vacuum bags get sealed and thrown away.)  All the pictures have to be removed so their backs can be sprayed.  (I stored all the hanging quilts.)  All electrical outlets have to be cleared and cords have to be removed from near baseboards.  The sprayers put a powder into every outlet as the bedbugs can and do travel along wires inside the walls—which is why they are so hard to eradicate in apartment buildings.  Every piece of furniture gets sprayed—beds, couches, chairs, baskets, whatever.  Bedbugs love cracks and crevices and try to live within close range of their food source:  you.

It takes the sprayer about two hours to spray our house and about four hours for everything to dry—which means you have to be out of the house for a minimum of six hours.  (They spray the foundations outside as well.)  When we returned, we had to put everything back in place—all the pulled out furniture, all the couch pillows, and so on and so on.  We have to do it all again next Monday, which is the second spraying—which comes two weeks after the first.  Any eggs that have escaped and any bedbugs that have possibly hatched and escaped being poisoned will be caught this go-round.  I think the spray renders the bedbugs unable to reproduce, but I have to check that for sure.

So far, I have tolerated the spray fairly well.  I am itching all over, especially on rainy days, and I have some breaking out on my skin, but so far, it’s an ok tradeoff to get rid of the bedbugs.   I have no idea about the long-term implications.  Only, anyone can bring in a new hitchhiker at any time—so we are instituting some controls from here on out—discussed below.

First, let me say that treating for bedbugs is not cheap.  The spraying is about $900 and occurs twice in the initial treatment and then quarterly for a year.  The Laundromat has been at least $150.  Trying to do all the drying and washing at home would take way too long, given the spraying schedule, even if the washer had not died.  We bought “encasement” covers for every single mattress and box spring—they keep the bedbugs in if you have them and out if you don’t.  All the web sites say to get good ones that will last at least two years without tearing and that have tiny-teeth zippers that the nymphs can’t get through.  (It does not work to just throw out the mattress and box springs as the bedbugs will reenter anything new from, for instance, the bed itself.)  We got Allerzip, which range from $80 each (Amazon.com if they have the right size) to $116 each on the bedbug sites.  We bought a dry steam sprayer that we can use to treat suitcases, small rugs, clothing, and anything else you want to steam clean:  $300, www.Vapamore.com.  I’m actually excited about the steam cleaner as it will get into places it’s hard to clean.     

Why am I telling you this horrible story?  Because I was totally clueless about this growing problem, and I’m hoping to help you prevent what occurred to us.

So, what can you do to prevent getting bedbugs?  Here are some suggestions in no particular order.

If you travel, take precautions.  Don’t bring luggage into a hotel room until you have stripped back the bedding and looked for bedbug evidence—you’re looking for small black tar-like dots.  Or, a white residue in the dresser drawers.  And, you can check online to see if the hotel/motel you’re using has had recent bedbug episodes—to be fair, most have.  If you find evidence, ask for a new room.

Don’t put your suitcase on the bed or on the floor.  Use the luggage rack.  Or, someone recently told me, put the suitcase in the tub. 

When you get home, unpack suitcase contents at the washer/dryer and put everything into either the washer (to be dried for 45 minutes after washing) or into the dryer. 

Don’t store the suitcase inside the house unless you treat it first:  steam clean it or, in hot climates, put it into a plastic bag and put it outside for a day or two.  Temps must get to the 140 degree range inside that bag, however.  Cold might not kill bedbugs—they can go dormant.  And, they can live over two years without feeding.

My sister is returning to using a hard suitcase, which isn’t a bad idea.  Duffle bags could be dried in a dryer.

Work out a procedure for guests. We’re going to give them a laundry basket into which they can put suitcase contents; we’re going to steam clean the suitcase; we’re going to store it in the garage in a plastic bag until time to pack again.  We’re going to be ruthless about this procedure.

Put encasement covers on all your mattresses and box springs.  They’re really quite nice.  They’re a silky material, not hard plastic.

Don’t bring used/secondhand clothing or furniture into the house without treating them first.  I’ve already heard from several people about people inheriting used sofas, for instance, and introducing bedbugs.

Keep things simple:  get rid of bed skirts and fabric that dangles on the floor.

Recognize that the old saying—“sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite”—has a whole new meaning today.

Written by louisaenright

September 7, 2012 at 12:15 pm

One Response

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  1. That had to be a nightmare! Thank you for sharing! I’ve decided never to leave home again! I keep hearing the Mamie in Gone with the Wind say hold it right there. Then she told the family members returning from the war to strip and boiled their clothes. What was a funny scene in a movie…now is a new nightmare.

    Susan Heath

    September 8, 2012 at 4:15 am

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