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Bed Bugs, in Berkeley? How a Code of Silence and the “Ick” Factor Worsen the Problem

January 22, 2014
by Ben Christopher

When Vernard Lewis first joined UC Berkeley’s resident faculty of pest researchers in 1990, he says he was “lucky” to receive one bedbug complaint per year. By that same measure of good fortune (which, even coming from an entomologist, is a weird one), these days, Lewis is positively blessed.

“Now I get them every week,” he says. Like inbox-clogging clockwork, they pour in, one urgent plea after another. There are requests to diagnose a suspicious new bug bite, to conduct an in-person home inspection, to examine “ten 15 megapixel images, all out of focus.”

Among professional pest watchers, Lewis’s experience isn’t an unusual one. Daniel Wilson, the community relations coordinator at Alameda County Vector Control, tells a similar story of blood sucking epidemic. “Back in 2000, we would maybe get one call a year,” he recalls. Then, starting around 2005, bed bug reports started to jump. By 2010, they were in the triple digits. “Last I checked, we had 243 requests for services in 2013.”

A sizeable chunk of those requests came from Berkeley where, as reported in The Daily Californian last spring, student housing, chock full of globe-trotting students and second-hand futons, was hit with a minor outbreak.

“In April, we counted 40 reports over the previous academic year,” says Marty Takimoto, director of communications and marketing for Cal’s Residential and Student Service Programs. So far this year, student housing is on track for another bed-buggy year with 19 confirmed reports over the course of the first semester.

In truth, bed bug reports are up the world over. Wherever there are tightly packed cities full of warm-blooded bodies, bed bugs (misleadingly named, as they’ll settled down just about anywhere) have been found in sharply increasing numbers over the last two decades. While the reasons behind this ascendency are contested—theories range from increased air travel to chemical resistance to a shift away from insecticidal management of other pests like roaches in favor of bed bug friendly bait traps—the trend is clear: After a post-war lull in the age of DDT, the bed bug is back in a big way.

“At the end of the day, if you can control what’s up in people’s heads,” he says, pointing to his temple, “haven’t you controlled the problem?” For most of us, the answer to that question would be an emphatic no.

But to Lewis, who, when he isn’t clearing out his inbox, leads Berkeley’s Urban Pest Management Center and is one of the system’s go-to bug guys, escalating report numbers and fearful press accounts should be taken with a bit of skepticism.

“I’m convinced the perception of this issue is real,” he says with deliberate emphasis. “I’m convinced it’s a real fight, but it’s probably not of the magnitude that the media would have you believe.”

Does that mean that bed bugs are, in fact, a relative rarity? That they aren’t rife across campus housing? That tales of chemical-resistant bloodsuckers are nothing but media scare stories?

Most certainly not, says Lewis. Bed bugs are indeed everywhere (“I wish I could say they’re just in the dorms…” he says with an unnerving wave of his hand) and insecticide-proof bugs are a real pest control problem (“resistance ratios for bed bugs are astronomical.”) The point, he says, is that we aren’t doing ourselves any favors by worrying quite so much about it.

“At the end of the day, if you can control what’s up in people’s heads,” he says, pointing to his temple, “haven’t you controlled the problem?”

For most of us, the answer to that question would be an emphatic no. Blood swollen bed bugs may pack a big ick factor, but there’s plenty of logic behind that. And however unmoved you may be about the notion of sharing your furniture with parasitic vermin, no amount of entophilic nonchalance will keep those bites from itching.

Worse yet, bed bugs are a social ill. They may not transmit diseases (not yet, Vernard clarifies ominously), but like some 19th century parable warning against the moral corruption of urban life, they flourish off our comingling and cohabitation. All it takes is for one housemate to bring home one wrong sweater and suddenly, the story goes, the entire apartment building is condemned to eternal itchiness. In the face of such a danger, how can we not panic?

Lewis says don’t panic because the available data doesn’t warrant panicking. Despite the fact that bed bugs have been bedfellows with humans since the dawn of civilization, the business of detecting, monitoring, and killing the pinhead-sized anthropods is still full of question marks.

First, there is a matter of identification. As Marty Takimoto at campus residential services contends (and as Vernard Lewis’s inbox attests), not every bed bug report is an accurate one. “Once we had two roommates report that they found bed bug eggs on the banister of their bed,” Takimoto recalls. “It turned out to be fish roe from the sushi they’d had for dinner the night before.”

For the record, Takimoto says that he appreciated the vigilance and welcomes all reports of suspected bed bugs. Students can file their reports online here.

“I’m really suspicious of ‘complaint data,’” says pest researcher Lewis. “People will call, saying they’ve been itching and scratching.  That’s not reliable. Someone is always itching and scratching. Now they think bed bugs, but they used to think spiders or lice. It’s in vogue.”

That isn’t to say that bed bugs aren’t a real and growing concern. But the prevailing fads of cultural phobia do tend create false positives which push report numbers even higher.

Even in those cases where an investigation does turn up bed bugs—either by scent-trained dogs or chemical-detecting monitors—conclusions of widespread infestation are difficult to make. Does one dead bed bug lying on your pillow represent the thousands more residing beneath your baseboards? Or is it just one dead bed bug who dropped from the pages of your library book?

More frustrating still, says Lewis: After an apartment is subjected to anti-bed bug treatment (which often amounts to the blasting of 120° air into suspected areas of infestation), it’s exceedingly difficult to tell if that treatment was successful or not. If more bugs show up after the fact, is that because they outran the blasts of hot air, or because the resident of the infested home went back to a workplace that was the original source of the first bed bugs and inadvertently picked up a few more hitchhikers?

“I also work on termites where I have molecular tests and cuticular hydrocarbon tests where I can tell colonies apart. I can tell new from old. I can tell a failed treatment from new introduction,” says Lewis. “Those tests don’t exist for bed bugs.”

“Take the ick factor out of it, fess up and just do some surveys. There’s a stigma attached to bed bugs and it makes no sense.”

But public hysteria over bedbugs is more than impractical. It can actually be insidious. By treating them as highly contagious and symptomatic of squalor (two assumptions that are, respectively, overstated and categorically wrong, says Lewis), we cow those who are infested into silence. Landlords won’t tell their tenants, airlines won’t tell their customers, hotels won’t tell the local authorities. This lack of transparency not only allows infestations to spread, its makes collecting data that much more difficult.

Lewis recalls struggling to collect active bed bug samples “from the field” a few years ago. After receiving a tip from a downtown Berkeley pest control operator who had just confirmed a bed bug report at a nearby business, Lewis says he paid the manager of the business a call.

“I tried to disguise what I was doing a little by telling him I was just looking for possible sources of bed bugs for my research. But he says, ‘we don’t have them!’ Even though I’d just talked to the pest control guy who had told him that he did on the very same day. We don’t have this problem with termites.”

Lewis says he would like to see businesses and public institutions “take the ick factor out of it, fess up, and just do some surveys.” Instead “there’s a stigma attached to bed bugs and it makes no sense.”

But despite public concern, of the many pests and pestilences that worry public health officials, bed bugs still rank pretty low. Lewis runs through a laundry list of advances he’d like to see made in bed bug tech: colony-by-colony identification tools, bed bug traps, armies of dogs trained to sniff out bed bug pheromone. The stumbling block is, as always, funding.

“Can we do more? “ he asks. “Yeah! But it takes more resources.”

And on the subject of this dearth of financing, Lewis is surprisingly complacent. Recalling a trip he took to Europe while on sabbatical in 2011, Lewis says he visited the headquarters of the World Health Organization prepared for a vigorous discussion of the worldwide bed bug problem. The response in Geneva amounted to a big institutional shrug.

“They told me, ‘look, people aren’t dying of bed bugs. They’re dying of malaria. Dengue. Yellow fever. That’s where the resources are,’” says Lewis. “And you know, they’re right. I have to respect that.

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