For many of us growing up, that old nursery rhyme might be the only time we thought of or even heard of bedbugs. They were almost mythical; something from the days of old we didn’t worry about anymore.
But here in Halifax, where the pint-sized pests are popping up everywhere from high rise apartments to public transit, bedbugs are all too real. They’re especially real once you’ve lived with them.
That was the case for Emily Beattie, who recently moved out of her apartment of over four years after some innocuous bites here and there turned out to be evidence of an infestation she never expected to experience.
“I had lived there for so long with no problem, so I just didn’t think that would happen,” says Beattie. “I was surprised that it would happen to me. A bit pissed off, because I lived in a building that used to, a long time ago, have a problem with bedbugs. When I first moved in, a lot of people warned me about that.”
Beattie’s situation is one that many Haligonians will one day deal with. One way or another, you, reading this right now, will probably experience bedbugs soon enough, if you haven’t already.
“People who haven’t seen a bedbug or experienced a bedbug, they’re going to, I can guarantee you,” says Stephen Taylor, general manager of Target Pest Control. “In the next few years, they’re going to be crossing their path, [or] they’re going to know somebody directly affected with them.”
Don’t live in fear, Halifax. Consider this to be your bedbug primer. We’re going to look at what they are, what you do (and do not) have to worry about if you have them, and the proper steps to take once the bedbugs do, indeed, bite.
Let’s talk about bedbugs
First let’s clear up a misconception: Bedbugs, in fact, do not bite.
“They suck,” says Taylor. “There’s a pump in the back of their neck, and they use your blood pressure to start the flow, and then they pump the blood out.”
Also, contrary to popular belief, a person’s lack of cleanliness or proclivity towards clutter doesn’t attract bedbugs.
“We’ve been in homes worth millions of dollars, and we’ve been in homes worth less, and they’ve had bedbugs,” says Taylor, who calls them natural hitchhikers. “It has nothing to do with dirt. It has nothing to do with clutter. Those issues just make it harder to get rid of them, but it didn’t bring them in the house.”
They’re also effectively harmless, as they do not spread disease, according to the Department of Nova Scotia Environment.
“Bedbugs are not a health risk,” says Sara Rumbolt, an environmental health consultant with the department. “A mosquito and a tick spread disease, but a bedbug doesn’t. Why do you have more fear of a bedbug?”
The war on bedbugs
Why is it that we hate the little oval-shaped cretins so much? It’s the mishigas of getting rid of them.
“I know the idea of being bitten in your sleep will definitely cause some people some anxieties and stress,” says Rumbolt, who strongly recommends against attempting to self-treat with store-bought contact killers. “They’re not as simple to get rid of as, say, if you sprayed your apartment for earwigs. It requires quite a bit of preparation beforehand.”
To start, all your clothes and linens have to be run through a dryer cycle on high heat to kill any bugs on them. Then vacuum every centimetre of your home. Move all your possessions into the middle of the floor, so you can treat the baseboards. Most exterminators will preventatively treat units surrounding an affected one as well. Unfortunately, the eggs are so thick that a second treatment will be needed two weeks later, once they hatch. Naturally, all of that is going to cause you a bit of stress—before, during, and after.
“It’s horrible,” says Beattie. “You’re constantly looking over your shoulders, constantly cleaning, constantly living out of bags and boxes. Every tiny piece of lint turns into a possible bug.”
And the worst part is, if there’s any weak link in these steps, a process called integrated pest management, the bugs could literally slip through the cracks (they’re thin enough to slip between any crevice you can fit an envelope into) and come back, or worse, spread.
It’s a great boon for them, then, that we’re so darn afraid to talk about them.
Stigma: A bedbug’s best friend
Given the reputation that bedbugs enjoy, it’s no wonder that problems arise because people are afraid to admit they’ve got them.
Taylor says the main problem is misconceptions. “In my opinion, it’s becoming more of a problem, due to negligence, due to self-treating, due to not understanding to identify the problem,” he says.
Taylor’s seen it all. He’s seen people abandon their homes overnight without a word, leaving an infestation to propagate for days before the landlord notices they’re gone, or that there’s even a problem. He’s seen too many people use over-the-counter topical treatments and home remedies found online, which more often encourage the pests to spread to neighbouring units than stick around on poisoned furniture.
“You’ve taken them with you, plus, you’ve left them behind,” says Taylor. “Because of fear and stigma. By hiding from this, by ignoring this, you’re actually making it worse.”
It goes the other way, too: landlords who are too afraid to properly address an infestation for fear of being labeled only ensure their continued presence.
“We left more because we didn’t feel like they were dealing with the problem,” Beattie says of her former landlords. “That’s a serious problem. They’re not dealing with the entire building. All they’re doing is, basically, creating a breeding ground.”
The fact of the matter is anyone and any place can become a new home for bedbugs, because they evolved to be nature’s perfect, annoying moochers. It’s what they do. Our squeamishness makes it worse.
“Stigma, a lot of times with bedbugs, is what may hamper some of the interventions to get rid of them,” says Rumbolt, who encourages readers to check out the materials about bedbugs that Nova Scotia Environment offers on their website. “The more that people talk about it, and the more that people are aware, will reduce the stigma around it, and we have a better chance of minimizing the numbers that we have.”
What’s to be done?
Bedbugs aren’t just a Halifax problem, they’re on the rise nationwide, says Rumbolt. This is partly due to insecticide resistance on the bedbug’s part, and partly due to our more transient travel habits. Halifax’s higher density and abundance of public spaces means you’re going to hear about them more here than in rural areas.
There are those in the city attempting to address the problem. The Metropolitan Regional Housing Authority has an ongoing, multimillion-dollar pilot project to renovate several hundred units under their care with solid wood baseboards and high-density foam sprinkled with diatomaceous earth, to prevent bedbugs from traveling through the cracks between units. But that can only stop so many.
Are we just doomed to live side-by-side with the blighters forever? The short answer is yes. They’re a successful species that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
But that’s not so bad, according to Taylor. We need not fear them; we need to stay calm and deal with them properly once they rear their flat, ugly heads. By doing that, we can reduce their numbers and the negative impact they have on us in the process.
“We’re big on identification,” says Taylor. “You should always identify the problem first, then deal with it, hopefully based on evidence.” People rarely need to move or throw out furniture when an infestation is handled properly, she says. “You’ll understand the situation, and you’ll be better for it. You’ll have less stress, and you’ll have less fear.”