Supervillain of the insect world

No magic bullet for defeating an infestation of blood-sucking bed bugs

“Good night sleep tight don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

This warning against blood-sucking insects may once have seemed as archaic as the phrase “sleep tight” — but no more. Although pushed to the brink of extinction by DDT in the post-war era bed bugs have experienced a resurgence in recent years.

Curious about an issue he deemed under-reported in the media Halifax filmmaker Edward Peill decided to probe the issue of cimex lectularius more closely with the documentary Bite Me: The Bed Bug Invasion . He discovered that far from being the stuff of nursery rhymes bed bugs have in fact become a global scourge.

“The more you dig into it you realize very quickly it’s a really big problem” he says. “I wasn’t aware. I live in Halifax and you hear the odd story here and there but as soon as you scratch the surface and start looking you realize ‘Oh my god there is a huge problem going on in this city.’ And I would argue probably every Canadian city.”

With bed bug-proof mattress covers online bed bug registries that identify infested hotels and motels and bed bug-sniffing dogs people have plenty of tools with which to fight the critters. But it’s something of a surprise that all this is necessary against an enemy that as comedian Ron James quipped “doesn’t even bother to get out of bed.”

Indeed since bed bugs have a single food source (blood preferably human) live on average only 10 months and reproduce by “traumatic insemination” — the male stabs the female with his sword-like sexual organ — their continued existence is a minor marvel. But bed bugs thrive in spite of these obstacles.

Females anxious to avoid the painful mating ritual are constantly on the move and adept at hiding although they may still lay as many as 540 eggs in a lifetime. If they can’t find a ready food source they can survive as long as a year without eating. And if they can find unsuspecting humans to prey on they may still avoid detection since many people don’t react to bites.

“They’re like the supervillain of the insect world” says Peill. “They can live for months or perhaps even up to a year without eating or drinking anything. They come out at night. They suck your blood. They’re kind of like a vampire bug.”

But bed bugs can’t be destroyed by driving a stake through their heart. Unlike with other insects their food supply isn’t easily limited and while a tidy home may aid in detecting them cleanliness isn’t a deterrent.

“One of the myths people have is it has to do with your socio-economic level or how clean you keep your house” says Peill. “That might apply with other things like cockroaches. Not a factor whatsoever with bed bugs. They’re a big equalizer. Very high-end places like five-star hotels have bed bugs. And homeless shelters have bed bugs. There is no place that can’t get bed bugs.”

Not every place however can afford to get rid of them. Keith Petrie of Cal-Rid Exterminators in Calgary says the cost of treatment which can range into the thousands keeps many people from taking immediate action which simply allows the problem to get worse. And when they call the exterminators Petrie says many mistakenly believe there’s a magic bullet.

“They feel pest control can come in there and they can just snap their fingers or have some magic spray that’s going to kill them. Bed bugs are very difficult to treat because they hide — they’re not just on beds.”

Despite their name bed bugs may also be found in furniture behind baseboards and light switches under carpets in luggage — the list goes on. But while bed bugs may be a formidable foe there’s no need to panic about an invasion. Experts interviewed in Bite Me agree infestation will likely decrease with greater public awareness which Peill hopes the film will accomplish.

“There’s a sort of re-education that needs to happen with people because they’ve been absent from our lives for 50 years. So you just don’t know how to recognize the signs recognize them prevent them treat them. I think that’s a big part of it basic education about bed bugs.”

Bite Me premières Thursday November 14 on CBC TV’s Doc Zone.