Bed bugs on the eve of summer vacation: A mom’s guide

Bed bugs come to visit one Virginia family and Mom does a quick inventory of prevention methods  – a helpful tool as you push off for summer vacation and beds others use.

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Bed Bugs, seen here in all their pesty glory. 2011, file.
Business Wire
A bed bug. 2006, file.

As the kids watched their beds, blankets, and dressers make their way to the curb, our son Avery, 14, said, “Man, I never realized grandmothers meant it literally when they say ‘Goodnight. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.’ ”

Bed bugs are real, easily transferred to our homes, and expensive to cope with. However, everything we need to know comes from my granny, her sayings, and some moms who went buggy over these critters.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bed bugs — blood-sucking insects that feed on humans while they sleep — are literally everywhere. “Everyone is at risk for getting bed bugs when visiting an infected area," the CDC reports. "However, anyone who travels frequently and shares living and sleeping quarters where other people have previously slept has a higher risk of being bitten and or spreading a bed bug infestation.”

Contrary to urban legend, bed bugs are not microscopic; those are mites. Bed bugs are reddish-brown, wingless, about the size of an apple seed, and can live several months without a blood meal.

I can tell you that while bites are painless, welts left behind are itchy, but they don’t transmit diseases. Some people are mildly allergic to them. The welts from bed bugs sometimes get written off as mosquito bites.

That was all the bad stuff. Now let’s talk about getting them to bug-off. I was perfectly serious about taking our cues from nursery rhymes and old wives' expressions because those old girls have forgotten more than we even know.

The bed bug, Cimex lectularius, was my childhood nickname given to me by my maternal grandmother, Anne. She called me “My little vance (vants)” which is Yiddish for bed bug. This makes little sense because she was a blonde, blue-eyed, Roman Catholic to the bone. According to her, it was also a Polish expression of endearment. I looked it up and in Polish the word for bed bug is pluskwa.

While she might have been a little off-base on nicknames, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that Grandma Anneisms had some practical sense when it came to bed bug riddance.

“Some Like it Hot,” was one of my Grandma Anne’s favorite films and it works as an extermination plan for bed bugs because bed bugs hate warmth, according to Scientific American.

However professional heat treatments are costly, between $2,000 and $4,000 per single-family home, according to Scientific American, which also tells us that today’s bed bug has become “pesticide resistant,” while heat remains effective.

The best and thriftiest solution comes from friend Theresa who had them through two moves until she learned to put things in the dryer for 25 minutes and then put the still hot items into a plastic bag in a warm place for a few hours. She actually had bags in her car in the sun for the day and that did the job better than chemical treatments that had repeatedly failed to get the job done.

That means if it can go in the dryer on high for 25 minutes you’re probably going to be able to keep it. If the bed doesn’t fit in there it’s time to call the trash guys for a bulk pickup or rent a dumpster.

“Snug as a bug in a rug.” Well that says it all for how we got bed bugs at our house after accepting a beautiful, but infested rug from a neighbor. Beware the magic carpet that will take you on a hellish ride through bed bug land.

We put it in the room shared by Avery and Ian, 18,  over the tatty old tan wall-to-wall carpeting to hide the stains and make the room bearably warm in winter.

At first we thought the plush oriental carpet was itchy because of its age and not being aired. Later we thought it might have mites so we sprinkled it with powdered insecticide. This had the effect of sending the bugs deeper into the carpet where they lay dormant through the cold winter as our furnace repeatedly broke down – thus keeping the house quite cold.

The moment the heat bloomed here in Virginia the boys began getting bites at night. We thought it was fleas and dipped, sprayed, and generally made miserable our two cats and the dog. We washed sheets and vacuumed. Nothing worked until Avery at last spotted a little flat, oval, brown bug in the seam of his mattress. “Mom! Do we have bug spray?” he called from his room.

Don’t spray the mattress inside the house. 

I don’t care what any “expert” tells you, unless you are ready to cope with something that looks like Hitchcock meets SciFi Channel as critters swarm out of the seams, don’t do it.

If you find one and you’re sure it’s a bed bug it’s time to bag it and tag it — the mattress and everything on it except pets and the kids.

I know this because I got the spray and used it, to my eternal regret.

How to bed bugs get around?
“This room may be bugged.” Granted, granny may not have said that one unless she was a spy, but it’s still a good one to pay attention to because hotels, conference rooms, workplaces, and even classrooms can be Grand Central Station for bug transport to our homes.

“Never leave your handbag, backpack or bags on a carpeted floor in a room that you aren’t completely certain is bug free,” says my friend Theresa, whose last name I’ll withhold because she doesn’t want to be judged for having had bed bugs in her house. “They get into everything, right through the seams of your handbag, shoes, or the kids’ backpacks.”

Theresa now keeps a clear Rubbermaid container by the door for depositing bags and backpacks.

“I do the same for clothing instead of wooden dressers now because I can see them immediately and nip it right in the bud,” she explains.

Myth: Bedbugs prefer unsanitary, urban conditions

"Bedbugs are terribly nondiscriminatory," Coby Schal, an entomologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh told Scientific American. The publication also concluded, “Bedbugs can be found anywhere from ritzy high-rises to homeless shelters. The prevalence of the bugs in low-income housing is therefore not a result of the insect's preference, but of dense populations and the lack of money to pay for proper elimination strategies.

Bed bugs only live in beds.  

We learned bed bugs not only travel in anything but they live anywhere they can slip into: wall sockets, vents, dressers, seams of cloth laundry baskets, every crack in the floor, and creases of any kind of bag, belt, or garment.

My friend Laura, in New Jersey, told me about how her daughter, who attends college in Richmond, Va., had to move apartments six times before she was able to sleep through the night without being bitten.

“She finally found out the bugs were moving with her each time because they were inside a wooden, acoustic guitar her roommate had gotten at a yard sale,” Laura explained.

Also, get a spray specifically formulated for bed bugs and use it liberally on vents, in every crack and cranny and take off electrical outlet covers for spraying as well.

Being thrifty, not so nifty

Curb your enthusiasm for thrifting, yard sales, flea markets (perhaps more aptly named bed bug bargains), trash day treasures and the like to avoid making someone else’s problems your own. I know, I love them too and times are tough but after this I would rather do without than do this all over again.

Global warming may be our ultimate weapon in the bug battle because Spring is here and I intend to save a pile of cash by not running air conditioning this summer. I will crank the stereo instead and listen to my new favorite tune, “Burn Baby Burn!” It’s gonna be a disco bed bug inferno here in the south.

For more tips, check out this Yahoo! Shine article.

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