Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
The first thing you need to do when bed bugs hit, or when you strongly suspect them but can’t find evidence, is call a professional and have your place inspected.
Your pest control operator (PCO) should know where to look and what to look for. He or she should be able to give you sound advice, furnish the appropriate paperwork and proof of certification, and not rely solely on chemicals to blast the critters.
Sadly, many PCOs do not realize that bed bugs are a singular pest whose eradication demands a number of methods working in concert. Any bed bug PCO worth his or her salt will not make the below mistakes.
If they do not know the basics cited below, be wary of allowing them to attack your bug problem.
- He pronounces a bed bug infestation based on your bites and the pattern, without other evidence. Bites can be caused by a number of insects. The three-in-a-row, breakfast-lunch-dinner pattern is not a definitive marker. Plus, not everyone reacts to bed bug bites, so you could have bed bugs in your apartment without anyone showing bites at all.
- She doesn’t ask to see a bug sample, or agrees to treat based on what you’ve told her, without evidence. There are three signs of bed bugs: fecal traces, cast skins and bugs themselves. Anyone who would treat without definitive proof would be ripping you off, even if your apartment actually has bed bugs.
- They rely solely on a canine to alert, without verifying that the dog actually alerted to a live bed bug. It has become common knowledge that dogs make mistakes and are to be used as a tool, not a surefire indicator. Their role is to point the inspector in the right direction. If an alert does not yield an actual bug or at least a sign, there may be too much chance of a false positive for you to proceed.
- He or she can’t seem to distinguish bed bug myths from fact. For instance, he says things like, “Bed bugs hate metal and can’t live in it,” or she says, “They only bite women.” Neither of these things is true.
- They tell you that deep-freezing will take care of the bugs. This is only partly accurate. Cryogenic freezing will kill bugs, but only the ones that it hits. If other methods such as chemicals aren’t also used, then there is no residual effect and the bugs stay alive to spawn. Same goes for steam.
- More is better. It is natural to assume that if something works, then more of it will work better, or faster. This is the exact mistake that Bobby, my landlord’s second exterminator, made. He put down so much Drione dust that it was piled like flour around the perimeter of my bedroom and on the underside of my bed. It is supposed to be discreetly dusted in cracks and crevices and be virtually invisible. As with most things, moderation is key. The law of diminishing returns comes to mind. Bed bugs require subtlety. If they sense or smell the chemicals they will know to steer around them. Since they can survive for a time without feeding, they will either wait until the pesticides have degraded enough for them to walk over without dying, or travel to other parts of the building, if you’re in an apartment. On top of that, such a volume of insecticide may very well be harmful to you.
- He or she cannot or will not produce a detailed list of the chemicals being used. State law requires certain documents and gives you the right to ask to see them. You may want to steer clear if a PCO is not totally upfront on this score.
- You can’t find the person on the list of licensed exterminators posted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. I could not find Bobby on the list. This is because he worked for a large pest-control firm and was not personally licensed under his own name, and was thus moonlighting illegally. He was illegal for a good reason: He had no idea what he was doing. Neither did T.C., who wasn’t on the list either.
- They tell you to sleep elsewhere, rather than the bed. T.C. did this. He stood my mattress up in the bedroom and told me to sleep in the living room. It got my couch infested. If an exterminator doesn’t know that bed bugs will follow you, then don’t hire him.
- They do not give you a detailed prep list for their visit. Every PCO works slightly differently. Some want you to treat and then bag your possessions so that they only have to worry about the structure. Some want you to bag your things but open the bags so that bugs will crawl out, over the poison, and die. Others don’t see bagging as necessary at all.
- They use foggers. I canned T.C. when he told me that he planned to use a fogger in my apartment. “That’ll drive everything else out,” he said. “Then we’ll finish off the remaining bed bugs.” The only thing the fogger drove out was him. Foggers don’t work. Their contents don’t tend to be lethal to bed bugs. Moreover, it repels them rather than killing them. If you’re in a building, they’ll scatter to another apartment and come back to yours once the pesticides’ strength has waned. You may very well infest your neighbors and still have bed bugs if you use those.
There are other things that show a lack of bed bug expertise, but these are basic red flags that indicate a PCO is not bed bug–savvy enough to get rid of your infestation. If he or she exhibits any of the above signs, you will probably be better off graciously declining the service.
Theresa Braine is a NYC-based journalist and bed bug survivor whose work has appeared in the NY Daily News, People, Newsday and other outlets. Bedbugged! is her weekly column about life in the trenches and climbing out with your sanity intact.
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