The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"The best way to put an end to bed bugs is to set fire to the bed."...  ...Mexican proverb.

Commentary of the Day - February 28, 2008: Don't Bug Me!  Guest commentary by Eric Eaton.

Just when you thought it was safe to crawl into bed in your dorm room, fraternity, sorority, or off-campus residence, here come the bed bugs.  So foreign are these insects to the modern American landscape  that even some uninformed physicians have advised their patients that no such creature exists.  Alas, the bed bug, known to science as Cimex lenticularis, is very real, and making a comeback with a vengeance.  How did this happen?  Can they be stopped?  What can you do to prevent becoming a victim in the first place?  And what does all this have to do with spring break?

Bed bugs, even as adults, are tiny.  You could fit half a dozen on a fingernail with room to spare.  They are wingless and paper thin, allowing them to slip into the tiniest of crevices.  Bed bugs are one of the few insects that depend almost exclusively on human beings for survival.  Cimex lenticularis can be a poultry pest, but Homo sapiens is the preferred host.  Lucky us.  Strictly nocturnal, bed bugs catch us at our most vulnerable, sipping our blood as we slumber.  Thankfully, they  do not transmit diseases, though they certainly have the hardware.  Beak-like mouthparts pierce the skin, virtually inhaling a meal of hemoglobin before the insect retreats to a hiding place.  Reaction to bites varies considerably.  Some victims show no symptoms at all.  A tell-tale row of three or four tiny punctures is typical, but sensitive individuals may sport large welts or extensive lesions the next day.  Bed bugs can go long periods without a meal, up to one year according to some authorities, so even rooms that have been vacant for awhile are not necessarily bug-free.  It is important to understand that bed bugs can thrive regardless of a tenant's lifestyle and living conditions.  Clutter simply allows for more bed bug hiding places.  Likewise, foreign immigrants cannot be blamed for bringing bed bugs to any location.

Many college campuses, even some in the (gasp!) Ivy League, have already gone toe to tarsus (insect foot) with bed bugs.  Entomologists, the scientists who study insects, have noticed that bed bug outbreaks on campuses often coincide with students returning from spring break.  That makes sense, because lodging establishments from five star to flea-bag are all too frequently the bed bug equivalent of Grand Central Station.  Bed bugs may seek daytime refuge in anything on or near the bed, including luggage and laundry.  Away they go to their next destination when students pack up.

Increased travel in general, both domestic and foreign, is thought to be one factor in the resurgence of bed bugs.  Still, no one can say for certain why, or why now,  more than thirty years after the pest was last on the radar screens of exterminators.  Some experts blame the ban on pesticides like DDT.  However, less thorough application of chemical treatments may be the real issue, as bed bugs are experts at escaping contact insecticides.  Lastly, the popularity of secondhand furniture from thrift stores and garage sales means bed bugs can find new homes with warm bodies.

One way to stop bed bugs on campus is to refrain from claiming old mattresses and furniture discarded between semesters.  What may look perfectly acceptable can still have hidden bugs...literally.  Students traveling anywhere should begin their stay by thoroughly inspecting their accommodations.  Look behind the headboard of the bed.  Look beneath buttons on mattresses, and along seams.  Look for fecal stains as well as the insects themselves.  Use your sense of smell, as large numbers of bed bugs are often betrayed by a vague, spicy scent they emit.  Examine the bed frame, especially at points of attachment where crevices exist.  Take the drawer out of the nightstand and turn it over to see if bed bugs are hiding along the edges.  Use the foldable luggage rack for bags, to keep them off the floor.  If you find bed bugs at any time, notify management, and request another room (better yet find other lodging altogether)!  When you get back home, search every nook and cranny in your luggage for potential stowaways.

Once a population of bed bugs becomes established, it is a truly monumental task to evict them.  The bugs themselves are bad enough, but they are a minor irritation compared to the invasion of privacy that comes with professional treatments.  Pest control technicians must look everywhere, from the bed itself to behind posters (another name for the bed bug is "wall louse") to under switch plates and outlets.  The room has to be nearly disassembled.  Students are usually displaced during the process, and housed elsewhere temporarily.  Clothing and other personal possessions may need to be sealed and stored for long periods, thoroughly cleaned, or discarded.  Laundering linens at 120 F or higher temperature (for both washing and drying) does effectively render bed bug eggs inviable.  Thoroughly vacuuming floors, closets, and furniture also helps rid minor infestations.

Beyond the invasive nature of treatment for a bed bug infestation are the legal nightmares that may ensue (pun fully intended).  Determining liability often seems the primary concern of all parties involved, though thankfully this is rarely, if ever, a concern with campus housing.  Ironically, getting a lawyer to take a bed bug case is often an exercise in futility anyway, as most attorneys don't find such a meager lawsuit worth their time.  Talk about bloodsuckers....  Do know your legal rights, however.  You should not be liable for the cost of treatment.

Several excellent online resources exist to inform the consumer about bed bug biology, and how to avoid, or eradicate, infestations.  Two of the best can be found through Harvard University: and  The University of Kentucky has an outstanding fact sheet:

Many colleges and universities, to their credit, have formulated strategic action plans for dealing with bed bug infestations (see or for examples).  Look for those documents online, and in materials provided by your campus housing authority.  Read them!  If your institution does not already have such protocols in place, urge administrators to create them.  Write informative articles in the school newspaper before bed bugs become a major headline on their own.  Spreading the word about preventing infestations is far better, and simpler, than dealing with them after the fact.  Now, sleep tight and don't let the...well, you know.

2008 Eric Eaton.
Eric Eaton is a freelance writer and entomologist from Portland, Or, who now resides in Tucson, AZ.  More of Eric's writing can be found on his web site: Bug Eric.

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