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Bedbugs 101: A Primer

You don’t really need that used couch on the sidewalk

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Bedbugs are back in Boston. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The bargain hunters’ furniture bazaar—discarded sofas, mattresses, and other items cast for free on sidewalks—that blossoms this time of year in Boston’s many student-filled neighborhoods are best avoided. In Boston, New York, and several other cities, bedbugs are back.

The biting, brownish-red bane of urban life, for decades purged from cities, reappeared in the 1990s, much to the surprise of entomologists and the delight of pest control services, and their resurgence continues. The numbers tell the story: Boston’s Inspectional Services Department had 99 bedbug complaints in 2006. Last year it had 290, and this year, with 200 complaints so far, it is on track for a new record. The Boston Globe reports that pest-control company Terminix has ranked the city 11th among American municipalities in infestations.

The relatively good news about bedbugs is that while their bites are ugly and itchy, they aren’t harmful. In fact, scientists are a bit baffled as to why the insects don’t transmit disease, as do many other biting insects.

Moreover, according to Thomas Daley, associate vice president at Facilities Management and Planning, BU has not “had a huge problem with bedbugs.” What BU does have is an inspection service that checks out the majority of dorm rooms each summer, sometimes with bug-sniffing dogs. It also has a protocol that includes a next-day inspection for rooms where bedbugs are suspected.

“But 9 times out of 10, they’re not bedbug issues,” says William Walter, Facilities Management and Planning assistant vice president for operations and services. But if an infestation is confirmed, the University typically arranges treatment by a licensed exterminator within 48 hours. Students receive instructions for room-prep that rival planning for a White House dinner. Among other things, students must wash suspect clothing and items in a hot wash/dry cycle, according to BU’s protocols. Exterminators will explain what needs to be cleaned when they treat the room. Anything taken from the room for laundering must be carried in closed containers, so students receive plastic storage bins, a mobile closet, and plastic trash bags from the University, which replaces mattresses, if necessary.

Wait, there’s more: a second treatment is done two to three weeks later.

Residence halls students who suspect the presence of bedbugs should notify their local Residence Life office, which has a bedbug fact sheet, a list of frequently asked questions, and treatment protocols.

Students living off campus have to negotiate their own truce with bedbugs, and happily, there are precautions that might ward off a bedbug invasion, starting with advice about sidewalk furniture from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino (Hon.’01): “I encourage nobody to take that furniture and put in their units.” City officials are tagging street furniture with orange warnings about bedbugs. They also advise apartment dwellers to seal cracks and holes in walls, floors, and ceilings, where bedbugs hide.

Students living off campus who suspect an infestation should alert their landlord. They can also notify the city’s Inspectional Services Department at 617-635-5322.

The Office of Residence Life suggests that students learn to identify bedbugs. The wingless insects are flat, six-legged ovals no more than a quarter-inch long. They typically invade homes as hidden commuters on secondhand furniture or luggage, then migrate to beds or close to them. Bedbug bites should be washed with antibacterial soap, and humans who are bitten should try not to scratch. The bites can be hard to identify, according to the Globe—they can either form a straight line or a random pattern and are typically swollen and red.

More information about bedbugs is available from the Ohio University Extension entomology department and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu. Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu. Follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

6 Comments

6 Comments on Bedbugs 101: A Primer

  • Anonymous on 09.08.2010 at 8:23 am

    Warren

    This is interesting only because my freshman year I had bedbugs in Warren Towers and it took me literally needing to catch a bug for them to believe me and admit that it was bed bugs and do something about it

  • Anonymous on 09.08.2010 at 9:35 am

    The two people I know who’ve had bedbugs off-campus say that catching a bug is the only way to get the landlord to call in for fumigation, so that experience seems par for the course.

  • Anonymous on 09.08.2010 at 10:32 am

    warren towers

    I got bedbugs in Warren freshman year and it took them a long time to believe me. I finally caught some on a sticky mouse trap. BU was helpful with the extermination, but it cost my roommate and me about $600 between all the mattress pads, rugs, etc we had to throw out, and all the drycleaning and laundry we had to do. Bed bugs were by far the most traumatizing experience of my college life, and I’ve known of a lot of people in Warren getting them.

  • Anonymous on 09.08.2010 at 11:07 am

    Bed bug extermination is extremely costly depending on the methods used, so it does make sense that they need confirmation that the problem is in fact bed bugs.

  • Anonymous on 09.08.2010 at 5:36 pm

    Bed Bugs SUCK.

  • Anonymous on 09.08.2010 at 9:25 pm

    Fill a couple of empty Windex bottles with 99% Rubbing alcohol and spray every inch of the room, clothing, furniture, etc. Repeat until bugs are gone. Then repeat every week to keep them away.

    Also invest in a hand held hot water steamer that is strong enough to penetrate at least 6-8 inches of linen or mattress to kill the bed bugs. Works great for me and helps to control dust mites without using expensive and dangerous chemicals.

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