Good night, sleep tight and don't let the bedbugs bite. That grandmother's bedtime warning may make a comeback if bedbug infestations continue to escalate.
Called the "new scourge of America" by one expert, this blood-feeding insect of mythical lore has been spotted increasingly in cities that have an influx of international tourists. Infestations have been reported in hotels and motels -- and it's not just the rundown, seedy ones.
Unlike the cockroach, which thrives on unkempt environments, the bedbug is an equal-opportunity pest, invading posh, $1,000-a-night hotels with the same fervor it lends to flophouses.
Phil Koehler, an urban entomologist with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said the bedbug's preferred food source -- a sleeping human -- is available no matter how clean the environment.
"Bedbugs are associated in the public's mind with filthy living conditions, but that's not the case," Koehler said. "They can be brought into any environment and are very good at hiding, so even upscale hotels can have infestations."
According to pest-control experts, increased tourism has contributed to the problem because bedbugs are transported in luggage from overseas.
The U.S. Department of Commerce reported the United States had a record 51 million international tourists in 2000, up from 48 million in 1999 and up 14 percent from 1995 when 43 million visited. The steady increases coincide with strengthening economies in Asia and South America.
In Florida -- where pest-control companies reported a 10-fold increase in bedbug service calls from 1999 to the present -- the state had 9 million international visitors in 2000, which accounted for almost 20 percent of the U.S. total for that category. Infestations have been reported in major cities including Atlanta, Orlando, New York and San Francisco.
Koehler said that in addition to increased tourism, a change in pest-control techniques has unintentionally aided the insect's comeback.
The bedbug, or Cimex lectularius, has not been a serious problem in the United States since the early 1940s, when the pesticide DDT came into widespread use. After DDT was banned in the early 1970s, pesticides in categories such as organo-phosphates, carbamates and pyretheroids took up the slack.
But Koehler said that in the early 1990s, the pest-control industry began changing its techniques such as spraying floorboards and by 1995 had practically eliminated sprays. At the same time, less toxic insect baits and hormonal insect growth regulators came into widespread use.
"The new techniques looked like a win-win situation," Koehler said. "But ironically, the safer, technologically advanced approach to pest-control has aided the bedbug's resurgence."
Mel Whitson, technical manager for Steritech Group Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based environmental safety company, said it's the nature of the business.
"When you suppress insects such as cockroaches in a targeted manner with insect baits, it allows for other parts of the insect ecosystem to rise up," Whitson said.
Enter the tiny and troublesome bedbug.
Harold Harlan, senior entomologist with the National Pest Management Association in Dunn-Loring, Va., said adult bedbugs are about the size of a small ladybug and are flat, oval and wingless. They are brown unless engorged with a meal, which is when they turn a mahogany-red, hence the nickname "redcoats." Adults feed regularly but can live six months without feeding, making them difficult to eradicate.
Harlan said that although bedbugs can harbor about 20 human pathogens, they are not disease transmitters. He said people often don't know they've been bitten.
"When people are first bitten, the body does not mount a response, so there's no itch," he said. "But after repeated bites, human antibodies will cause the area to itch like a mosquito bite."
Harlan said people who suffer numerous bites can develop a "sensitivity syndrome," which can causes nervousness, lethargy and pallor.
"Physiologically, you won't be doing as well," Harlan said.
As far as inventing a bait trap for the bedbug, UF's Koehler said the bug does not have traditional mouth parts, so a trap is an unlikely solution.
"The bedbug doesn't eat food like an ant or cockroach," Koehler said. "It acts like a mosquito, feeding on the blood of a host by using a piercing mouth part."
He said the best preventative treatment for bedbugs is to inspect rooms and caulk up holes in walls, furniture and other hiding spots. He also said a pesticide dust can be helpful, but noted current treatments are insufficient.
"No simple solution exists," Koehler said. "When an infestation hits, exterminators have to take the room apart, use pesticide spray on everything, and throw out furniture from which eggs cannot be removed."
He said education is the best defense.
"It's been 50 years since we've had a serious problem with bedbugs, so most hotel workers don't know what to look for," Koehler said.
National pest-control companies such as Steritech and Atlanta, Ga.-based Orkin Exterminating Co. offer seminars to the hospitality industry on how to detect bedbugs.
Some signs of infestations are:
* Small, reddish-brown stains on sheets and mattresses.
* Similar stains at other locations that could be entrances to hiding places.
* A sickening, sweet odor.
* Bedbugs in the pockets of "popcorn" ceilings and other secreted places.
Representatives of several hotel associations, including the American Hotel & Lodging Association and the Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association, said their members have had no problems with bedbugs.
Still, pest-control experts said the bedbugs are back and won't be going away anytime soon. Koehler said the bedbug's nocturnal and secretive behavior makes it difficult to treat.
"This bug is tough to eradicate," Koehler said. "Until we develop a new weapon, bedbugs will be with us." - By Paul Kimpel
[Contact: Mel Whitson, Harold Harlan, Phil Koehler, Paul Kimpel]