Bed bugs biting in Shelby

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Experts who are concerned about what they say is a growing problem in Shelby County and how residents are addressing it.

By Lisa King

Are there bed bugs afoot in the county?

“We don’t want anybody to panic, but, yes, they are out there, and, yes, it is a huge problem,” said Lynn Whittaker, a volunteer with A Place to Sleep, a local ministry that finds beds for children.

Whittaker was one of the organizers of a public gathering at the Stratton Center recently that addressed the issue.

Whittaker said that although not many people from the public attended that meeting, it was very informative, with speakers from the North Central Health Department, University of Kentucky Entomology, Shelby Clean Community and others.

Whittaker stopped short of calling the problem in Shelby County an epidemic, but she said the problem here is considerable and growing.

“There is definitely a problem here in the county,” she said. “Code enforcement is getting called out constantly because of people who are dumping infested mattresses out in the county. I saw one out on Benson Pike, thrown over the guard rail, and I’m sure that’s why it was there.”

Renee Blair, director of the North Central Health Department agreed there is a problem.

“We have had quite a few complaints of bed bugs,” she said. “We’ve had several cases in several residential areas that have been reported.”

Kathy Ranard, Shelby County Clean Community coordinator, said she can tell that bed bugs numbers are growing in the county because her crew is finding increasing numbers of mattresses thrown out.

“Some of them are almost like new,” she said. “And my people have to worry about getting them [bugs] on their clothing, and in the trucks when we pick them up. And especially the inmates who work with us, they have to worry about taking them back to the jail.”

Ranard chuckled when asked whether she had heard of any bed bug outbreaks at the Shelby County Detention Center.

“[Jailer] Bobby Waits would freak out,” she said. “No, I promise you, there are no bed bugs there.”

Whittaker said that experts have told her the problem is not confined to Shelby County.


Bed bugs are everywhere

Michael F. Potter, an entomologist at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, said that bed bug outbreaks are fairly recent occurrences that are happening throughout the United States.

“Until fairly recently, most people, even pest control professionals, had never seen a bed bug,” he said.

Potter said bed bug infestations actually used to be very common in the United States before World War II. But with improvements in hygiene, and especially the widespread use of DDT and other pesticides during the 1940s and 1950s, bed bugs became a rare occurrence. But in some areas of the world, including parts of Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, bed bugs have been making a big comeback. That’s true in the United States over the past 10 years or so, showing up more and more in homes, apartments, hotels, health-care facilities, dormitories, shelters, schools and on public transportation.

They can also be found in such places as movie theaters, laundries, rental furniture, and office buildings.

“Immigration and international travel have contributed to the resurgence of bed bugs in the U.S, and changes in modern pest control practice, less effective insecticides, and a decrease in societal vigilance, are other factors suspected for the recurrence,” Potter said.


What are bed bugs?

Potter describes bed bugs as small, brownish, flattened insects that feed exclusively on the blood of animals. Although the common bed bug (cimex lectularius) would rather feed on humans, they will also bite other warm-blooded animals, including cats, dogs, birds and rodents.

Bed bugs have been around for many centuries, and are mentioned in medieval European texts and classical Greek writings back to the time of Aristotle, he said.

Adult bed bugs are about 3/16 of an inch long and reddish-brown, with oval-shaped, flattened bodies. People sometimes mistake them for ticks, cockroaches, carpet beetles or other household insects. Immature bed bugs (nymphs) resemble the adults but are smaller and lighter in color. Bed bugs can’t fly or jump like a flea, but they can crawl rapidly.

Females can lay several eggs per day, potentially hundreds during their lifetime. The eggs are tiny, about the size of a spec of dirt, white, and difficult to see without magnification, especially on light-colored surfaces. The eggs are sticky, and cling easily to surfaces. They hatch in about a week. At first, they are straw-colored and no bigger than a pinhead. A female can produce multiple generations per year.

They molt as they grow, and shed their skin five times. The most favorable condition for a bed bug is a 70-to-80-degree temperature range, allowing them to mature within a month. They develop more slowly under cooler temperatures and when they don’t get enough blood.

The bugs are tough, and can live for months, even up to a year, without feeding, especially in cooler temperatures.

Whittaker said she was told by an exterminator that the ability of the bed bug to hibernate is one reason they are hard to get rid of.

“One of the problems we’re finding is that landlords are not using correct way to get rid of them, and that is actually increasing the number of bedbugs,” she said. “There are so many gimmicks out there right now and they are just ripping people off. There’s nothing that you or I can buy at Walmart to get rid of them, because you buy something to spray or whatever, and then you think they are gone, but they’re not.

“They go into cracks and crevices to hide from the fumes of store-bought products, and they can hibernate for months until it’s safe to come out. Only a reputable pest control person can take care of them.”

Shelbyville Code Enforcement Office Darrell Willard agrees.

“You’re just pushing them into the walls,” he said.


How do you know you have bed bugs?

Potter said bed bugs are nocturnal, hiding during the daytime, hiding close to where people sleep. They can flatten their bodies to fit into tiny crevices in mattresses, box springs, bed frames and headboards.

They don’t have nests like some insects but do congregate in habitual hiding places. These areas are marked by dark spotting and staining, which is their dried excrement. There will also be hatched and unhatched eggs, the light brown sheds of their skins, as well as the bugs themselves. Another sign is rusty or reddish smears on bed sheets or mattresses from engorged bed bugs that have been crushed.

Potter said that although he has often heard people say that bed bugs have a distinct odor, the smell is not usually noticeable unless an extreme infestation is present.

The bug will usually feed from 3 to 10 minutes at a time, because even though the bed bug uses an elongated beak through which it sucks your blood, the bite is painless and doesn’t usually wake people up, he said.

They won’t stay on people like lice do, though. After feeding, bed bugs crawl off to hide and digest their food.


About the bites

Symptoms of being bitten can vary greatly from person to person, from an itchy red welt to no reaction at all. Potter said studies indicate that 30 percent of people experience no reactions. Unlike flea bites, which are found mostly around the lower legs and ankles, bed bugs feed on any skin exposed while sleeping, including the face, neck, shoulders, back, arms and legs. Sometimes the reaction is delayed days or even weeks after the actual bite occurs, which can make it difficult to determine where or when the person was bitten. For these reasons, infestations may go unnoticed for long periods and can become quite large before being detected.

Potter said the likelihood of getting bed bugs is greater for those who have been traveling, or if they have acquired used beds or furnishings before symptoms started to appear. You should also be suspicious if you wake up with itchy welts you did not have when you went to sleep, he said.

He cautions, however, that it’s important to realize that not all bite-like reactions are because of bed bugs.


What to do if you have bed bugs

The most important thing to do if you find bed bugs, Willard said, is to call an exterminator immediately.

“People freak out when they find out they have them, but it’s absolutely essential to stay calm and just call a reputable exterminator right away,” he said.

Willard said most people don’t want to do that, because they are terrified of people finding out they have bed bugs, because it carries an unfavorable stigma.

But bed bugs can happen to anyone. They are not necessarily drawn by filth, as rodents and roaches are, he said.

“Anywhere there are people, there can be bed bugs, no matter how clean you are,” he said.

He said you should take infested mattresses to the Convenience Center in Waddy, but if you must dispose of them curbside, he urges that you wrap the mattresses in plastic to keep the bugs from spreading throughout the neighborhood.

Also he recommends clearly marking the mattresses with the initials “BB” so that people will know not to pick them up for their use.

If nothing else, he said, slash the mattress with a knife, so that it can’t be reused.


Another meeting coming

Willard said he is putting together another bed bug informational meeting and that he really hopes to have a good turnout from the public.

“The key to getting rid of these things is to educate the public,” he said. “I am going to invite some exterminators, some people from the health department, and I hope I can get Mr. Potter to come out to this workshop. He is, in my opinion, UK’s most top-notch bed bug expert.”

Willard said he is going to have some flyers made up to post around town and plans to inform as many landlords as he can.

He said he has a date in mind for early January, but hasn't set a location yet.