“Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.” As a youth, I was baffled by this expression, having never seen a bedbug. But I ignored this fact and considered it simply as something all mothers said when they tucked their children into bed. To my young mind, it was an expression more related to affection than a dire warning of the presence of some alien creature stalking me while I slept in order to feast upon my blood.
To this day, I still haven’t seen a bedbug, but judging by the multitude of media reports about the horrid creatures, I can expect a visitation from the tiny bloodsuckers at any time, as Winnipeg and Manitoba are apparently in the midst of a bedbug plague of near biblical proportions.
Mayor Sam Katz and Winnipeg MP Pat Martin have issued their own warnings to “not to let the bedbugs bite.” Both are calling for the implementation of strategies to eradicate the bane of humanity. Martin wants a national strategy initiated by the federal government, while Katz is calling upon the provincial government to join forces with the city to battle the nasty pests that are spreading virtually unchecked to infest homes, apartments, personal-care homes, hotels, buses and even public libraries.
On the city’s website, under the insect control branch, seven pages of explanations are provided about the pests and what can be done to prevent their spread. According to the website, bedbug complaints have been on the rise since the 1990s “and are expected to rise as these insects are proliferating and disseminating at a rapid pace.” Manitoba Health reported fielding 150 bedbug calls in 2009 and 245 last year.
The great problem of a bedbug infestation is that the insects aren't that easy to kill. Even when it is thought that the pests have been eradicated through various treatments, the bugs have a tendency to reappear. In effect, it’s extremely difficult to get the bugs to pack up and leave once they have found a comfortable home. It’s situation similar to the proverbial relative who says he is only staying the weekend, but a year later is still idling away his days on your favourite sofa in front of the family TV.
Getting rid of bedbugs has been an age-old problem. The September 12, 1903, Morning Telegram relates the story of an immigrant who had arrived in Manitoba and was soon employed by a farmer. “He was not afraid of work,” according to the article, “but he made his first acquaintance with a tormentor, which vanquished him after a three weeks’ siege. This tormentor was the common bedbug, with which the house was infested.”
The same article said farmers’ wives and city housekeepers “wage continuous warfare during the summer months with bedbugs.”
The unnamed writer of the article said bedbugs were “not necessarily an indication of neglect or carelessness ... It is very apt to get into the trunks and satchels of travellers, and may thus be introduced into houses.” It seems that even over 100 years ago, people knew the methods that the insects travelled from place to place and that no one was really immune from an infestation.
What was amazing was the ways used to combat the intruders and “not let the bedbugs bite.” One old-time remedy mentioned in a local newspaper in the 1880s promised that rubbing bedposts with hog’s grease would keep bedbugs away “for a whole season.” Since bedbugs tend to hide away in the creases and crannies of mattresses , it is doubtful that this measure was effective. On the other hand, it could have kept an individual from using his or her bed, and thus not be bitten, due to the presence of an overbearing foul odour.
Families also moved out of their houses on a summer day, camped out in the yard, and burned sulphur in the home, which didn’t completely eradicate the bugs, but kept them down to more a manageable — that is, supposedly bearable — level.
Another way mentioned to rid a home of the pests was to put kerosene or benzine in a machine-oil can and squirt the highly-dangerous fuels “into places where these terrors of the housekeeper hide.” Presumably, the resulting unintended fire did destroy the bugs, but it also made the home’s occupants homeless.
The best bet to eradicate the pests was introduced after the Second World War. Lieut.-Col. A.L. Ahnfelt, of the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, promised that “DDT will be to (bedbug) preventive medicine what Lister’s discovery of antiseptic was to surgery.” In fact, bedbugs were nearly eliminated as a result of using DDT, but three decades later it was discovered that the pesticide had dangerous effects on the environment and it was subsequently banned in North America. As a result, the bedbug, once brought to the brink of extinction, got a new lease on life. Without DDT and the absence of an effective environmentally-friendly alternative, bedbugs have proven their resilience. Even some of the chemicals now used are ineffective since a ‘super” bedbug has evolved that can withstand most chemical treatments. As well, bedbugs eggs are unaffected by pesticides. It’s almost as if there has arisen a “revenge of the bedbug” for mankind’s attempt to play God with the environment by indiscriminantly using DDT.
By 2008, exterminators in the city reported they were doing a thriving business in battling the unwanted house guests. One local extermination business said it had a 28-per-cent increase in revenues due to bedbug infestations. The company also warned that the plague of 2008 was just the tip of the iceberg. Prophetically, the firm said the bedbug problem was going to get significantly worse — it has with little sign of abetting.
By 2010, the city was warning that the insect control branch would use the insecticides bendiocarb, cypermethrin, permethrin and hydramethylon to kill bedbugs, if the pests were found in public places.
Martin told the media those cursed by a bedbug infestation are driven “around the bend,” becoming despondent when confronted by the seemingly unconquerable foe.
There does appear to be one way to actually kill bedbugs and their eggs. The treatment involves using a 500,000 BTU heater to rise the ambient temperature in buildings to 63°C, a temperature fatal to the critters and their progeny.
The next time someone offers you a free second-hand sofa or bed, it’s better to think twice. If you don’t, you will have ignored your mother’s sage advice not to “let the bedbugs bite,” causing you to suffer the trauma and costs associated with a plague of these tiny, horrid demons from hell.