08.27.10

Vigilante Bedbug Exterminators

Can the dreaded pests invading America be battled with supplies from your local hardware store? Brian Ries talks to amateur exterminators facing bedbugs with nothing but do-it-yourself attitude.

Back in 2006, Brian Heater was living in an apartment in Astoria, Queens, when he began noticing welts on his skin.

He consulted a dermatologist, who promptly misdiagnosed him with a standard skin condition. What he actually had was cimicosis, an infection of the skin caused by an allergic reaction to the saliva of the Cimex lectularius—that parasitic little insect known—and feared—as the common bedbug.

His apartment, it would turn out, was teeming with the pinsize parasites. "We had bedbugs before they were cool, before they were hip," says Heater. "But we didn't actually know what they were." He did, however, know where they had come from—a seemingly new mattress brought in from the street.

Strategies run the gamut from freezing everything you own to lathering your body in a mix of rubbing alcohol and lavender oil.

Today, with bedbugs everywhere from the basement of the Empire State Building to the business-class section of a cross-country flight, exterminators have found themselves with an embarrassment of riches. But some sufferers of the scourge, like Heater, are choosing to forgo the professional extermination route, and are instead charging into battle alone, armed only with over-the-counter toxins and a few tips gleaned from the Internet. Call them the bedbug vigilantes.

“I don’t know if ‘vigilante’ is the optimum word,” says Heater. “A better word is probably ‘poor.’”

“We were pretty broke, bringing furniture in off the street, which is something I’ll never do again,” he says. For those hauling in mattresses off the sidewalk, the tab for professional bedbug extermination—which can run as high as $5,000—might be prohibitively high.

So Heater’s roommate, a vegan, began researching "earth-friendly" alternatives for eradicating the bugs, and discovered a naturally occurring powder called Diatomaceous Earth. It’s a sedimentary rock made up of millions of finely ground, hard-shelled algae fossils that supposedly cause a number of microscopic wounds on the bedbugs’ bodies, causing them to dehydrate and literally die of a thousand cuts.

It didn’t work.

He wasn’t the first person to try to go it alone and fail against the bedbug army. A number of websites exist simply to chronicle and assist in humanity's centuries-long war with the insects.

America’s Hunkiest Exterminators

America’s 10 Most Infested Cities
On the Bedbug Registry, an open database of user-submitted bedbug encounters, victims report sightings as a warning to current and future tenants. "Bedbugs all over the place," wrote one report from Roxbury, Massachusetts. "Reported to land lord [sic] and not taken care of. One spraying, but no follow up."

On Bedbugger, a blog featuring news reports, photos, and bedbug FAQs. Blogger "Nobugsonme" welcomes new victims with a, "We’re sorry you’re joining our club. But if you have to fight a war, don’t do it alone."

And at retail sites such as DoMyOwnPestControl.com or PestProductsOnline.com, consumers can browse through scores of munitions for fighting back bedbugs.

When Heather Smith, a 27-year-old producer, faced what she suspected was an infestation six months ago, like Heater and his roommate, she went online.

"I had a suspicion they were bedbugs," she told me. "I think I hit Wikipedia first, and then there were quite a bit of questions in Yahoo Answers and forums that helped." When she needed to diagnose the bites, there was Google Images, a search that was "disgusting but necessary."

The producer tried mattress covers, and later, a spray, thinking she could ward them off herself. Her efforts went nowhere.

The techniques recommended on these forums and online communities can begin to sound like old wives’ tales—and completely impractical. They run the gamut from freezing everything you own, wrapping your bed posts in double-sided duct tape, and lathering your body in a mix of rubbing alcohol and lavender oil. There’s also the dry-ice carbon-dioxide decoy method, bedbug sniffing dogs, and the “ very controversial” method of isolating the bed.

Some recommend wrapping the mattress in plastic so the bugs suffocate, while others warn that it gives them a safe, warm environment in which to breed.

There are Protect-a-Bed mattress cases (advertised on several New York City subway lines) peppermint oil, and store-bought foggers.

In an early-August consumer alert issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and reported by The New York Times ' Green blog, do-it-yourself bedbug fighters were warned of the "perils" of amateur bedbug removal. The alert discouraged any “inexpensive quick-fix solutions advertised widely on the Internet,” dismissing them as “of limited value” in the face of a bedbug infestation. The agency also expressed the importance of hiring a professional at its onset, as it’s "very effective at preventing further infestations."

A "bedbug expert," the University of Kentucky's Michael F. Potter, told the Times, “When people become increasingly desperate, they start doing these kinds of things. It’s a concern.”

The hard truth is, for all the solutions the Internet may offer, none seem to actually work. The EPA warns that the freezing method "is not usually reliable." Duct tape affects only those bugs that leave the nest already inside the mattress. And a rubbing alcohol/lavender oil mix works only as a short-term defense to buy time until the exterminator comes. That last one was Molly McAleer’s recommendation, who faced a bedbug onslaught earlier this year and blogged about it for The Awl.

Following that piece’s publication, Molly become an unofficial online spokesperson for the bedbug wars. “I get emails from people all over the United States,” she says. For the most part, she tries to help them out. It’s her way of paying it forward.

Every once in a while, her friends call, like the one who suspected she was staying in an infested hotel. Molly looked it up online and confirmed it had bedbugs. Her advice? “Girl, have your dad come pick you up and bring you a change of clothes. Change in the hotel shower. Put the old clothes in a bag. Shower. Put the new clothes on. Leave the hotel.”

Despite the strange ways one might rid themselves of the blood-sucking parasites, former infestation victims seem to unanimously agree it’s the exterminator who finally brings the relief.

It’s the “best and only effective way,” says Heater.

“I guess I was looking to save money in the long run, but I don't know that it's something you can easily take care of yourself,” agrees Smith.

“Just cut to the chase,” adds McAleer. Hire a pro. It’s the only method that “gives you a fighting chance.”

Brian Ries is a Philly-born senior editor at FREEwilliamsburg.com and tech and social media editor at The Daily Beast. He lives in Brooklyn.