The June bug flaunts a gaudy wing, the fire bug flies for fame; the bedbug has no wings at all, but he gets there all the same. Unnamed American poet, circa 1890
In an Industrial Avenue strip mall, a working beagle named Stella vigorously noses into baseboards, bookcases, table legs and chairs.
Beagles are bred to track rabbits; Stella has learned to hunt bedbugs.
Flat, oval-shaped, rust brown and vampirish, bedbugs have skittered into the public spotlight following their discovery in nine federal government office buildings in the National Capital Region.
Civil servants are up in arms about the infestations. The Public Service Alliance of Canada has called on the government to check all federal offices for bedbugs and train workers to identify them. Meanwhile, the government has advertised a $400,000 pest control contract to clear bedbugs from employees cars and homes.
But civil servants are not alone in confronting the menace. Local office buildings, libraries, nursing homes, hotels and apartment blocks have been invaded by the common bedbug, Cimex lectularius, as part of an extraordinary resurgence of the nocturnal pest.
The pest control firm Orkin Canada publishes a list of the top 25 bedbug cities in the country based on the number of treatments the company performed. Last year, Ottawa ranked sixth in the nation.
Right now, we cant keep up with demand, says Rob Caron, Ottawa regional manager for Orkin Canada, the firm that employs Stella, a trained detection dog.
Stella, Ottawas resident bedbug sniffing dog. Trained in California, Stella is now being deployed to federal government buildings at night to detect bedbugs.Errol McGihon / Postmedia
The bedbug control business has increased 10 to 15 per cent in each of the past 15 years in Ottawa, Caron says. To meet that demand, the Ottawa office has launched a nightshift and is trying to secure a second sniffer dog.
Once on the verge of disappearing from public consciousness in North America, bedbugs have roared back to prominence during the past 20 years as part of what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls an alarming resurgence in the population.
Scientists say bedbugs have developed resistance to some common pesticides, while at the same time benefitted from the explosion of international travel. Bedbugs have no wings, but theyre accomplished hitchhikers: They regularly travel to new locations in clothing, backpacks, luggage and furniture.
A single, fertilized female can launch an infestation.
It means that a whole new generation of Canadians is now confronting one of mankinds oldest nemeses. As ancient as the dinosaurs, bedbugs have evolved to survive almost anything, even DDT.
As a species, they are lousy with both contradictions and curiosities. Bedbugs like to live in groups, but have insanely violent mating practices. Theyre among the most feared insects on Earth, but dont transmit disease. They eat only blood; they can starve for months; they can expand their bodies to feast.
Its enough to keep you up at night. But should it?
The dreaded bedbug.SunMedia
Few animals, few objects even, evoke such profound feelings of horror, fear and fright as bedbugs, writes Klaus Reinhardt, a German professor of applied zoology, in his engrossing 2018 book, Bedbug.
It was once impolite even to say the word bedbugs in public, he says, for fear it would invite them into a home. Even today, the subject is fraught.
You can joke about cockroaches in an apartment, or fleas, he says, but you dont make a joke about bedbugs in someones house.
Bedbugs have unnerved humans for thousands of years, but the blood-sucking insects were on the scene long before Homo sapiens arrived.
A recent study found that bedbugs evolved more than 100 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period, when dinosaurs reigned. Primitive birds were then the most likely hosts for the insects.
Bats evolved about 50 or 60 million years ago, and bedbugs developed a taste for their blood. When humans sought refuge in those same bat caves, several species of bedbugs evolved to feed on them.
Scientists have identified more than 100 different kinds of bedbug, many of them highly specialized. Latrocimex, for instance, is a bedbug that feeds exclusively on the blood of fish-eating bats that live in South Americas mangrove forests. Others feed on pigeons, swallows and purple martins.
Some bedbug species are small, others are large, most are brownish, and all suck blood, writes Reinhardt, former vice-president of the Royal Entomological Society of London. (Founded in 1833, the society counts Charles Darwin among its former vice-presidents.)
Only two types of bedbugs target humans: the common bedbug, Cimex lectularius, found in temperate areas of the planet, and Cimex hemipterus, which lives in the tropics. Theyll feed on the blood of mice, rats, dogs, cats and birds if humans are not readily available.
For all of recorded history, bedbugs have been part of the human experience and the subject of our dark humour. In the ancient Greek comedy, The Frogs, first performed in 405 BC, the god of wine, Dionysus, searches out hostels with the fewest bedbugs on his way to the underworld.
A story on bedbugs from the Ottawa Citizen on Sept. 2, 1943.jpg
In Ottawa, early inhabitants of the rough-hewn lumber town shared poems and jokes about the same scourge. In 1891, the Citizen reported that a lease in Paris had been declared null and void after the discovery of a single bedbug. This may be very good law in Paris, a writer editorialized, but we fear that if an attempt was made to enforce this in Ottawa, a good many leases may be cancelled.
Bedbugs used to be associated with poverty and neglect; harbouring them was often viewed as shameful.
In 1898, a judicial inquiry was held following an uproar about a Citizen story which reported that bedbugs had been found in the Ottawa police dormitory so many that one officer threw a handful on a colleagues bed. After a hearing, Judge D.B. MacTavish ruled that only a few bugs were present; the officers who supplied the information were fined $10 each for failing to report the problem to superiors.
Bedbugs remained a common nuisance in Ottawa until the 1950s when their populations suddenly declined across North America. Better housing conditions, along with new and corrosive pesticides, combined to send them into retreat.
In the 1980s, the International Union for Conservation of Nature considered them a threatened species.
But the common bedbug would not go gently into the night.
Traumatic insemination is the scientific name for the ghastly mating practice of the bedbug.
Male bedbugs possess a knife-like penis (aedeagus) that they use to pierce the belly of females. Theres no courting ritual, no display behaviour involved: Males set upon females when theyre engorged with blood and unable to flatten themselves against the ground.
The females have a fully functional genital tract, but for reasons about which scientists can only theorize, male bedbugs only go for the stomach. (The males of one bedbug species, Afrocimex constrictus, will also skewer other males.) Their sperm is injected directly into the females abdominal cavity and propelled towards her unfertilized eggs.
To put it mildly, bedbugs have an unusual form of reproduction, says Klaus Reinhardt, an evolutionary biologist who was drawn to bedbug research decades ago.
Klaus Reinhardt, a professor of applied zoology in Dresden, Germany, is the author of the recently published book, Bedbug, an entertaining and scholarly account of the bedbug that also makes a a plea for a greater tolerance of the insects.jpg
Bedbugs are something of an evolutionary marvel since few species have flourished with such an injurious form of procreation.How do females survive to perpetuate the species?
The counter-intuitive answer is that females survive because most of their ancestors died, says Reinhardt. In other words, only females that had survived the deadly male attacks in the past were able to produce offspring, with this survival ability written in their genes.
Those females produced more offspring, which themselves laid more eggs after surviving the sexual procedure. Over time, the only females that remained were those that were best at surviving traumatic insemination and laying eggs natural selection.
Female bedbugs had to evolve quickly in order to defend themselves. Theyve developed whats known as a spermalege a unique organ that protects against bodily damage and sexually transmitted microbes. It features a deep, padded groove where theyre commonly stabbed. The padding is made from resilin, an intensely elastic material that makes it easier for males to penetrate, and minimizes the damage to females.
Despite their evolutionary battle of the sexes, bedbugs still like to huddle together in dark places.To find each other, they emit pheromones that alert other bedbugs to their presence. They release a different scent to raise an alarm.
The smell of bedbugs has been variously described as sickly sweet, musty and buggy. The 19th century novelist, Honor de Balzac, described it as the typical odour of French boarding houses.
Bedbugs like to spend their days gathered in cracks and crevices near their food source, then emerge late at night in search of a meal. Peak feeding hours are between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.
All bedbugs males, females, adults, children drink blood. They have five nymphal stages and each new stage can only be reached after a blood meal, which is drawn through the bedbugs sucking mouthpart, its proboscis. Females require a blood meal to develop their eggs.
Bedbugs can sense the warmth of sleeping people, as well as the carbon dioxide they exhale. After crawling onto a victim, bedbugs rock back and forth to drive their proboscis into a blood vessel. They take about 10 minutes to drink their fill. To avoid detection and ensure a smooth flow of blood, they inject their victims with both a local anesthetic and an anti-coagulant.
They consume up to three times their own body weight in blood.
They are the ultimate binge drinkers, says Reinhardt.
Bedbugs feed on Stephen Kells, a University of Minnesota entomologist, at his lab in St. Paul, Minn.ALLEN BRISSON-SMITH / NYT
Only their segmented bodies and expandable skin allow for such overindulgence. In hard times, when a blood meal is not readily available, bedbugs can flatten themselves and endure more than six months without eating.
The parasites become sluggish after a big meal, and some are unable to stagger back to their daytime hiding places. These wayward bedbugs can end up in clothes, purses or backpacks, and be carried to a new home.
A single hitchhiker can establish a new infestation since a well-fed, fertilized female can lay more than 200 eggs.Her male offspring they take about eight weeks to mature will mate with their siblings and with their mother. Indeed, genetic tests have confirmed that most home infestations come from a lone female.
Stella is a four-year-old rescue dog trained to detect the pheromones that bedbugs excrete when theyre lonely or scared. Shes a regular visitor to office buildings and hotels in Ottawa where she scours cubicles and rooms for the telltale scent of an infestation.
If the scent is there, shes going to find it, says her handler, Natalie Leblond, 33, of Ottawa. Ive seen her alert on one baby bug hiding behind a nightstand.
Trained in California, Stella has had her bug-hunting proficiency certified by the World Detector Dog Organization, a non-profit dedicated to improving the trade, which takes advantage of the remarkable noses of dogs. Their sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 more acute than our own, which means they can detect some odours in parts per trillion.
Stella will sit down whenever she smells a bedbug, and tap with her paw to confirm the location. Shes fed strictly as a reward for her discoveries.
Stella works for her food: she doesnt eat out of a bowl, says Leblond, who will plant synthesized bedbug pheromones to ensure the beagle can be fed when real bedbugs are nowhere to be found.
Bedbugs tend to stay within two metres of their food source, which means theyre commonly found along the seams of mattresses, or in the cracks formed by box springs and bed frames. They can hide behind night tables or picture frames, in wall cracks or floor seams. They also like wall plugs, clocks, radiators and radios.
Stella, Ottawas resident bedbug sniffing dog with Natalie Leblond, a K9 handler withf Orkin Pest Control Ottawa.Errol McGihon / Postmedia
Bedbugs often announce their presence with dark spots on bed sheets. This fecal spotting is the result of bedbugs releasing drops of old, blackened blood from their guts during the feeding process.
In an office environment, bedbugs are often found in the material of chairs, sofas or the cracks between cubicle partitions. They love to hide in the cubicle walls, says Orkin Candas Rob Caron. They like to be in the dark, to feel safe, and they love material more than metal.
When an infestation is confirmed, Orkin technicians vacuum and steam clean affected areas. Heat treatments are the most effective means of killing bedbugs, says Caron, since the insects will desiccate when temperatures are held at 60 C for at least two hours. The heat bomb will drive bedbugs down so floors and baseboards have to be steam treated at the same time.
With serious infestations, chemical treatments will also be used as part of an integrated pest management strategy. Bedbugs are very resilient, Caron says. If you dont remove everything, and do every single crack and crevice, theyll come back.
Entomologist Murray Isman, an emeritus professor at the University of British Columbia who has served as a consultant for the federal government on the question of bedbugs, says complete eradication is difficult since the insects can hide in tiny cracks or holes for long periods of time. Whats more, theyre easily re-introduced in high-traffic buildings.
Thats why its a real challenge to eradicate them, Isman says. Realistically, the goal is managing them to the point where someone sees one-bug-a-month kind of thing.
Nathalie Leblond didnt know anything about bedbugs when she applied for the job of dog handler at Orkin Canada two years ago. I didnt even know what they looked like, she says. But I know a lot now: We see bedbugs every day.
Working with a bedbug detection dog is not for everyone, she says, since the hours are long and some places they visit are heavily infested: You have to really want to work dogs and train. Ill steam my boots if I go into an infested place and put my clothes in the wash right away when I get home just in case.
Leblond takes Stella home with her every night; they have never brought home a bedbug.
Anyone can get them, even if you are the cleanest person, Leblond says. You can sit on a bus, and if theres one left behind, it can get on you, and you can bring it home. People who are cleaner, theyre going to find them sooner so it doesnt get to the point of a big infestation. But it has nothing to do with dirt.
Bedbugs.JEWEL SAMAD / AFP/Getty Images
Bedbug bites dont hurt thanks to the painkiller the insects deliver in their spit.
Its one of the reasons bedbugs can survive in an office environment where sleeping is generally considered bad form. Desperately hungry bedbugs will take advantage of motionless workers to feed even during the daytime.
And its not just civil servants being victimized: Bedbugs have been reported in Googles posh New York offices and the New York Times newsroom.
Humans dont have to be sleeping, says UBCs Murray Isman. Bedbugs dont jump on people that are moving around, but if youre lying down on a sofa in a lunchroom, or sitting at your desk and not moving very much, bedbugs will have access to a decent blood meal.
In an interview from his home in Dresden, Germany, Klaus Reinhardt says office-dwelling bedbugs can also survive on mice and rats.
If youre an office worker and if you sit eight hours on your chair and dont move much, I think this might be some possibility for a little bedbug nibble, he says. But it is odd, I have to say. Most bedbugs will not feed during the daytime.
70 Cremazie in Gatineau was evacuated due to bed bugs, October 10, 2019.Jean Levac / Postmedia News
The vast majority of people will develop welts from bedbug bites, but it can take up to 11 days for the telltale, itchy red spots to appear. The welts are an allergic reaction to the chemical cocktail that bedbugs deliver through their saliva.
A small percentage of the population is immune. Reinhardt once subjected himself to repeated bedbug bites as part of a broader experiment to better understand immunity rates. Only one of the 19 test subjects failed to develop welts.
The experiment followed in the finest tradition of bedbug research. In the 20th century, biologist Albrecht Hase, best known for his work on lice control, submitted to more than 2,500 bedbug bites during his research career. Robert Usinger, widely regarded as the worlds greatest bedbug researcher, once strapped a collection of bedbugs to his body to ensure they stayed well fed while he travelled with them.
In rare cases, bedbug bites can cause a severe allergic reaction, or lead to secondary infections, or anemia, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Still, most of the damage inflicted by bedbugs is psychological. In a 2010 study, researchers interviewed 474 people who had endured bedbug infestations; 29 per cent of them said they suffered from insomnia as a result.
Some patients have disturbed sleep from just the knowledge of having an active or past infestation in their own bed, researchers reported.
Says Isman: People are freaked out by them. They get very anxious about having them in their home, or being bitten, even though the bites themselves are typically no worse than a mosquito bite.
Reinhardt, a professed fan of bedbugs, insists the insects should not elicit so much fear and loathing.
While other insects such as lice and mites want to live on people, he says, bedbugs want to dine and dash. Whats more, unlike other blood-sucking insects such as mosquitos and ticks, bedbugs do not transmit disease. Bedbugs have been accused of spreading dozens of diseases everything from HIV to TB, from hepatitis to leprosy but scientists have always proved them innocent.
In hundreds of experiments, Reinhardt says, there has never been any proven transmission. (For some reason, pathogens do not replicate in the guts of bedbugs.)
Mosquitos have killed billions of people through the spread of malaria, dengue and yellow fever, yet it is the common bedbug that keeps people awake.
The bedbug is not even dangerous, argues Reinhardt. We should not be so scared of them. But we still are scared of them, I think, because of the intimate relationship with our beds: Mosquitos, they fly away, but bedbugs, they stay next to you.
Bedbug invasion: Why the itch-inducing pests are making a big comeback in a building near you - Ottawa Citizen