You've heard the horror stories. You've read the headlines. Bedbugs are here.
So are your holiday travel plans, perhaps to see relatives up North.
Tiny and sneaky, the nocturnal critters have been causing paranoia and mayhem coast to coast, most prominently in large cities like New York and Chicago but also everywhere in between. They've been seen in plush hotels, cheap motels, rental cars and moving vans, movie theaters, airplanes and even government buildings. Locally, the bugs were recently found at a north Tampa men's shelter and an outpatient mental health clinic run by the James A. Haley VA Medical Center.
Some of the hysteria, experts say, is just that. Though bedbugs feed on human blood, they can't transmit disease.
But they gross us out. We thought we got rid of them after World War II, but when we banned the pesticide DDT in the early 1970s and began globe-trotting more, the bloodsuckers found a welcome mat back into American homes.
Don't let yours be one of them.
Know your enemy
There are six stages of life for Cimex lectularius. The easiest to spot is the adult, which is flat, plump, reddish-brown and about 1/4-inch long — tinier than an apple seed. Often missed, though, are their young, which are pale white and about the size of the period ending this sentence. All of them bite.
Learn to spot their eggs and droppings, too. On the Web, bedbugger.com is rife with images and videos, including some showing bugs feeding on Louis Sorkin, an entomologist at the Museum of Natural History in New York.
Avoid problem spots
The site Bedbugregistry.com takes reports from all over the country. A recent search for Florida found 289 cases of bedbugs in hotels and buildings, including several in the Tampa Bay area. TripAdvisor.com also lists reports of bug-ridden hotels. When planning your stay, you might consider calling your hotel and asking about their protocols for dealing with the insects.
In general, be wary of second-hand furniture and mattresses, which can be infested. Bedbugs can survive for more than a year without feeding. Most fumigators can treat an average-sized couch for about $150.
Find the buggers
When sleeping at a hotel, your first task is to find them. Gary Geiger, owner of Geiger Pest Control Service in St. Petersburg, who also maintains an office in New York City, recommends keeping your luggage in the hallway, or in the bathroom, while you perform this task. An oft-heard tip is to put your stuff on a folding suitcase stand, but Geiger says the tubing in those stands can harbor bugs.
First, remove the bedspread and sheets, and, using a small flashlight, start looking along the mattress, especially the ribbing. Bedbugs like to sleep about 5 to 10 feet away from their meal (they come out around dawn, attracted to the carbon dioxide our bodies emit). Look underneath the mattress, along the baseboard, along the wall, and in crevices in furniture and appliances.
If you spot evidence, ask for another room. Keep your flashlight handy, as it may be useful about 4 a.m., when the bugs are most active. During your stay, keep your clutter to a minimum so any bugs you may have missed can't hitch a ride.
Since bedbugs cannot survive extreme heat or cold, most experts recommend taking all your clothes and putting them in the dryer for an hour or more on a high setting as soon as you get home. A cold death is more difficult. Unless it can go below zero and stay closed for a week, your freezer may offer limited results.
If you do spot a bedbug at home, trap it under a piece of clear tape and put that in a jar to show an exterminator or your doctor. If you discover a bug, address it immediately. If you delay, experts warn, one fertilized female can infest your home in a matter of months.
Phil Koehler, an urban entomologist at the University of Florida and top bedbug expert, recommends a variety of products for travelers, most of which can be found at bedbugcentral.com.
Koehler likes Rest Easy bedbug luggage spray ($15), which can make luggage less inviting. He also likes BugZip garment bag and suitcase encasements ($17.99 to $19.99), bug-free cocoons for your possessions.
For electronics and things that cannot be laundered, Koehler likes Hot Shot No-Pest Strips ($6.49). The website also has a variety of mattress and box spring covers (prices vary per size) to protect an expensive mattress from an infestation.
Frequent travelers might want to invest in the PackTite portable heating unit ($320) which zaps the bugs and their eggs by bringing them in excess of 120 degrees, especially useful for things that cannot be laundered.