This past summer, the New York Times ran fifteen stories about bedbugs. The tiny parasites, which feed on human blood, have launched a panic by turning up everywhere from a Manhattan Victoria’s Secret store to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. Closer to home, the Detroit News covered an outbreak in the fancy Riverfront apartments and quoted an exterminator who said bedbug calls in metro Detroit nearly tripled from 2008 to 2009.
Things are better in Ann Arbor, but the intruders are indeed showing up–in apartments and condos, in hotels, in student housing, and in at least one senior residence. The Washtenaw County health department, which had no bedbug complaints in 2007, logged fifteen this year, three of them in Ann Arbor. Since residents and property owners aren’t required to report sightings, that’s only a fraction of the total: when the Observer talked to a random sampling of thirty U-M students, three said that either they or friends had found the ancient pest in their apartments or houses.
Bedbugs can appear in single-family homes, but “far and away it’s the apartments,” says local exterminator Bill Beck of Insectech. “Student apartments and low-income–you hate to say it, but it’s true. The majority of places [with infestations] have a lot of turnover.” Miller Manor, the senior citizens’ and low-income high-rise overlooking West Park, has experienced two bedbug incidents in the past two years, according to Marge Novak, executive director of the Ann Arbor Housing Commission. “Both treatments were very successful,” she e-mails, and no other complaints have been reported.
Bedbugs had all but disappeared from the United States for almost half a century when, in the mid-1990s, they began their unwelcome comeback. Experts blame everything from increased overseas travel to a rise in homelessness (the bugs haven’t been seen at the Delonis Center homeless shelter, but director Ellen Schulmeister says the staff is “watching the situation closely”). The other factor, says MSU entomologist Howard Russell, is that many bedbug populations have developed resistance to synthetic pyrethroids, the environmentally friendly pesticides that have been used to control them since DDT was banned in the 1970s. Often exterminators now use an expensive heat treatment instead.
Of course, Michigan has plenty of other biting and stinging insects, and some people don’t see what all the fuss is about. Unlike mosquitoes, bedbugs don’t spread disease–but they do carry a stigma. Exterminator Brian Smith of the locally based Bedbugs Be Gone says he “doesn’t have logos all over the truck” because “a lot of people don’t want anyone to know.”
Reports to the county health department cite Days Inn, a Fieldstone condo, and a Glencoe Hills apartment. Both the hotel and condo confirm that they received complaints but say that exterminators found no sign of bedbugs. Glencoe Hills’ owner, local real estate giant McKinley, didn’t respond to requests for comment about either the county report or an Internet posting about another of its local complexes, Traver Ridge. The Traver Ridge post, on BedBugRegistry.com, claimed that it took two treatments over a six-month period to kill bedbugs in a unit there.
San Francisco writer and computer programmer Maciej Ceglowski owns BedBugRegistry.com. He writes that he started it as “a way of getting vengeance against bedbugs after a traumatic experience in a San Francisco hotel.” Complaints have been pouring in from all over the country. So far this year, people posting on Ceglowski’s site claim to have seen or heard of infestations in six Ann Arbor hotels and apartment complexes.
But how reliable those reports are is open to question: in addition to the verbal denial from Days Inn, two other hotels have posted disputes on the website. The only one to confirm a posting is the Embassy, a residential hotel downtown. A man who answered the phone there wouldn’t give his name, but said “a problem” had been taken care of.
Eric Lipson, general manager of the U-M Inter-Cooperative Council, calls a posting about bedbugs at the group’s King House apartments a “hoax,” and a co-op resident wrote a rebuttal on the site. But Lipson, who says the co-ops “believe in openness,” acknowledges that they did have an infestation this summer, on North Campus. Ferndale-based Pronto Pest Control brought in “a lovely little beagle, Sadie” that is trained to smell the bugs, and three rooms were heat-treated.
Two online reports cite Pheasant Run Apartments on the southeast side. Gary Foster, who works for management company Hartman and Tyner, confirms that two units reported bedbug problems this year, but says both were successfully treated–along with, as a precaution, others nearby.
Foster says his company first saw bedbugs in properties in Southfield in 2006, and “just spent $100,000 on heating units” to eradicate them. “Every apartment complex in southeastern Michigan has a problem,” he says. “Whether they admit it or not is another thing.”
As for the U-M, housing spokesman Peter Logan says there have been just eight confirmed incidents in the past five years, most of them in its North Campus family housing. “In each case, the bugs were confined to one room; the room was thoroughly treated.” The U-M purchases special “no-crevice” mattresses, Logan adds, “so there is no hiding place for the bug.”
The Twitter generation may have a reputation for freely sharing personal details, but the students I talked to drew the line when it came to bedbugs. A sophomore named Katie said a friend’s house near campus was plagued by the pests, but apologetically declined to ask the friend to talk to me: “She was embarrassed about it.” A recent U-M grad said that a former roommate had encountered the bugs in the house on Main Street they used to share–but declined to identify either the friend or the house.
“People think to have them, you must have a dirty place,” explains Scott Alcala of Pronto Pest Control. “That’s just not the case. The insect doesn’t know if you’re clean or dirty, where you live, how much money you make. The only thing it knows is you have blood flowing through the veins.”
Still, people can be at least somewhat proactive. MSU bug expert Russell says home owners harboring bats in their attic have a greater chance of being visited–the bugs also prey on them, as well as on dogs. Keeping bedrooms clutter-free improves the odds of spotting the pests sooner rather than later. Bloodstains on the sheets are an early warning sign. Although Russell is inured to the sight of the creatures (people bring him samples to identify several times a month), he acknowledges that he takes precautions when checking into hotels–for example, keeping his suitcase wrapped in plastic.
Even veteran exterminator Bill Beck sometimes still gets spooked. Two years ago, he and his family checked into a three-star Chicago hotel–which one, he won’t say. His kids teased that he should check for bedbugs. Lightheartedly, he popped off the headboard on the queen bed–and there they were, the ugly, wingless creatures that are terrifying a nation. “I nearly freaked out!” he says. “They couldn’t get us out of the room fast enough.”
I started getting very itchy, uncomfortable bites last winter after a housemate from overseas moved in. My research and my doctor confirmed that they appeared to be bedbug bites. I could never find any of them, though I tried and even bought some of the special furniture casters online. I encased my mattress, box springs, and all pillows and cooked all my washed linens in the dryer. But what finally seemed to help was something I stumbled onto by accident: For one week, at night I ate very, very garlicky hummus that I made. I think the bugs that bit my garlicky blood never lived to bite again! That could also explain why my housemate never got bitten, because he always ate very spicy Indian food.