Businesses Wage War Against Bedbugs

The growing bedbug epidemic can have a disastrous effect on businesses. How to prevent, detect, and eliminate the bloodsucking threat.

If Alfred Hitchcock were still around and looking for another nature-run-amok story (think: The Birds), he would probably dream up a thriller called The Bedbugs.

 Because if you’ve ever had bedbugs, you may start to feel like you’re living your own real-life horror movie. Bedbug calls to pest-control companies have shot up by 81 percent since 2000, according to the 2010 Comprehensive Global Bed Bug Study, conducted by theNational Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky.

And while it’s frightening for people to find bedbugs in their homes, it can be equally terrifying — and much more costly — for business owners. In July, for example, Hollister, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Victoria’s Secret all closed stores in New York when it was discovered that bedbugs were on the loose.

Of course, what must be really frustrating to business owners is that customers are often the culprits, especially in clothing stores, according to Bruce Brenner, CEO of Stuart, Fla.-based RMB Group, which makes Rest Easy Bed Bug Spray. “People have clothes on, and they go into the changing room, and guess what? The bugs are in their clothes, so they take their clothes off, which fall to the floor, and the bugs come out, and they go into the walls,” he says. “That’s how it starts.”

Brenner created Rest Easy three years ago. For decades, such products were virtually unnecessary. While bedbugs have been around almost as long as there have been beds, they were thought to be widely eradicated around the 1940s, thanks to the use of DDT and other pesticides.

But now, they’re back with a vengeance.

As pesticide use has dropped, experts believe, bedbugs have returned. But increased internationaltravel has also helped the tiny bloodsuckers thrive, according to Brian DiCicco, CEO of Pest Management, Inc., a subsidiary of Hill Country Pest Control, which services Austin and San Antonio, Texas. “New York City, because of all the travelers there, has been hit the hardest,” he says. “They first starting showing up and becoming a serious problem in 1999, but after 1999, it’s gotten continually worse, year after year, and now they’re moving away from New York toward the center of our country.”

“We’ve been doing business since 1971, and I didn’t know what a bedbug was until 2006,” DiCicco adds. “Well, obviously, we knew about the fable, but it wasn’t an insect we dealt with. It was basically nonexistent.”

So all this begs the question: If you own a business that has a bedbug problem, what should you do?

Unfortunately, there aren’t many solutions beyond the obvious one: hire a professional pest-control service.

Take the management staff at the four-story flagship Hollister store in New York, whichreportedly knew about the bedbug problem for a month. Do nothing, and the problem isn’t likely to go away — and it just may get much worse, leading to the day when you’re forced to shut down. Of course, if there’s a major problem you didn’t tell your customers about, you might be opening your business to a potential lawsuit.

It’s easy to understand the reluctance of hiring a professional, of course. Killing the bugs can be a slow and expensive process. Some landlords in New York reportedly have spent tens of thousands of dollars eliminating bedbugs in apartment buildings. But turning to the pros is essential, according to Judy Black, technical director at the Steritech Group, a quality-control firm that specializes in helping food companies keep their products safe. Black stresses that bedbugs “are one pest for which you must hire an expert.” She adds that female bedbugs “lay from one to five eggs per day and average about 200 eggs over their lifetime. If not dealt with properly, the infestation is likely to recur.”

As for preventing bedbugs, the National Pest Management Association offers several suggestions for small businesses:

  • Vacuum and clean — every day.
  • Inspect all areas of business for signs of bed-bug infestations. Look for brownish or reddish spots on the seams of furniture and upholstery. If you really want to hunt, take a look behind electrical sockets, surge protectors and behind picture frames.
  • Eliminate clutter.
  • Inspect any new inventory or shipments.

Black adds that it would also help to avoid using furniture with upholstery and wicker that creates many harborage areas for bed bugs. She also suggests instituting a “finders fee” program — rewarding employees who notice bedbugs before guests or clients. Of course, if you’re truly suspicious, you may also want to come back to business at night. “They’re nocturnal,” Brenner says. “They can live in sunlight, but they like dry, warm and dark places.”

Every business is potentially at risk, but some more than others, according to Mark Sheperdigian, a board-certified entomologist and vice president of technical services at Rose Pest Solutions, which serves Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. He says those most at risk are in the hospitalityindustry — “hotels, motels, resorts, casinos, camps, cruise ships, and other places where people come to stay overnight. These businesses need to have a written policy that states their philosophy concerning bedbugs, the steps they will take to avoid getting bedbugs, methods for detecting bedbugs and a course of action to implement when bedbugs are actually found,” he says. “For some of these businesses, it’s not a matter of if they get bedbugs but when they get bedbugs.”

The health industry is also very susceptible, Sheperdigian says, followed by “bars and restaurants, movie theaters, laundromats, trains, planes, buses and any other business that has the public come and sit quietly for any length of time.”

One reason bedbugs enjoy hotels and theaters as opposed to, say, a real estate office, is that they have people who they can suck the blood from. At night, these insects are in their element. “Just like mosquitoes, they’re attracted to that carbon dioxide you breathe out,” Brenner says. “If they’re in your bed or furniture, the lights are out, and that’s their time of day. They sense a meal, and they go to where they find that meal. They’ll actually inject you with an anesthetic, so you don’t feel them feeding. They also inject you with an anticoagulant, so the blood comes out freely. They fill like little balloons, and they feed themselves generally once a week. So if you’re bitten on a Monday and then a Tuesday, it isn’t by the same bug.”

And while it’s worse during the summer because bedbugs love the warm weather, business owners shouldn’t relax too much during the winter, since the bugs are just dormant, not dead. “They can go 10 months without feeding,” Brenner says.

The good news is that pest-control firms are finding new and unique ways to detect bedbugs, like training dogs to sniff them out. And really intense heat can kill off the insects. But the bad news is that bedbugs do not appear to be a passing threat. As Brenner points out, “In the last six months, my call volume has gone up 500 percent. It’s gotten crazy.”

Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to AOL Small Business and the co-author of the bookLiving Well with Bad Credit. He lives in Ohio, to which Brenner helpfully noted, “Oh, after New York, Ohio’s the second worst state to have bedbugs.”