Like rest of nation, bed bugs’s resurgence a challenge in Decatur
DECATUR — Bed bugs, once nearly extinct in the United States, have come scurrying back in greater numbers — and Central Illinois has been one of their landing spots.
In hotels, apartment buildings, homes, restaurants, churches, libraries, movie theaters, taxis, storage sheds, schools, workplaces — the small, flat, brown bugs with the big bite are back, and they’re everywhere.
Bed bugs aren’t disease carriers, which is good, but it also causes them not to fall under the authority of county and state health departments, or any other governmental organization. There’s no funding for prevention and extermination, and little information collected about exactly where they’re being found.
Still, even without solid statistics, the Macon County Health Department had enough evidence of bed bug infestations it sought to form a coalition to tackle the problem. In just a few months, the Bed Bug Coalition has had no trouble finding members. The city, landlords, business owners, schools, health and social service organizations, among others, are looking for answers.
It turns out, there aren’t any easy ones.
Bed bugs spread easily, are drawn to warm bodies — not trash and moisture like many pests — and are both difficult and expensive to get rid of.
“Bed bugs don’t care what socioeconomic status you are. They don’t care what color or gender you are,” said Kathy Wade, the health department’s director of environmental health. “I don’t think anyone saw it coming and hitting as hard as we got hit in Macon County. In the last week and a half, we’ve taken eight calls on bedbugs here. It is a problem.”
Not just Decatur
Establishing just how rampant bed bugs are in Decatur is difficult, because no one is officially keeping track.
“Nobody in the city of Decatur and Macon County as a whole has jurisdiction over bed bugs,” Wade said. “We don’t have the funding to help, and the city doesn’t have the funding to help. We can’t track them. We have started keeping a list of how many calls come in, but we don’t map them out.”
There is a list released annually by Orkin, a pest control company, that identifies what it says are the Top 50 Bed Bug Cities. In the most recent list, the Springfield-Decatur-Champaign region had the 30th-most bed bug treatments performed by Orkin nationwide, second in the state only to Chicago. Central Illinois made the biggest jump of any city/region on the list, moving up 12 spots since the previous year.
But considering how many other pest control companies there are, and how many bed bug infestations that go untreated, the list is flawed. Tim Husen, Orkin entomologist and technical services manager, said the list is meant more as a conversation starter than scientific study.
“The point of the list is to raise awareness of a serious issue,” Husen said. “It’s a chance to educate people on bed bugs and what people can do to prevent them.
“There aren’t any key factors that say why one city is ranked ahead of another.”
Health department Administrator Dianna Heyer said bed bugs are a major issue in Macon County, but not more than anywhere else in the United States.
“It’s not just Decatur,” Heyer said. “We’re not different than many other counties that are facing the same problems.”
Richelle Irons, director of neighborhood services for the city of Decatur, said the city began receiving an uptick of bed bug calls late last year and referred callers to the health department, which in turn referred them back to the city.
“That’s when we realized we needed to come up with some kind of solution,” Irons said. “Fortunately, the health department took the lead. Technically, they could have said this wasn’t their problem.”
Heyer said the department could not ignore the amount of calls it received.
“We just decided we needed to do something,” Heyer said. “It was affecting so many people. It wasn’t just the calls we were getting. It was our own employees who go into the homes.”
That’s when the department decided to form the Bed Bug Coalition.
“When you don’t have the jurisdiction and you work in public health, it’s hard when somebody calls you to say, ‘No, sorry, I can’t help you,’” Wade said. “So we decided to get all these different entities together and start a collaboration. We knew we had to educate people first.”
The coalition has been meeting monthly since December. Wade said the first meeting covered basic facts, making sure if anyone fielded a call they knew enough to lead the person in the right direction.
The coalition decided that alerting the general public about bed bugs was the next step.
“We didn’t want to start a fire, but we wanted people to have knowledge,” Irons said. “The more information you have, the better choices you can make.”
The result has been two pamphlets produced by the health department: Bed Bugs and the compaion Bed Bug Tips for Home Visitors, both available at the department’s office, 1221 E. Condit St., and on its website.
“We wanted the first pamphlet to educate the people who have them and even the people who don’t have them, so they know what to do,” Wade said. “You don’t want people hiding them, you don’t want them moving from one home to the next and not tell the homeowner or property manager that you had bed bugs.
“If you have bed bugs in your home or apartment and move to another place, you’re just taking the bedbugs with you to a different place, and you’re spreading them throughout the entire community.
“And at the health department we have a lot of case managers and social workers who go out and do home visits. We wanted to create a guide for them, too.”
Ed Bacon has run God’s Shelter of Love, an emergency shelter for women and children, since 2014. He once had a pest control license and treats the shelter monthly for typical maintenance, but he’d never seen bed bugs until a resident reported bites to him a month ago. Bed bugs were found in two rooms at the shelter.
Bacon said he called around to pest control companies and was quoted a price from a Decatur-based company: three treatments for $400 each.
According to Scott Fisher of Scottie’s Pest Control in Decatur, three treatments is standard for getting rid of bed bugs, and the price runs from $250 to $1,000 per treatment, depending on the size of the dwelling.
“It’s not a onetime shot — it’s a procedure,” Fisher said. “We use chemicals with residuals and direct-contact killing agents. Then we come back in two weeks and do it again, then usually again, then we come back and inspect the area to make sure they’re gone.”
Bacon admitted he was lucky. After finding out the cost, he talked his brother, the owner of Bacon’s Termite & Pest Control in the Springfield area, who agreed to provide service to the shelter for free.
“We had one bedroom that was the epicenter and a second bedroom with babies,” Bacon said. “The whole place was treated — all of the living room, and the downstairs and upstairs.”
Bacon said he didn’t escape all expense. The shelter spent $200 on laundry to clean all the bedding and clothing in the shelter.
It worked. Bacon said the only bed bugs they find now are dead ones. But it did force a change at the shelter.
“When people come in now, all their belongings are immediately washed,” Bacon said. “Bed bugs are hitchhikers. They come in on people from the outside.”
Bed bugs have been biting humans since the beginning of recorded time, according to “The History of Bed Bug Management” by Michael F. Potter in the spring 2011 issue of American Entomologist/.
“As civilization and commerce expanded, bed bugs spread throughout Europe and Asia …” Potter wrote. “Bed bugs were first reported in England in 1583 and became common by the 17th and 18th centuries. They hitchhiked their way to Americas aboard ships of the first European explorers and settlers.”
The paper notes the development of dichloro-diphenyl trichloroethane (DDT) was a turning point in the 1940s. DDT was legendary for its long-lasting effectiveness as dry deposit that did not require direct contact to kill bed bugs.
But DDT was banned in 1972 due to its detrimental effects on wildlife in agricultural use, ushering in what Fisher said was a “kinder, gentler” era of pest removal.
“There are a lot of restrictions from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) on what we use to spray and how we spray — it keeps our hands tied,” Fisher said. “We can’t go in and spray chemicals directly on baseboards like we did 30 years ago.”
As world travel increased, without the powerful chemicals that killed bed bugs, they begin to repopulate.
Fisher has been in pest control 38 years but never saw a bed bug until seven or eight years ago. Now, Fisher said he performs two bed bug jobs a week.
“And we’re just a small-time operation,” said Fisher, who was surprised when he started seeing bed bugs regularly after never having seen them previously.
Because of those limitations, the amount of time and effort it takes to eradicate bed bugs has multiplied, leading to higher costs.
“Bed bugs aren’t something you can send one person out to. You need an entire crew to move furniture, mattresses and equipment,” Fisher said. “And we’ve spent eight to 10 hours in a classroom every year for the last three years just learning about bed bugs from people with PhDs.
“They’re so small, you really have to pay attention and get down underneath the bed and get on the floor. We also have to take more precautions than we ever did before. There’s a lot of time and money that goes into it on our end.”