With the dawn of the new millennium, bed bugs made their presence known in Modesto.
They are here to stay. And you don’t want them inside your home.
“We definitely made quite a lot of revenue doing bed bug treatments this year,” said Moses Tafolla, a pest control field manager who specializes in finding and killing the pests.
Bed bugs are reddish brown nocturnal insects, up to a quarter-inch long, that hide in bedrooms and come out to bite their hosts as they sleep. They are not known to spread disease but leave itchy welts on the skin. And their presence can damage the reputation of a hotel or other businesses.
At one time, the blood-sucking insects were not prolific in California. Experts believe they made a comeback in many states after DDT was banned in 1972 and the public forgot about the need to control the bugs. It is also thought that increased travel has allowed these mobile insects to expand their territory.
In Modesto, bed bugs have infested rooms at the 11-story Ralston Tower senior living center, Nirvana Drug and Alcohol Treatment, apartment buildings and private homes, prompting the owners to call in exterminators.
Last week, bed bugs disrupted the Aegis Inc. methadone clinic on McHenry Avenue when a couple were spotted near a chair in the waiting room. Aegis closed the waiting room and called a pest control business, while clients were diverted to a back door.
“We did not know if they came in on a particular patient,” Aegis Medical Director Lyn Raible said. “We closed those areas of the clinic and examined every patient who had been in the clinic before the bed bugs were found.”
Tafolla, who works for Harmon Pest Control in Modesto, said he has sprayed for bed bugs in everything from low-income dwellings to a beautiful home, whose well-traveled owner likely picked them up in a hotel room.
About the size of an apple seed, the bugs can hitch a ride on clothing and travel in suitcases. A female can lay up to 500 eggs in a lifetime.
“All you can do is jump on it quickly,” Nirvana Executive Director Dane Helding said. The pests became an issue for Nirvana two years ago and the nonprofit has needed to treat for them three times, in addition to its monthly pest control service, the director said.
Nirvana operates residential addiction treatment programs for men and women and has sober living homes. The clients come from all walks of life, but some were previously homeless or lived in low-rent motels. Staff members check the belongings of new clients and run their clothes through the washer and dryer, but some clients are allowed to leave the premises.
Helding said it can easily cost $1,100 to $1,700 to treat a housing unit for bed bugs. Furnishings are moved away from walls. Carpet is pulled back to get at the tiny insects and their pinhead-size eggs in cracks and crevices.
In a Modesto Bee article in 2010, local exterminators said they began getting service calls for bed bugs in about 2006.
The Stanislaus County environmental resources department has since recorded a gradual increase in bed-bug complaints. In 2011 and 2012, the county received 11 complaints in each of those years and the numbers gradually climbed to 31 complaints in 2016.
The county has received 24 bed-bug complaints this year divided evenly among hotels, motels and residential units. County environmental resources does an inspection to confirm the complaints and then requires the owner to provide pest control, director Jami Aggers said.
Tafolla said he sprayed for bed bugs at six local homes Monday and Tuesday. A month or two can pass without a request for bed-bug service and then Harmon may receive six or seven calls in a month from senior housing centers, apartment buildings, property managers and private homes.
The treatment process is difficult and expensive. Harmon claims it’s one of the few companies that offers a six-month guarantee on its residential bed-bug service.
Customers are first instructed to wash their sheets and pillows, and also launder their clothes kept in drawers and closets.
Mattresses and box springs are sprayed with a chemical labeled for that use, Tafolla said. The entire house is inspected to make sure the bugs are not lurking in a couch, a home entertainment cabinet or other hiding places.
Baseboards are sprayed, rooms are vacuumed and poisonous dust is pushed into electric sockets where the bugs can hide. After the first treatment, the pest control service comes back two more times in the next seven to 10 days, Tafolla said.
The charge for a 3-bedroom home can range from $1,200 to $1,800, and “we don’t charge that much,” he said.
A variety of chemicals are used to eradicate bed bugs. Tafolla said he has not seen resistance to chemicals among the bugs in Modesto.
Another treatment option is heat remediation, in which a large heater raises the room temperature to more than 120 degrees to destroy bed bugs. Helding said he doubts that heat treatment is totally effective.
Tafolla said he tries to advise customers on preventing an infestation. He warned that furniture purchased at a yard sale or thrift store may harbor the insects. He added that one customer’s home was infested when she bought a painting and hung it on a wall.
Tafolla may wear a special suit and takes other precautions to keep the pests from coming home with him. When he takes his family on vacation, Tafolla does a bed-bug inspection of the hotel room, checking the tufts of bedding and looking for rusty stains on the mattress. Dark spots may signify their fecal matter.
Wilma Wilson, northwest regional manager for the Retirement Housing Foundation, said Ralston Tower has dealt with more than a dozen cases of bed bugs in the last five years, including one apartment unit reported to the office a week ago.
The center has subsidized rental units for seniors and is obligated to follow Housing and Urban Development criteria for pest control, Wilson said.
In the past, the bed bugs have been found in various apartments on different floors of the 178-unit center, the regional manager said. The apartments next door, and those above and below the affected rental unit, are included in inspections.
“We are in the remediation process for that one unit,” Wilson said on Wednesday. “When folks move in, we tell them we do a mandatory inspection of furniture they are bringing in. Staff is trained to look for bed bugs in furniture.”
On the advice of a pest control service, Wilson said, Ralston relies on heat remediation to eliminate the bugs. At other centers managed by the nonprofit Retirement Housing Foundation, which has 191 facilities in 29 states, efforts to eradicate bed bugs have included a freezing process, and a trained dog found the location of bed bugs in a center in Stockton, Wilson said.
The foundation is careful with spraying chemicals in apartments because of tenants with allergies and sensitivities to toxins.
Wilson said bed bugs are fairly common. “Regrettably, there is not an absolutely effective fix for it,” she said.
Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321, @KenCarlson16