Bed bugs: small insects, big pain

Apartment buildings are the primary source of business for one exterminator

People use encasings, such as the one depicted above, to prevent bed bug infestations. Photo: Ameya Charnalia
People use mattress encasings, such as the one depicted above, to prevent bed bug infestations. Photo: Ameya Charnalia

Fourteen years ago Brian Barton, owner of Bed Bug Detectives, was called into an apartment building in Fairview.

“What I saw there psychologically scarred me for life,” he says. “It haunted me in my own bed for six months after.”

Within 30 seconds of walking into the unit he noticed something on the floor in the living room. He bent down to get a closer look and jumped two big steps back when he realized it was a ball of bed bugs.

He focused his eyes on another spot and the carpet in his peripheral vision started to come alive — moving with hundreds of bugs.

“I walk into the kitchen — bed bugs crawling on the kitchen counter. I walk into the bathroom, flick on the light — bedbugs crawling up the bathroom wall,” he says.

He estimates there were more than 9,000 bed bugs in that one-bedroom apartment. Nearly 10 years later he was called back to that same building again.

“Because the landlord was extremely cheap and decided to not have it professionally dealt with, that problem still existed nine years later,” he says.

This issue is most noticeable in Halifax’s bigger apartment buildings, where bed bug infestations might not be tackled on a building-wide basis, leading to a problem that never really goes away. These apartments account for 75 per cent of Barton’s business.

Source: The Bed Bug Registry

Lack of full disclosure

Two years ago Owen Woodside lived in a building popular with university students. After buying a bed off someone who was moving out of the building, he began to suspect it had bed bugs.

He complained to the building’s administration about it and they covered the costs of spraying his unit and hinted it was a recurring problem in the building.

“It’s cheaper to pay $500 every time someone complains about bed bugs than it is to fix the actual problem,”  said Woodside about the building’s policy towards the issue. Getting rid of bed bugs in the building entirely would involve top-to-bottom inspection of the whole building.

In dealing with the issue on a per-apartment basis, the bugs can move between units through the walls, carpet in the halls or through tenants’ clothing.

How the ‘Bed Bug Detective’ operates

Barton’s been in the pest control business for 20 years, but for the last five, his right-hand man at work has been a dog.

Barton uses two specially trained dogs, Dottie and Red, to track down bedbugs anywhere he gets called to. This includes common locations like homes, hotels and apartment buildings; other instances have taken him to doctor’s offices, public transportation vehicles, call centres and universities.

He takes the dogs through the area one at a time. The animals are trained to track the pheromone scent that living bed bugs give off. They’ll inspect baseboards, furniture (beds, dressers, nightstands, couches) and even in walls. Once they catch a whiff, the dogs will sit down and refuse to move. The dogs will then either tap the spot with a paw or point with their nose.

Once the problem spots are identified, the next step is to remove the bugs. This is done through steaming and vacuuming or by chemical spraying. However, Barton says pest control experts are beginning to believe bed bugs may be building up an immunity to the chemicals used.

Right now is the busiest time for pest control experts in Halifax. Barton says business drops off a bit in the summer because people attribute the bites to mosquitoes and blackflies. It’s only in the winter, when those bugs are gone and individuals are still getting bitten, that they realize they have a problem.

In a recent week, Barton and his dogs inspected 500 apartments for one customer. A short while later, they looked at 175 apartments over two days.

“It’s not a problem that’s going to go away any time in the near future,” says Barton.


Problems arise when there’s a dispute between landlords and tenants over who is responsible for paying the high costs to get rid of bed bugs. Kieran, a student who asked that his last name not be used, was quoted $900 by one technician this summer. Barton charges $175-$250 per inspection. If the customer wants him to treat their home too, he charges for vacuuming and steaming, with the cost dependent on the size and scale of the infestation.


Section 9.1 of Nova Scotia’s Residential Tenancies Act states that landlords need to keep their properties in good condition, respecting standards of health. If a tenant wishes to break his or her lease because of health reasons, such as a bed bug infestation, the tenant needs to provide a doctor’s note and a month’s notice.


Kieran lives in a duplex and his experience with bed bugs lasted only a week. He’s part of the minority of the population who don’t react to bed bugs, so the process was more of a nuisance than anything else.

“A lot of people think of bedbugs as being this disgusting infestation,” says Kieran. “The reality of it is they’re usually pretty minimal.”

His girlfriend was getting bit but attributed it to mosquitoes. After a couple of days it started to become worrisome.

“She started finding it so brutal that she had to come and sleep out in the living room because she couldn’t stand how itchy it was, he says.

They lifted up the mattress one morning and found two bed bedbugs. They immediately threw the bed out and called around for quotes. He hired the company who offered them the best price and his landlord covered the bill. Then, they had to run all their clothes and sheets through the dryer, pack them all up and move their furniture so the technician could spray everywhere in the apartment.

“It was a pain in the ass,” says Kieran. He doesn’t know where the bugs came from but he’s happy it was dealt with before it escalated into a bigger problem.

Checking for bed bugs at a downtown Halifax apartment. Photo: Ameya Charnalia

“Just the fact that you find two little tiny bugs and all the sudden you have to flip the house upside down and do all this stuff and take every precaution necessary is crazy,” he says. “If they don’t get taken care of they’ll just keep living in your house and laying eggs everywhere and that’s not what you want.”

Barton says when infestations get bad, they can affect the mental and physical health of the tenants. He says that bedbugs can happen to anyone and that it’s important the issue be dealt with immediately before it can worsen.

“It’s definitely a problem that as far as I’m concerned, the department of health should get involved in,” he says.

“I’ve seen people fall into depression, I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t feel like living anymore because of this issue.’”

Do’s and Don’ts

  • Don’t pick up used furniture off the street
  • If you buy used clothing, launder it immediately with hot water and run it through the dryer on the highest heat setting
  • Buy zippered encasements for your mattress and box spring
  • If you think you have bed bugs, make sure you put one in a Ziploc bag for a technician to identify
  • Vacuum the bugs, seams on the mattress and box spring, headboard, and steam the areas if you have a steamer
  • Never use a can of aerosol. The force of the spray will disperse the bugs to new areas

Have you had a bed bug problem? Tell us about your experience in the comment section below.