Bedbugs: a thrifty student's nemesis

Bedbugs are excellent at travelling on furniture and clothes - what does this mean for university students?

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Brian Barton stands with his partner, Dottie - two certified bed bug detectives. (Photo: Monica Riehl)

University students make for great second-hand shoppers. It suits their limited budgets and green ideologies to reduce and reuse. But, does that make university students prime targets to inherit biting, blood-sucking, unwanted bedbugs?

Lauren Naish, a fourth-year journalism student at the University of King's College is an avid second-hand shopper, a habit she picked up from her mom.

"It can be fun if you go into it with the right mindset," says Naish, clad in a second-hand boy's Scout Canada shirt.

She says great finds - like her cub shirt, or designer jackets sold for less - make her happy. She doesn't fret about bringing home bedbugs.

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Barton shows one of his "hides," a sealed salt-and-pepper shaker with live bed bugs. (Photo: Monica Riehl)


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The Bed Bug Registry lists 34 sites with bedbug incidents within five kilometres of Dalhousie University.

Bedbug-free holiday homecoming

  •  Isolate luggage and clothes
  • Launder all clothes, drying in high-heat
  • Luggage can be steam-cleaned or put in a large freezer to kill bugs

Found a bedbug?

  • Capture it and store it in a pill bottle, or between tape so it can be properly identified
  • Report the incident to your building manager or landlord to get expert help
  • Vacuum and steam-clean furniture
  • Dispose of infested furniture responsibly - damage it to be unusable, or mark that it has bedbugs
  • Launder all clothes, drying in high heat

"I wash them myself, and avoid anything with stains," says Naish. "But I'd be a little wary of couches and mattresses."

Bedbugs are nocturnal crawlers, most accurately compared to an apple seed because of their size and colour. They're flat, and they can navigate their way through thin cracks or electrical outlets. They're capable of travelling on clothes and furniture.

They feast on blood, making communal living an ideal breeding ground. They can easily spread from room-to-room in large buildings and when someone gives away infested furniture or clothing knowingly or unwknowingly.

With a love for great finds, Naish is just the sort of shopper that the Dalhousie Grad house hopes to attract this evening at its first clothing auction. The event will take place from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. selling "good used" clothing for the Stephen Lewis Foundation to fight AIDS in Africa.

Teacher's assistants for the International Development studies class organized it as part of the foundation's "DARE" campaign.

"Our 'DARE' to the class was a 'Dare to De-clutter,'" says Heidi Miton, one of the organizers, in an email. "Students were encouraged to drop off good used clothing items at locations on campus and on lecture nights"

Wisdom from a bedbug detective

Brian Barton, owner of Bed Bug Detectives in Bedford N.S., says people shouldn't be afraid to take part in second-hand clothing drives because of bedbugs.

"Don't be afraid to go out and buy something, but be proactive," says Barton. "Go out and live your life."

Barton says being proactive means washing second-hand clothes and drying in high-heat, or even dry-cleaning the items.

What people shouldn't do is hide an infestation or treat it with aerosol products, according to Barton. He says that only drives the bugs into the walls and "suddenly your neighbour has an issue."

Bedbugs don't discriminate. They will infest any house, apartment or dormitory without bias whether you're rich or poor, or if your place is clean or dirty.

"It's at the problem solving end where (the problem) grows," says Barton.

Getting rid of bedbugs takes a lot of work, says Barton, who has been in the pest control business for 16 years - specializing in bedbugs for the past eight-and-a-half. He says eliminating bedbugs takes the participation of everyone involved.

"If you don't have the participation of the homeowner, or tenant, or student, the problem is not going away," says Barton.

The right tools

Barton gets rid of bedbug problems with help from his four-legged partner, Dottie, a young German shorthaired pointer/border collie mix. Dottie is specially trained and certified to sniff out the pheromones bedbugs produce and find their hideouts.

"(Dottie) is an extremely good tool," says Barton, referring to her knack for locating bedbugs.

He keeps Dottie's skills sharp by using a scent-discrimination wheel and by employing "hides," salt-and-pepper shakers that house live bedbugs in different stages of development.

Barton carefully seals the shakers and hides these in the house for Dottie to find in exchange for food.

When Dottie finds bugs on the job, the resident can begin a more concentrated cleaning effort in the affected areas.

"You have two very good tools. A vacuum and a steamer," says Barton, adding that canisters and vacuums need to be emptied with their contents disposed of after cleaning.

Bedbugs an old pest

The bedbug problem is not a new one. They have been around for centuries, once living in caves and feeding on bats. They eventually infested people's houses and businesses, hiding in furniture and clothes.

The biting insects are now raiding Canadian universities, with recent cases reported at the University of Calgary and at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

There are no reported cases at any Nova Scotia universities, but Barton and Dottie helped one local college and one university in August by checking for traces before students began moving in. Barton says he won't identify the names of the institutions to protect their privacy.

Barton's interest in capturing bedbugs grew after an encounter when he first began specializing in bedbug cases. He noted a pile of bedbugs distinguishable in the carpet.

"I stood up to look at them, and in my peripheral vision I could see the carpet moving with bugs," says Barton, spreading his arms and wiggling his fingers as he recalls the scene.

"Bedbugs are not considered a health-hazard because they don't transport disease," he says. "I think they should be because of the way they psychologically scare people. I have seen people isolate themselves in a little bubble, or society has isolated them."

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