Two pinprick sized bites showed up on his arm one morning last spring. He didn’t think much of them, until another set of identical bites appeared on his stomach the next night. That was only the beginning.
Soon, his body was covered with bites and welts that itched constantly and made his life miserable. He’d never felt anything like it. Confused, the young Cal Poly student mentioned it to a friend who lived down the hall and was surprised to learn he had the same affliction. The source of his suffering was horrifying: He had bedbugs.
This traumatic experience was related to a New Times reporter by the father of a Cal Poly student who lived in the Cal Poly dorms earlier in 2010.
But the dorms aren’t the only buildings that have found themselves home to the tiny, unwelcome residents. Hotels in San Luis Obispo and other parts of the county reportedly have them too.
Bedbug infestation is the new suburban plague spreading across the country. Bubbling out from the traditional sanctuaries that are the great eastern cities—New York City has seen an explosion of the little blood suckers, and the National Pest Management Association claims a 500 percent increase in bedbug calls in the last few years—the bedbug onslaught has arrived.
Bedbugs are flat, brownish creatures, an eighth to a quarter of an inch long. They can’t fly or swim, but they can scurry quickly over floors, walls, sheets, and—most disturbingly—human flesh.
The bugs came to Cal Poly after spring break, according to Preston Allen, executive director of University Housing. Students were traveling around the country during their holiday due to warnings about travel in Mexico, Allen said, and he believes they brought the infernal creatures back with them from other states. Cal Poly students suffered through three outbreaks in the spring in three separate housing areas.
Bedbugs have been around since Roman times, but were nearly wiped out in the ’60s. Theories abound as to why and how they made their comeback, but some scientists believe it’s because the best anti-bedbug pesticides—like DDT—were banned in the ’70s.
Now, bedbugs have made a stunning return—and these days, they’re almost impossible to get rid of. Though exterminators say they can kill the bugs with pesticides, it often takes extreme heat or cold to ensure the critters are eradicated.
Bedbugs aren’t like ordinary household bugs. They aren’t drawn to filth or garbage, as are ants or cockroaches. They’re only interested in one thing: human blood.
This is how bedbugs make life miserable for humans: Bedbugs like to live and breed in mattresses. Beds are the best place for them to have a ready supply of food. An infected bed can carry only a few bugs, up to many thousands.
They usually leave their nests during the dark, early hours of the morning and scurry up to their human hosts. They bite into their victims and engorge themselves with blood.
Humans rarely wake up during a feeding because bedbugs inject something like a local anesthetic so victims won’t react.
Before the first rays of dawn, the bugs scurry back down into the mattress, though some will burrow into the seams on the edge of a mattress, in the folds of sheets, and in sleeping clothes. They’ll lurk there until the hunt for blood begins the next night.
Bedbug victims will often wake up the next day with their blood sprinkled on the sheets. The pests also leave another calling card: feces. The smell of this tiny, blood-derived fecal matter can fill a room with a unique stench repellant to humans.
Most people get a nasty reaction to a bedbug bite, which can cause itchy red welts.
The bugs often travel by hiding in the folds and seams of clothes and luggage.
Bedbugs have struck hotels in the county, too. Hotel review websites are sprinkled with warnings to potential customers of bedbugs in many parts of SLO County. New Times called some of these hotels, and most either denied they had a problem or wouldn’t comment.
One hotel employee, who would only comment anonymously, said a local hotel found bedbugs in the spring. The afflicted rooms were bombarded with propane heaters that destroyed the bugs.
The county health department has been getting more bedbug complaints, said Rich Lichtenfels, community services environmental specialist.
“In the last 12 months, we’ve got a dozen ... complaints, mostly from people visiting hotels,” he said. “We assume it’s because of more international travel.”
Santa Lucia Hall, a resident hall directly across the road from the administration building at Cal Poly, was fully tented to kill off the blood-sucking bugs.
Even with extensive treatment, some of the pernicious creatures survived.There was a renewed outbreak during the summer, but Allen said he believes the campus is now bug free.
“We’ve been given a clean bill of health,” he said. “Of course, the rubber hits the road when the students return.” ∆
Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.