The Arizona Republic: Phoenix-Area Exterminators See Boost From Bed Bug Infestations
2/24/2011The mere mention of bedbugs might generate a peculiar tingling on the back of the neck. Knowledge that the state's population of the pests is increasing might create discomfort.
But some pest-control firms have translated that tingling into an opportunity to diversify and grow their businesses by adding bedbug eradication as a specialty niche.
National revenue in bedbug extermination and management increased to $258 million in 2009 from $98 million in 2006, according to the National Pest Management Association.
Of the two other major insect pests described in the association's report -- fleas and fire ants -- the bedbug-extermination industry was the only one to grow every year.
Fred Willey, owner of Invader Pest Management of Glendale, said bedbugs account for about 5 percent of his business now, a number he expects to double this year.
"I plan on developing more of the niche market," Willey said. "There's going to be a select few companies that specialize in it.
"Bedbugs are probably the toughest pest to control that we've dealt with."
He said most people are not aware of how easily they are spread and how fast they repopulate.
According to a survey conducted by the pest-management association in cooperation with the University of Kentucky, 95 percent of U.S. respondents indicated that their company or organization had encountered a bedbug infestation in the past year.
In a previous association survey of pest-control firms, 6 percent of respondents said they had performed more than 100 services for bedbugs. In a survey conducted two years later, 20 percent of those surveyed said they had performed more than 100 bedbug jobs in the past year, with 7 percent saying they had done 500.
Ron Ketner, owner of AZEX Thermal Solutions, said about 90 percent of his business now is bedbug extermination. When he created his business in 2007, Ketner focused on termites.
"We were maybe getting a bedbug call a month," Ketner said.
Once the housing market crashed, he said, there were far fewer customers looking for termite inspections.
Ketner said that was about the time bedbugs started to dramatically increase in number; now, he receives about 12 inquiries a day.
Ketner, a proponent of thermal treatments, uses heaters to warm the room to temperatures of up to 155 degrees. The treatment takes about a day, and afterward, he brings in an independent third party with bedbug-sniffing dogs to double-check that all the pests have been exterminated.
Will the problem persist, or is it a temporary phenomenon?
"To be honest, I think we're just getting started," Ketner said.
Dawn Gouge, an associate professor and associate specialist of entomology at the University of Arizona, agreed.
Gouge has been an entomologist and integrated pest-management specialist since 1995. She has written numerous articles on insects, including bedbugs.
Gouge said the pests "are an increasing problem in Arizona."
Bedbugs are far more prevalent in areas with large populations, she said, and Arizona has seen a dramatic increase in bedbug numbers because of the state's explosive population growth.
"You name it. At this point, we've found bedbugs in those environments ... everywhere where people are. ... They're expert hitchhikers," Gouge said of the pests.
She said bedbugs are primarily unpleasant and don't pose a major health threat because they do not transmit diseases to humans. Although many people don't have severe reactions to the pest, Gouge said, some people can have dangerous physical reactions to bedbug bites.
Gouge said the real damage of bedbugs may not even be physical.
"People will spend every single penny they don't have on bedbug remediation," she said. "Psychologically, they are an enormous stressor."
Although there are many techniques for killing the pests, most of the popular ones involve chemicals. Gouge said the creatures have begun to adapt to some chemicals and have been able to develop a resistance.
Barbara Atkinson, 63, of Phoenix said her apartment has been infested with bedbugs.
"It's made me sick, I'll tell you that right now. ... I scratch and I itch. I don't feel good," said Atkinson, who is retired.
So far, Atkinson said, she has had to get her apartment sprayed twice and has had to throw out her bed.
"And God only knows what else I need to replace, and all that's going to cost money -- money I don't have," she said.
As for the growing problem, Gouge said that some states have legislation and even a bedbug task force in place to keep the problem at bay. Arizona has no such program. Yet its cities do not have as significant a problem as cities like Seattle and New York, Gouge said.
One of the best ways to get bedbugs is through a secondhand bed, Gouge said.
"There are often more bedbugs in the box spring than the mattress," she said.
Gouge, a frequent traveler, said she always checks her hotel rooms for bedbugs. She said she takes special care to examine the mattress, box spring and behind the headboard before unpacking.
When she returns home, Gouge said, she unpacks her bags in the garage and immediately puts all her clothes into the washer and dryer, a process that she said is sure to slay the bugs.
Gouge said that she also uses bedcovers on the box spring and mattress and that these can be effective in preventing the spread or proliferation of bedbugs.
Jeff Bergman, chief operating officer of FabriTech of Cedar Grove, N.J., which makes bedcovers for new mattresses and distributes them nationally, said his company has increased sales in Arizona and Utah by 30 percent.
"We know it's directly related to the bedbug issue," he said.
But Bergman isn't convinced that bedbugs are a long-term business strategy.
His company's mattress covers are primarily designed to keep out other things that could turn harmful to humans, such as dust mites and fluids.