LITTLE ROCK — The old saying "Don’t let the beg bugs bite" appears to be taking on its traditional literal meaning in Arkansas as bug experts and exterminators say the pesky critters are increasingly showing up in hotels, motels, apartments and homes.
The tiny pests, for years a problem in lodging on the East and West coasts, have found their way to Arkansas, said John D. Hopkins, an associate professor and extension entomologist at the University of Arkansas.
"They travel, that’s pretty much how they move around. They’re hitchhikers and that’s how they get to your place, you bring them or someone else does," Hopkins said.
Arkansas has been "insulated just a little bit" because of its more rural, inland location, but even here, "they are on the increase," he said.
Denise Edwards, one of the owners of Clark Exterminating in North Little Rock and Benton, said last week that the number of calls her company receives for help with bed bug infestations has risen from one or two a month to up to five a week in the last six months.
"We’ve definitely had an increase in calls and it’s not strictly hotels and motels," she said. "More and more people bring them into their homes or apartments when they return from vacations in other states," she said. "Apartment complexes, especially, can have them quite severely."
The problem has increased to the point that the Legislature this year got into the pest control business, sort of, by passing legislation requiring all mattresses sold in the state to bear a label stating whether they are new or contain previously used materials.
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, who sponsored the legislation that became Act 1420 of 2013, said many of the used mattresses being sold as new pose a number of health hazards, such as the presence of body fluids, and also have the potential for bed bug infestation.
"Bed bugs were a big part of the problem," Hutchinson said.
Bed bugs are a nuisance but they do not transmit or carry diseases between people, said Ed Barham, spokesman for the state Department of Health.
"There is no health risk associated with them. They’re just disgusting," Barham said.
With "people with severe infestations or those allergic, there is always stress and mental anxiety, and that is a risk itself," Hopkins added.
Bed bugs have been around for thousands of years. They feed on the blood of people and animals. Their preferred habitat is warm houses, especially near or inside beds and bedding. They also like chicken coops and chicken houses, Hopkins said.
The parasites were practically eradicated in the United States in the 1940s but they have been making a comeback, especially in large metropolitan areas, since the mid-1990s, according to Hopkins.
"Right now there is a lack of societal vigilance or awareness because bed bugs have not been a problem for 50, 60, 70 years," he said. "Everybody has just lost their knowledge about them. They are just not aware of them anymore."
The resurgence of bed bugs has occurred for a number of reasons, including a change in pesticide control techniques.
"They were really something that people lived with as an everyday problem back in the early 1900s to mid-1900s," until the application of insecticides to baseboards for cockroach control became commonplace and provided some ancillary bed bug control that "pretty much wiped them out," Hopkins said.
In the 1960s, however, pest control procedures changed and insects were targeted more individually, many with baits rather than general spraying, he said.
"The pest control operators went to a more integrated pest management type of pest control where thy were targeting specific pests with specific pesticides," Hopkins said. "That was very successful at treating cockroaches but it didn’t have the ancillary effect on bed bugs."
Some species of bed bugs also became immune to various pesticides over the years, he said.
The change in pest control procedures, as well as more people traveling oversees, where bed bugs were more of a problem, caused, over time, their populations to grow in larger cities, such as New York, Hopkins said.
Barham said the Health Department does not track bed bug reports and getting exact information would be difficult since hotels and motels where infestations occur would be reluctant to report because of the negative publicity.
The department does provide on its website information about the insects, ways to reduce the chances of bringing them into your home and what to do when bed bugs are found. A number of Internet sites purport to track bed bug infestations at hotels and motels across the country.
A recent outbreak of bed bug infestations illustrates the rising problem in Arkansas. Earlier this year, an apartment complex run by the Hot Springs Housing Authority developed a problem so bad that residents in seven apartments were sent to area hotels so their units could be treated.
The Housing Authority caused a stir when it began charging residents for beg bug treatment, but it eventually dropped the policy and returned residents’ money.
Edwards said it’s difficult to contain the treatment of bed bugs to one unit of an apartment complex.
"If it’s in an apartment complex we treat not only the unit but all connecting units should be treated as well, above, side-to-side and below," she said. "The bugs can literally travel through wall sockets and under baseboards, wall voids and things like that for food sources."
Edwards said eliminating an infestation costs "several hundred dollars" or more and takes a day or more to complete. She added that a new heat treatment system that her company uses has proven effective in eliminating bed bugs and saving bedding, clothing and furniture that previously would have had to be destroyed.
Along with hiding in bedding, mattresses and furniture, bed bugs also are a problem in chicken coops and houses, Hopkins said.
"Chicken houses are notorious places for bed bug infestations and Arkansas has its share of chicken production," he said.
Washing and drying cloths at high temperatures will get rid of bed bugs, but a professional exterminator is needed to get them out of the baseboards and other cracks and crevices in a house or apartment, Hopkins said.
"It’s not a do-it-yourself job if you have an infestation," Hopkins said.