Dog's Bed Bug Detection Questioned

Omaha.com
Saturday, February 18, 2012

LINCOLN, NE - The large number of bedbug reports at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln - 94 rooms treated for the pests so far - has led one national expert to wonder whether UNL is getting "false positives" from the dogs it's been using to detect the bugs.

"Something doesn't seem right," said Jeffrey White, an entomologist who serves as technical director for Bedbug Central, an online bedbug information center. He has been a featured entomologist on "Infested," an Animal Planet program about insect infestations.

It's possible that the university's aggressive attack has resulted in false positives, said UNL spokeswoman Kelly Bartling.

Only a handful of the bedbug reports have come from students who actually saw the bugs or were bitten.

The rest were detected through the housing department's efforts to ferret out the bugs, though in some rooms they could be seen climbing and crawling. UNL has estimated that the cost to detect and eradicate the bugs could exceed $100,000.

The university has used five bedbug-sniffing dogs from three different handlers in a room-to-room dragnet.

So far, about 1,300 of the 3,256 dormitory rooms have been checked, with bedbugs confirmed in about 7 percent of the rooms. The handlers do attempt to corroborate one dog's "alert" by bringing in a second dog but don't always take the time to hunt for visual evidence of the bugs.

Despite the possibility of false positives, "the responsible thing to do is to treat the room anyway," Bartling said. "What's the alternative? Nobody wants anybody to get bedbug bites. The strategy is to get ahead of them and identify them before they start biting."

Although campuses across the country are dealing with bedbug problems, White said, he's checked with other major universities and none has ever dealt with an infestation that extended beyond five rooms.

Bedbugs have become more common in the United States in recent years because they have developed resistance to commonly used pesticides. White said college campuses are especially vulnerable to bedbugs.

"College and university dorms are really long-term-stay hotels," he said. "The trick is limiting the spread in a dorm building. You have a lot of socialization among students in a dorm. If you don't catch things quick enough, you have a sort of spiderweb effect."

He said the most common times for college bedbug reports are right after summer break, right after semester break and right after spring break.

Usually, the situation is that students have brought the bugs back with them from their travels, and only a few bugs - fewer than 20 - are involved.

High-level infestations, of 100 bugs or more, take longer to develop but are tougher to eradicate.

White said it can be tough to catch bedbugs early. Some studies have shown that 30 percent of people don't react to bedbug bites. The bugs are nocturnal and hide in crevices, cracks and dark places like the inside of a bed's box springs.

White himself has been a bedbug victim. He woke one morning with bites on the nape of his neck. He dismissed them as mosquito bites. A week later, he found a cluster of three bites on the back of his arm.

"I knew only one thing does that."

He checked his box spring and found just one bug, which he quickly killed.

"It was a simple solution, but it brought some reality to the situation," he said. "You can't really understand what it's like until you have them. I had a hard time sleeping for a couple months."

The first residence hall report at UNL came the first week after classes resumed in January. Housing officials said they found a mass of bugs hiding behind a built-in pegboard in a dormitory room.

White said the bugs could have been there for weeks - and were hungry when the students returned from semester break. Bedbugs can live for three to six months without feeding.

The bugs don't build nests, but they tend to congregate in one area, he said. Their deposits - which look like black spots - give off a pheromone that attracts more bugs. Their eggs are usually found in that area.

Adults reach about a quarter-inch in size, and they are round and flat like a tick. Eggs and hatchlings are quite small, the size of the letters on a penny. The eggs are translucent.

The first UNL inspections were done by Spots, a rat terrier handled by James Pelowski of Lincoln. Pelowski said he always works with a secondary inspector who helps him look for visual evidence of bugs after Spots signals the alert.

"With my dog, we always show physical evidence," he said. "There's absolutely no false positives on my end."

After the dog alerts - and Spots can detect as few as one or two bugs - Pelowski and his secondary inspector put on their gloves and pull out high-intensity flashlights and magnifying glasses. "We usually find some within 2 to 3 feet," he said.

However, Pelowski and his dog have not been involved during the past week because of a death in Pelowski's family. He said UNL is responding aggressively to an "epidemic" of bedbugs that's occurring in Nebraska.

"Out of all the colleges I've worked with, UNL is definitely doing the best job," he said. "It's definitely the most aggressive in seeking to get this critter taken care of."

Pelowski said he is not affiliated with a pest control company, to avoid creating the appearance that he has an incentive to find the bugs.

Mark Lillis, a canine handler and bedbug division manager for a pest control company based in Topeka, Kan., said one bedbug is as bad as 100. An adult bedbug produces five to seven eggs per day.

"I don't fault what the university is doing by any means," he said. "The reason for using canines is to get ahead of the bedbugs and to eradicate them."