PORTLAND – If you thought bedbugs were just the stuff of bedtime rhymes, talk to Ralph Blumenthal.
Blumenthal, operations manager of Atlantic Pest Solutions in Arundel, went about three decades without getting a call about bedbugs. Now he’s getting several calls a week from people all across Maine complaining about the bloodsucking insects.
“Bedbugs, for all intents and purposes, had been wiped out,” said Blumenthal. “In the last four or five years, the problem has really taken off.”
The common bedbug – a flat, oval quarter-inch insect that feeds on the blood of humans and other animals – is making a comeback in Maine and across the country.
In Portland, municipal building inspectors and public health agents have received 30 calls this year about bedbugs from tenants in various apartment complexes, up from just five complaints in 2004. City officials have launched a public information campaign to fight a problem they say could very well get worse.
City officials said there is a certain stigma attached to having bedbugs, meaning some people won’t report having an infestation. Instead, they might dispose of infested clothing, bedding or furniture in a way that simply spreads the problem, such as putting it on the curb, giving it away or selling it to a secondhand store.
“Sometimes people don’t tell us if they have an infestation,” said Mark Adelson, deputy director of the Portland Housing Authority. “Then they move out and someone else moves in, and that person has to deal with it.”
The bedbug, Cimex lectularius, isn’t known to carry disease, but the critter is annoying and resilient. Bedbugs don’t fly or hop, but they do move and multiply quickly and can go for more than a year between feedings, during which time they often crawl away and hide in dark places such as mattress seams and headboard crevices or behind baseboards and loose wallpaper.
When bedbugs bite, some people get weltlike bite marks, similar to flea or mosquito bites, but others have no reaction.
Experts blame the bedbug’s return on less-effective pesticides and increased foreign travel.
They say pest-control companies for years have used treatments targeted to specific pests such as roaches or rats, but not against bedbugs. As a result, killing them usually requires multiple applications of sprayed or powered chemicals similar to those used for fleas.
When bedbugs are active, they can hitch rides on clothes, in suitcases, on furniture-delivery trucks or on airplanes.
The important thing, experts agree, is to recognize and treat the problem early and often.
“This is the hottest bug issue in more than a generation,” said Michael Potter, a University of Kentucky entomology professor and bedbug expert.