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Gardening in Gwinnett: Bed bugs making a pesky comeback

The incidence of bed bug infestation is increasing in the United States, though they're still quite rare in comparison to other structural pests. Becoming familiar with bed bugs can help to avoid infestation, or at least prompt earlier intervention by a professional.

Very few people have ever experienced bed bugs. Until recently, they were very rarely treated by pest control professionals.

The insects were actually quite common in our nation prior to World War II. After that time, the widespread use of synthetic insecticides such as DDT eliminated much of their populations. Improvements in household and personal cleanliness, as well as the increased regulation of the used furniture market, also reduced their numbers.

Recently, though, they have started making a major comeback. The possible causes behind the resurgence include an increased amount of travel among nations and immigration. Modern pest controls have changed, and the use of less effective bed bug pesticides has also contributed to the recurrence.

Adult bed bugs are reddish-brown in color and roughly 1⁄4 to 1⁄3 inch in length. They are flat and can crawl into tight areas such as cracks and crevices. They have beak-like, piercing, sucking mouthparts.

Female bed bugs lay eggs on the cracks and crevices of beds or on rough surfaces. The insects reach maturity in anywhere from 20 to 120 days, depending on the temperatures and food availability. The insects can live for several months without food.

Bed bugs are nocturnal feeders, feeding on hosts in the dark. They hide during the day in window and door frames, electrical boxes, floor cracks, baseboards, furniture and under the tack board of wall-to-wall carpeting. People who are bitten by bed bugs develop small welts and severe itching. The bugs do not transmit diseases.

An infestation is characterized by blood stains from crushed bugs or by rusty spots of excrement on sheets and mattresses, bed clothes and walls. Sometimes, in heavy infestations, an offensive, sweet, musty odor from their scent glands may be present.

Bed bugs present a real challenge to control because they hide in many small places. Inspections and treatments must be very thorough. It's necessary to hire a licensed pest control professional to do the treatments to eliminate the infestations. Experienced professionals know where to look for bed bugs and possess many management tools at their disposal. Doing chemical controls on your own can often disperse the insects and could actually make matters worse.

The best way to control bed bugs is prevention. Do not pick up furniture items discarded at dumps and on roadsides, especially beds and couches - they may be infested. If bed bugs are suspected at one particular location, do not bring items from that place into your home.

Concerned travelers may want to check their bed for telltale signs of the bugs by examining the bed sheets and upper and lower seams of the mattress. If the insects or evidence of them are detected, request another room.

Elevate suitcases off the floor (on a luggage stand, for example) to keep any bed bugs from getting into the luggage. Inspecting or vacuuming luggage upon arriving home is less useful, since it is hard to detect bed bugs inside a suitcase.

Timothy Daly is an agricultural and natural resource agent with the Gwinnett County Extension Service. He can be reached at 678-377-4010 or timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.