Vancouver bedbugs – considered by many a scourge from days gone by – are back with a vengeance, creating boom times for the city’s pest-control professionals.
The Vancouver house where I meet Mark Amery looks like a war zone. The furniture in this homey, if rundown, two-storey Strathcona dwelling has been pushed from the walls and upturned, garbage bags full of clothes and books are heaped in the middle of each room, and the shelves and closets have been ransacked.
“It’s like moving,” Amery says, leading me upstairs to the attic bedroom where the first “hits” were detected, “but you don’t get to move.”
Amery isn’t a detective on the scene of a violent robbery but a specialist in the fastest-growing category of pest control: the bedbug. These resilient creatures, which make slumbering humans their midnight snacks, announce their presence with bites in clusters of threes and droppings that resemble black felt-tip pen markings on bed frames and mattresses. They reproduce rapidly (one female can lay five to seven eggs a week and bear up to 500 offspring in its lifetime) and are persistent (they can lie dormant for a year without feeding).
For exterminators these blockbuster bloodsuckers are a recession antidote. Amery’s company, Vancouver Bed Bug Control, which he founded in 2005, has grown to five technicians and two office members from just Amery himself. With revenues of $20,000 to $30,000 a month, the company has seen a 25 per cent jump in business in the past year.
While the city’s health authorities don’t track bedbugs because they aren’t transmitting diseases, anecdotal and circumstantial evidence suggests the problem is increasing. A July 2010 report by Insight Pharmaceuticals ranked Vancouver the eighth-most bedbug-afflicted city in North America on a list topped by Columbus, Ohio, New York City and Toronto. Once considered a problem restricted to the Downtown Eastside, these beasties are currently making inroads into detached dwellings and the city’s poshest neighbourhoods, including the suburbs.
Exterminators are making their killing from bedbugs at the expense of homeowners and hoteliers, who, once bitten, part with small fortunes to cover fumigations, cleaning bills and replacement furniture. And yet for middle-class homeowners who thought bedbugs were an ordeal that beset other people, the misery and stress that come with a visit from these relentless critters make them willing to spend whatever it takes.
Formally known as Cimex lectularius but also referred to over the years as bed louses, crimson ramblers and night riders, the bedbug has pestered the human race since the infancy of civilization. According to a 2008 article written by University of Kentucky entomologist Michael Potter in Pest Control Technology, these people-eating insects have been discovered in 3,500-year-old archaeological sites and later plagued the ancient Greeks, whose philosophers, in the fifth century BC, recommended keeping the feet of hare or stag hanging near their beds. Over the ages, arsenic, turpentine and gunpowder have also been offered as cure-alls. The 20th century saw Zyklon B – infamously used in Nazi gas chambers – as a bedbug solution before DDT eliminated the insect to such levels that it was spoken of as a quaint throwback.