Vancouver Bedbugs: The Bloodsucking Menace

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. ?

Vancouver bedbugs
Bedbugs aren’t a class problem – infestations are rampant in Vancouver, no matter the neighbourhood.

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.


bedbug dogs
Image: Paul Joseph
Three-year-old Vegas can point handler Marcos
Michelet to bedbug hiding places through sheer
nose power.

The class association of bedbugs

Early on, the relationship between these critters and class was quickly established. “For they do not breed in beds of which the linen and straw is frequently changed, as in the houses of the rich,” wrote Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandus in his 1603 bug guide, De Animalibus Insectes. In 1730 English insect expert John Southall published a 44-page treatise on bedbugs that recommended that homeowners inspect their servants before letting them enter their residences.

In the past decade, with a global re-emergence of bedbugs attributed to the decline of DDT use, this link between pest and class has also resurfaced. And at first glance, this connection looks justified. In Vancouver a quick visit to, a website created by San Francisco-based computer programmer Maciej Ceglowski in 2006, shows the greatest concentration of the 1,944 user-generated reports (as of January 2011) in the Downtown Eastside and the West End. Because bedbugs thrive among transient populations and in clutter and neglect, it’s natural that they roost in areas dominated by rental apartments and single-room occupancy hotels. 

However, Anthony Hung, co-owner of Burnaby’s Care Pest & Wildlife Control, believes the bedbug registry is not entirely accurate because its reports come mostly from tenants and travellers – people eager to broadcast their displeasure – and rarely from homeowners who are more inclined to keep the problem quiet. 

“Yes, the Downtown Eastside and West End have a higher concentration because there are a lot of multi-unit dwellings,” says Hung, whose 40-employee company handles about 20 bedbug cases a day, accounting for 25 per cent of his business – up from “single digits” a few years ago. “But we get calls from West Van, North Van, in the Valley – all over the place.”

Mike Kowbel, co-owner of BC Bug, also sees the bedbug as an upwardly mobile nuisance. “Before, getting it in a detached single-family home was almost unheard of; now it’s a weekly occurrence,” says Kowbel, whose company picks up 50 per cent of its business from bedbugs. “We’ve done some pretty nice places in North and West Vancouver – nice four- and five-bedroom homes.”


Bedbugs cover all demographics

In fact, anyone who leaves their house, much less travels, can find themselves with a “hitchhiker” (i.e., a wandering bedbug) in their clothes or suitcase. The ability to nestle into luggage and furniture, including seats in aircraft and movie theatres, gives these creatures access to homes and hotels covering all demographics. And yet the stereotype that this pest is a direct result of poverty or vice is almost as difficult to stamp out as the bug itself. 

In 2007 Vancouver’s chief medical officer, John Blatherwick, explained the migration of bedbugs to middle-class boroughs as a product of poor behaviour. “People occasionally go to the Downtown Eastside and do naughty things,” he told CBC News online. “People take them back to their spouses, and their spouses wonder where they got their bedbugs from.”

Translation: you’ve made your bedbug problem, now lie in it. 

Because of the stigma attached to bedbugs, some of their victims, whom I met through friends and acquaintances, would only speak anonymously.

“Anne,” a 31-year-old resident at a Vancouver hospital, initially thought the bites on her legs in the summer of 2009 were from mosquitoes. One night her partner woke her up as he went to the washroom. Scratching her bites, she recalled a conversation she’d recently had with a friend in Calgary who had a bedbug problem, then jolted out of bed. 

“I turned on the light and looked at the gap between my wall and my mattress. I saw all these bedbugs crawling around the mattress,” says the Marpole condo owner, a self-described “neat freak” who colour codes her closet and never leaves a dish in the sink. “I could hardly sleep that night. I felt violated, like a robbery had happened.” 

Unlike Anne, condo owner “Allison” had a more even-keeled response when her husband found a live bedbug on the floor while he was sitting on the couch last October. Her husband immediately began vacuuming their split-level east Vancouver unit at two in the morning and “thought it was the worst thing that ever happened to him,” she recalls. “I didn’t think it was a big deal. You pay someone, they come to your house and they eradicate it.” 


bedbug treatment
Image: Paul Joseph
Exterminator Mark Amery and his peers use a wide
range of weapons against bedbugs, including
chemical, cold blasts, and heat waves.

Exterminating bedbugs

Once bedbugs are found, an infestee’s next step is to call an exterminator, who makes an inspection and provides an estimate, based on square footage, before treating a home. Homeowners need to prepare their home for extermination, laundering and bagging all clothes, vacuuming and moving furniture, and emptying shelves and closets. Mattresses must also be encased in specially made covers costing about $200 that keep out – and trap inside – the people-eating creatures. During the treatment, clients need to leave their house for several hours (longer for pregnant women and infants). The time-sapping process of turning your house into a flea market must be repeated if the bugs reappear. 

Often, bedbug fighters insist, victims of the infestation can be their own worst enemy, overreacting and spreading these creatures in their repulsion. “People will be so disgusted that they will immediately leave their apartments to stay with friends,” Amery says, “and infest those places.” Many people, creeped out, move their mattresses to the living room, giving the bedbugs a new homestead. Others toss out mattresses or furniture without first wrapping them in plastic, exposing the building’s common areas to the bugs on the way to the trash bin. 

For their warranty, Kowbel’s company, in fact, requires homeowners to continue sleeping in their infested room after it’s been chemically sprayed to prevent bedbugs from hibernating or moving to their next sleeping meal. “The bugs hiding in the wall or other areas will come out and are killed when they crawl onto the [chemically treated] bed frame,” says Kowbel, whose company will also dispose of infested furniture. “This works as long as the person remains in the room.” Playing the piece of cheese in the mousetrap, it’s not surprising that many infested home­owners lose sleep.

For condo owners, another necessary step is to alert their strata council, which can invite delays and accusations, and increase tensions. After blogger Sean Orr revealed to neighbours that his Gastown loft had become infested in October 2007, the president of the strata council claimed Orr was responsible for the problem because of his reporting on Downtown Eastside anti-poverty activists. “If it were an outbreak of mice, it would be a building issue that would be taken care of immediately. There’d be no blame,” insists Orr. 

In residential buildings, the fight against this nuisance is quickly derailed without a unified effort; bugs quickly move to untreated areas. When the bedbugs returned to her building in February 2010, Anne says that one of her neighbours refused treatment, which brought about legal action. “I was so pissed and so grossed out,” she says, explaining that her obsession with bedbugs grew to the point where she would wake up in the middle of night, with a camping light strapped on her head, and begin searching. 

Because Orr’s strata refused to acknowledge the issue, bedbugs crept over the brick walls of his chemically treated loft into his neighbour’s units. Six months passed before the problem was addressed. In that time, Orr says, “I basically went crazy.” For the blogger, who’s been diagnosed bipolar, the stress of the infestation combined with his unco-operative neighbours triggered a manic episode. “I was just cleaning sheets and clothes constantly and obsessed about them. You see bedbugs everywhere,” he says. “It was exhausting.” The resulting strain contributed to the demise of his relationship with his girlfriend, who was sharing his condo, and ended in his month-long stay at a mental-health facility at UBC.

Tony Gioventu, executive director of the Condominium Home Owners Association of B.C., a non-profit organization that supports stratas in the province, believes that fear of being blamed means condo owners are underreporting infestations. “Maybe if you’re a hoarder and have 20 years’ worth of newspapers in your unit, you could be responsible for expenses,” he says. “Most of the time, though, no one knows who caused the infestation.” 

As a way of defusing tensions, Gioventu advises stratas to initiate pest-control funds. Allison’s building had one of these accounts, which didn’t cover her own treatment but paid for pre-emptive fumigations for her neighbours. She was miffed, then, when a neighbour with breathing problems produced a doctor’s note to excuse herself from treatment; another tenant “disappeared.” She attributes this lack of compliance with the continuing presence of bedbugs even after successive visits from fumigators. When she began getting bites, which appeared on her body in the form of “big welts, almost like hives,” she and her husband inverted their respective attitudes toward these pests. While he grew relaxed, she felt “complete social isolation” from her friends and became obsessed about potential new hits. “We paid someone,” she says. “I thought they were gone.” 


Bedbugs come with a price tag

In addition to the time and stress that come with bedbugs, there’s also the bill. Allison, for instance, estimates that she’s spent between $2,000 and $3,000 for cleaning bills, her mattress enclosure and the four pest-control treatments for her home.

According to James Chase, CEO of the B.C. Hotel Association, the properties he represents are spending what it takes to tackle bedbug problems before any guests take notice. “No one’s been able to track the economic implications of bedbugs, but there are huge costs growing around them,” he says. For local hotels, Chase says, preventative measures include educating cleaning staff, keeping pest-control companies on retainer and bringing in sniffer dogs to find bugs. For Care, a hotel inspection starts at around $15 per room. “It’s a costly endeavour, but it’s becoming the price of doing business,” adds Chase.

According to pest-control companies, the rate for treatment varies according to the size of the dwelling and the type of technology used. BC Bug, among the city’s more value-priced pest-control companies, offers two chemical treatments separated by 10 to 14 days (the second treatment is to kill off bugs that hatch after the initial one) for approximately $285 for a one-bedroom apartment and between $500 and $550 for a 2,500-square-foot house. 

Care, which will soon open an Okanagan location, charges around $350 for a single “gold” treatment, which includes steam coating of furniture in addition to chemical treatments. At $80, the “basic” treatment is a precautionary measure applied to dwellings adjacent to infested units, a residual chemical dusting and spray applied on potential entry points to prevent bedbugs from migrating throughout the building.

One reason Care’s rates are higher is its sniffer dogs, which are certainly the cutest line of defence against bedbugs. In Care’s headquarters, near Boundary and Marine, I watch Vegas, a three-year-old beagle, search for specially planted vials containing live bedbugs around the foyer. As the handsome pooch grows excitable by the couch, his handler, Marcos Michelet, urges him, “Show me, Vegas, show.” Vegas, one of four beagles used by Care, plants his rear in front of the couch until Michelet retrieves the bedbug and rewards Vegas with a treat. 

Anthony Hung believes Care’s dogs’ sniffing abilities – “they could find a teardrop in a football field,” says Michelet – allow for a more “surgical” application of pesticides. Hung also says Care’s canines help soothe anxious clients. 

Kowbel, whose BC Bug relies only on visual inspections, suggests that any animal that receives food when it locates a hit might have incentive to create “false positives.” Amery finds these animals too conspicuous when working with Vancouver Bed Bug Control’s hotel clients. For detection, his company uses a Cymex Detection Case, a device that mimics the presence of a sleeping victim by emitting carbon dioxide and a human pheromone to attract bugs. Encased in a hard suitcase, it looks like the kind of gadget Q might demonstrate to James Bond. 

As for actually killing bugs, a chemical spray with the trade name Tempo is the industry standard for killing this old-world scourge. However, the city’s bedbug busters are also introducing non-toxic treatments against these pests, which cannot withstand extremes of heat and cold. Amery uses a technology known as Cryonite, which eradicates the insects through a stream of dry ice. Its application is labour-intensive compared to chemical treatment: the frozen carbon dioxide must come into direct contact with any bugs or eggs.

“I have five kids under eight, so the less pesticides the better,” says Amery. “We want to take the chemicals away. The only problem is price.” He estimates a 2,500-square-foot house treated solely with Cryonite might cost $3,000, versus approximately $1,000 for a chemical-Cryonite combination.

In January Care began using diesel-generator-powered, 460-volt heaters and industrial-sized fans purchased from Minnesota company Temp Air to kill bugs by first raising room temperatures to 38 degrees Celsius, roughly equivalent to human body temperature, to draw the bugs toward the heat source, before further increasing the temperature up to 52 degrees, which is lethal for these bugs.

This heat treatment is chemical-free, green (biodiesel can be used to fuel the generators) and saves homeowners time because the method is 95 per cent effective in one visit and requires minimal preparation by the homeowner (things that melt easily, such as crayons and candles, need to be removed). It also mitigates strife with neighbours because the treatment doesn’t drive the pests to other parts of the building. 

In January at a demonstration of the treatment in a downtown studio apartment, I watch bedbugs literally skittering out of baseboards and across the mattress toward the heaters. The only apparent drawback is the machine’s minimum daily rate, which starts at $1,400. Hung suggests that the charge is less onerous than it sounds because, in one day, the heaters can be used on up to four bachelor units or a partitioned section of a house.

Kowbel, who claims to have a 95 per cent success rate within his chemical treatments, is lukewarm about hot and cold treatments. “In the end, we’re getting rid of the bugs,” he says. “People don’t have a problem with how we do it.”

While price shopping does occur, pest control professionals insist that promptness and discretion is a more overriding concern than savings. “We don’t treat Care as pest control but as a service company,” says Hung, whose company can generally schedule an inspection with its bug-sniffing dogs within 24 hours of a call. Hung feels that rattled clients require a sense of comfort from their fumigators. “You’re part exterminator, part counsellor.”

Amery says his company’s first response to a report of an overnight bite is often the human touch. “A lot of people call crying and sleep deprived,” says the exterminator, whose website proudly touts the unmarked vans it takes on visits. “Sometimes, before going to work, you have to sit with them for 30 minutes and have a coffee with them.”

When I speak to Allison in late December, she has just received a clean inspection from a Care sniffer dog. “I’m free at last,” she says. Elated, after having spent three months with these unwanted house guests, she attempts to find a bright side to her ordeal. “It reduced my clutter,” she says. “I got rid of a lot of old clothing.” 

For those who travel regularly, it’s impossible to be completely safeguarded from bedbugs. However, to lower your risk, the pest pros suggest extreme caution when bringing in used furniture or bunking elsewhere. “When you go to a hotel, flip the bed, take the sheets off and look for black stains,” says Amery. “When you buy used furniture on Craigslist, look for those stains around the edges.”

Hung urges travellers not to make themselves comfortable in hotels. “Basically use the hotel’s luggage racks and unpack as little as possible,” he says. “As soon as you’re home, make sure your clothes go into the dryer.” 

People who do find the ladybug-sized creatures are advised to seek support from those who’ve had the problem. “Just talking about it really helped,” recalls Orr, who received many sympathetic messages when he posted a blog entry about his infestation, which included pictures of him bare-chested and covered with bites. “I felt less alone.”

Feeling as though you’re not by yourself is exactly the problem still being overcome by victims such as Anne, who’s been bedbug-free for over a year. “I still check for them,” she says. “The other day, I called a pest-control guy to look for them, but he couldn’t find any.”