Mike Collins has bedbugs. Ten of them, to be precise. He keeps them in vials in his pocket, in case his partner needs a little motivation.
“Sometimes she really amazes me,” said Collins, a canine handler with Orkin pest control. “We walk into a room and she knows immediately that there’s something there.”
In less dynamic scenarios, duty falls on Collins to inspire May, his 3-year-old bedbug-sniffing German shepherd. Collins does this by hiding one of the mesh-topped vials somewhere in the room and setting May free to find the cache of live bugs. Once she does, she gets paid — in squeaky ball.
“Bedbugs can be found anywhere a person goes — airplanes, buses, taxi cabs — which is kind of scary,” Collins said. “I found one on a park bench once. Though that may have been a bat bug.”
Collins and May, a rescue dog from California that has been trained to detect the live bugs and their eggs, have worked together for nine months, ferreting out fledgling bedbug infestations in homes and businesses in Colorado and Wyoming.
“The whole idea of a bedbug dog is finding a very low, early infestation,” Collins said. “It’s for people who think they might have bedbugs but aren’t sure.”
One thing is for sure: In the past decade, more people in Colorado Springs think they might have a problem with the tiny fiends, whose late-night meal of choice is human blood.
The Colorado Springs/Pueblo area ranked 23rd in Orkin’s annual list of the top-50 bedbug cities in the U.S. for 2012, advancing two dubious spots since last year. Denver is ranked fourth. Nationwide during that span, there was a 32 percent increase in Orkin’s bedbug business.
Though the bugs, which are about the size of an apple seed, carry no diseases that can be transferred to humans, their bites can cause itching and allergic-like reactions and they leave a nasty mess in their wake.
While officials in the Springs who deal with bedbug complaints and concerns haven’t noticed a marked increase since last year, they admit that the numbers have been creeping up.
“It’s been that way the past approximately six years. That’s when the steady rise first became apparent,” said Ken Lewis, code enforcement administrator for the City of Colorado Springs.
Though the city doesn’t track bedbugs infestations specifically, it’s dealing with approximately 25 open cases, which usually arise from tenant complaints. While bedbugs can be found throughout the Springs, the majority of cases are concentrated in apartment complexes in the southeast part of the city, Lewis said. One site hosts a potential extra 16 cases, but the building manager is cooperating with the city and treating with pesticides, Lewis added.
“Bedbugs used to be something your parents told you about, in a joking way,” Lewis said. “I didn’t really think they existed until a few years ago.”
In fact, the wingless, nocturnal parasites have been around since ancient times, said Corliss Brecht, nurse epidemiologist with El Paso County Public Health Communicable Disease Program.
“They became more prevalent in the early 20th century when we got central heating in buildings and they found nice warm places they could live year-round,” Brecht said. “They started to decrease in the mid-20th century due to the potent pesticides we had.”
The resurgence in recent years is likely due to the elimination of pesticides like DDT, said Brecht, whose department has seen an increase in calls from residents worried they might have a bug problem.
“We start out trying to find out if what they have actually is bedbugs,” Brecht said. “There are other insects and other reasons why people might have red marks on their skin. Some people don’t react to the bites at all.”
Visual confirmation of the bugs is best achieved at night. Bedbugs prefer to dig in for a quick meal (less than 10 minutes) and scurry away to dark places, in seams and cracks where it is 60 to 70 degrees.
“The reason people don’t see them isn’t because they’re microscopic; it’s because they’re good hiders,” she said. “Anything that’s small and dark, they can get behind. That might be a good place to look for them.”
Within 45 days, a pair of bedbugs can become 100 bedbugs or more. The only proven way to eradicate such a full-blown infestation is with chemicals. General tidiness and awareness might keep you from reaching that point, Brecht said.
“Reduce clutter. If there’s a lot of stuff laying around, that just provides more hiding places for the bugs,” she said. “Certainly, the earlier on you identify it and do something about that, the better chance you have of getting it under control.”
She also suggests sealing cracks, regular vacuuming, and laundering of bedding and clothes in hot water and drying in a hot dryer.
“You also want to be really careful if you’re getting any used furniture that you bring into your house,” she said. “You want to check for cracks and areas on the joints of the furniture where a little tiny flat bug could hide. If a credit card could fit in it, a bedbug could get in.”
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364