Could it be bedbugs?
What should you do?
a) Call the newspaper
b) Spray insecticide
c) Complain to the landlord
d) Bag some bugs
Correct answer: d) Bag some bugs
Yes, they're here
They're here, and they're not going away. Under the criteria of dog bites man, the mere presence of bedbugs isn't news.
The typical approach -- using household insecticides to kill bugs -- almost certainly won't solve the problem. That requires a concerted effort, knowledgeable pest control and repeated spraying.
Both landlords and tenants have rights and obligations should bedbugs infest. Should either fail to uphold his or her part, leases can be broken, renters evicted, homes declared uninhabitable and the infestation spread.
Communication and cooperation between landlords, tenants and a pest control company will be crucial over the long run.
But first, are you sure it's bedbugs?
"By looking at the skin, you can't tell a bedbug bite from something else," says Barb Ogg of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension office.
The bite could be from chiggers or another insect. It could be delusory parasitosis -- the crawly sense of infestation when nothing's there -- or a serious case of heebie jeebies.
Find the bugs. If they're bedbugs, some are likely hiding in the box springs.
Put them in a jar, bag or other sealed container and take them to extension experts at 444 Cherry Creek Road; call them at 402-441-7180.
-- About 80 percent of Lincoln bedbug complaints come from apartments or shared quarters.
-- Bedbugs feed mainly on human blood but are not known to spread disease. Not everyone reacts to their bites, although many people develop itchy welts. Anxiety over bedbugs can lead to sleeplessness.
-- Bedbugs spread by hitchhiking on furniture, luggage and clothing and by traveling through spaces that connect apartments.
-- Last seen in large numbers in the 1940s, the reason for their national resurgence this year isn't fully understood, although most have developed resistance to pyrethroid insecticides. DDT, formerly used on bedbugs, was removed from the market.
-- An Internet registry of bedbugs -- http://bedbugregistry.com -- claims to have collected 20,000 reports of them at 12,000 locations since 2006.
A typical scenario
A Nebraska woman found an insect in her bed when her family stayed in a motel over the July 4 holiday.
She squished it and blood came out.
"She thought it was the bug's blood," said Ogg, of the extension office.
Later, the woman went to her doctor for what she thought were hives. He put her on steroids, and the blemishes faded.
Days later, the welts returned and she went back to the doctor.
"They were figuring it out three months down the road," Ogg said.
A female bedbug lays three to five eggs a day. If it takes three months to recognize the problem, that's a lot of bedbugs.
Half of 122 people who attended a recent Lincoln extension workshop on bedbugs were landlords. In surveys, a number said they had treated for the bugs repeatedly.
"They're not solving the problem," Ogg said.
For the most part, insecticides become ineffective once they dry.
"This is not your typical bug problem," Ogg said. "If you attempt to treat it like you do other bugs, it will not solve the problem. It will get worse."
Nancy Clark of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department urges people to use pest control operators experienced in treating bedbugs.
Her office gets involved when landlord-tenant frustrations reach a breaking point. If the problem isn't taken care of within a reasonable period, Clark said, the health department can move to have a unit red-tagged, meaning it cannot be inhabited until the problem is addressed.
Tenants can end up forcing themselves into a search for new quarters.
On the other hand, if a reasonable but frustrated tenant chose to break a long-term lease and it went to court, Clark said, "The landlord would probably lose."
"Reasonable," Ogg said, means something needs to happen within a week.
Sometimes, Clark said, things are happening, but the tenant hasn't been informed.
"The landlord should tell the tenant what will happen," she said.
Tenants will need to be active and persistent, laundering bedding weekly, vacuuming or steaming bugs regularly.
While laws and ordinances generally place the responsibility for insect problems on landlords, it is the responsibility of tenants to keep orderly homes.
"Clutter management is the first step," Ogg said. "If there is clutter, you have to get rid of it."
If a pest control company arrives to find a cluttered home, she said, they'd be wise to delay treatment.
"Landlords have evicted people because they didn't do what they needed to do," Ogg said.
Tenants must make their homes available for inspection, too.
"You will not succeed unless there is cooperation with the landlord, tenant and pest control company."
No easy fix
If everyone does their part, Ogg said, a realistic expectation for success would involve at least two treatments, two to three weeks apart. The situation would improve over four to six weeks.
Ignore or underestimate the problem, she said, and it will grow.
Desperate people sometimes misuse potentially toxic pesticides, compounding the problem.
The bugs can live several months without feeding, so an extended vacancy is no cure. When they get hungry, they start to roam, perhaps to a neighboring unit.
Winter is no deterrent.
"We keep our homes warm," Ogg said. So the bugs thrive.
Some group homes with transient populations, she said, have begun to routinely freeze newcomers' belongings for 24 hours.
But there's still a lot of confusion about bedbugs.
"There's still a lot of situations our inspectors go into," Clark said, "and people don't understand."
Ogg sees no quick solution.
"We need a product that's effective, safe and cheap. I don't see anything in the near future that meets those criteria."
Reach Mark Andersen at 402-473-7238 or firstname.lastname@example.org.