clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Bedbugs 101: Lessons Learned From a Battle With the Beast

It was the day after Christmas when I innocently mentioned to my landlord that perhaps the high-rise's exterminator might want to stop by the unit to spray. It took him all of 10 minutes to burst my bubble. Those brown bugs I'd seen crawling up my walls? They weren't beetles. They were bedbugs.

Cue gnashing of teeth, rending of clothes and all manner of histrionics. Friends who were visiting at the time dashed out of my apartment as if it were aflame. Cut to me canceling travel plans for the weekend and swallowing my mortification to let my in-laws know that we may have exposed them to the nasty creatures over the holidays.

When the building sent a second pest expert the next day, I was armed with a notebook of questions as well as a major case of psychosomatic itchy skin. He told me to chill the hell out, live my life and drink one of the bottles of wine sitting on my kitchen table. He demystified the process and left me to a mountain of prep work, which I am here to relate for you, question-and-answer style.

Bed bugs? But how? This is the most-repeated refrain from every person I've told my tale of woe. The truth is, we probably won't ever know. The exterminator told me to consider every trip my husband and I had taken in the last six months and use that as a starting point. I reflected. Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York. New York! I figured that had to be it. But no, it turns out that Philly is the new bed bug capital of the country. The exterminator explained that our unwanted roommates could have come from anywhere, and were not limited to hotels. He said we should be wary of shared cars and even movers. I suddenly remembered we'd moved five months ago. From a storage space. By way of movers. In one five-minute conversation, my entire existence seemed suspect.

I expressed my surprise that I didn't have any discernible bites anywhere and that my husband, too, remained untouched. He explained that a large population does not experience any allergic reaction to the bed bugs feasting on their flesh. But what about my bed? I didn't see anything on the mattress! That's when I learned that bedbugs don't have to live in your bed. They can live in your walls, too. They seem especially to love the small cracks in plaster that line the joint between our wall and ceiling.

What do you do once you find out you have them? The exterminator left me with a page-long list of procedures to ready our apartment for bed bug remediation. It took 10 minutes and a phone call to his office to fully grasp the task before us. First step: more psychosomatic itching. Second step: wine. Rest of steps: inspect, clean, launder and/or dry clean every item we own and put it in a garbage bag in our living room.

I should clarify. We were to inspect and clean the hard items and launder or dry clean anything material-based (coats, winter gear, clothing, shoes, bags, canvas items, bed linens, towels). Books were to be leafed through before bagging. Kitchen items were allowed to stay in shelves in our untouched kitchen. Closets needed to be emptied into bags. All furniture needed to be moved three feet from the walls. Framed photos and art needed to be taken down for pest control extermination. At the end of the week, our apartment looked like what I imagine a hoarder's would, were a hoarder moved to categorize their finds into piles of garbage bags in their living room.

What does the exterminator actually do then? The morning our exterminator was due to come by for the procedure, my husband flipped the bare bed on its side as we had been instructed to do. That was when I learned the folly of not completely examining the space between the mattress and box spring weeks earlier. One errant bug scurrying away from the light was enough for me for one morning. I waited for the exterminator in our tiled bathroom, madly avoiding thinking about bugs by playing Scramble with Friends.

When the exterminator arrived, he explained that he would be using a combination of Delta Dust and various chemical sprays on our carpets, our furniture and all of all walls. He said he would be shooting things into wall voids exposed by the cracks in the plaster. I told him that he could do anything he wanted short of burning the building down if it meant I'd come home to an apartment with nothing but dead bugs.

Now what? Finding out we had bedbugs gave birth to a litany of annoyances (non-stop itching! certainty that every piece of lint on the floor is actually a bug!). By far the worst is that we have to keep living out of the aforementioned pile of garbage bags for one month. The exterminators will return twice more, and with luck, our apartment should be declared bug-free by February 1. In the meantime, though, we have learned to keep bags of our laundry in a very specific location on our living room floor. We also have a special case for our mattress and box spring that will keep unhatched eggs inside the mattress (I know) and keep any errant bugs around from getting inside. The material is pre-treated and zippers under our fitted sheet, so it's not noticeable. And it goes a long way toward peace of mind.

What is this costing you? This is one area where renters are as hard-up as owners. Unless the lease says otherwise, tenants are responsible for bedbug treatment. Which means we were on the hook for nearly $500 to the exterminator as well as laundry and dry cleaning fees. Experts say you can launder anything to save it, but we wound up throwing out some items I would rather have kept, mostly because you are forced to throw away all cardboard in your home (so long, board games, storage boxes and jewelry boxes). By February, we will have probably spent somewhere a shade under $1,000.

How can you avoid them in the future? Various exterminators I have spoken to in the last 10 days assure me that it's possible to pick up bedbugs anywhere. One pest control expert went so far as to tell me it's "not much different from going out and someone getting bit by a mosquito." Everyone I spoke with cautioned against hotels. They uniformly suggested never unpacking clothes into dressers while traveling and encouraged me to check behind bedboards and picture frames in hotel rooms. One exterminator suggested buying Bedlam to keep for travel purposes. My mother's co-worker helpfully suggested stowing suitcases in the bathtub during future hotel stays.

What next? I am hoping to eventually stop believing every speck of dust is a bedbug. I am also looking forward to unpacking our home, secure in the knowledge that we haven't seen any bugs for several weeks by February 1. I am knocking on wood (and scratching the back of my neck) as I type this.