A beagle named Vegas enters a rundown bedroom in South Burnaby, circles around the edge of a single bed and abruptly halts. Directly adjacent to the dog's nose, concealed beneath the mattress, is a small vial of tiny bloodsucking bedbugs.
The room is not a bedroom at all, but a training site in the headquarters of Care Pest & Wildlife Control Ltd. (CPWC), a Burnaby-based company that has been offering the services of two bedbug-sniffing dogs across the Lower Mainland since April.
"Seven years ago, I got a call every six months, and now there are days where we get a call every hour," says CPWC general manager and co-owner Peter Steinfort. "When the Olympics come, the bedbug problem is going to explode, as people from all over the world stay in privately rented accommodations and hotels."
Bedbugs were nearly eradicated from Vancouver and much of the rest of the developed world as a result of the widespread use of DDT after the Second World War. Their unwelcome return here and throughout North America and Europe is thought to be the result of banning such toxic pesticides and a boom in foreign travel.
According to the B.C. Ministry of Health, reported cases of bedbugs increased 600 per cent in southwestern B.C. from 2003 to 2005. Last year, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority inspected more than 3,000 Downtown Eastside hotel rooms and found that more than 80 per cent of buildings were infested.
As the number of infested apartments, houses and hotels increases, at least 30 pest-control companies are working to eradicate bedbugs in the Lower Mainland. Many of these companies, including CPWC, are focused on treatment programs that minimize spraying pesticides in residential spaces - and that is where Vegas and his sister Bonnie come in.
When a customer calls CPWC about bedbugs, the canine unit is often the first on the scene. The dogs can locate the bugs more accurately by smell than humans can by a visual inspection. Exterminators then either apply dry steam (to kill eggs) or spot-apply pesticides.
Although it cost at least $20,000 to train CPWC's two dogs (including handling staff), the animals have a humble past: born in Kentucky, they were saved from being euthanized in a Humane Society kennel. They ended up in Florida, where they completed 800 hours of bedbug-detection training. Although a Labrador retriever and border collie were available, the company chose the beagles for their small size, which allows better access to the tight and cluttered spaces where bedbugs typically hide.
The ability of Vegas and Bonnie to detect bedbugs in such spaces helped CPWC win a contract to eradicate the pests for B.C. Housing this year.
The provincial agency owns and operates at least 5,000 housing units in Vancouver alone, many in the Downtown Eastside, where bedbug infestations have been particularly widespread. The severity of the situation in this community is heightened in part by the difficulty in accessing and effectively treating single-occupancy hotel rooms.
Darin Froese, the regional director for B.C. Housing's Fraser Region, says that the dogs are an important part of a treatment program that includes using specially designed protective mattress covers and helping residents do laundry and replace mattresses. Education is also key, Mr. Froese says, because the embarrassment many poor residents feel about having bedbugs often prevents them from reporting infestations.
"This is not a pest that is unique to social housing," Mr. Froese says. "They're all over. Private-sector apartments have them, and high-end hotels have them too."
B.C. Hotel Association CEO James Chase says that bedbugs are a reality in Vancouver, and that the response by hotels can be muted out of fear of scaring away business.
"Bedbugs are not something hotels want to talk about, in a big way," Mr. Chase says. "We try to communicate [to our members]that bedbugs are a serious issue, and that if you have a problem, you should call on the professionals, and not try to do it yourself."
CPWC co-owner Anthony Hung adds: "Hotels don't want to admit I'm working in their building, and everybody seems to be waiting to see if it is necessary.
"But it's a lesser of two evils to have me, Vegas and Bonnie on your hotel payroll."
GETTING THE MESSAGE
Understanding how insects communicate with each other is the key to developing effective new tools in the fight to eradicate
Simon Fraser University professor Dr. Gerhard Gries, an expert in insect chemical ecology, is investigating how bedbugs use airborne chemical compounds called pheromones to communicate.
Not only have Prof. Gries and his collaborators identified this compound, they now know how to manufacture pheromones in a laboratory.
"A synthetic replica of this message, made of very harmless chemicals, can be put into a trap and placed in a room with a potential infestation, and if any
insects appear, you know there are bedbugs in the room."
The SFU-developed pheromone traps have been patented and will soon undergo testing. If all goes well, they will be in the toolboxes of Vancouver exterminators
within two years.
What is a bedbug?
A small, reddish-brown insect, the common bedbug is about the size of a ladybug with a flattened, oval-shaped body. It feeds on the blood of humans and
animals, though it can survive for up to a year without feeding. Its bite, similar to a mosquito's, is painless and may result in a small, red, itchy bump. Bedbugs cannot fly and are most active at night in warmer weather.
How do you know you have bedbugs?
If you notice red bumps on your body or dark stains on your bed sheets, mattress, pillow, carpets and clothing, bedbugs may be present. The stains are from their excrement and the blood from insects that had been crushed after recently feeding. Inspect all furniture, check cracks and crevices along baseboards and walls, and look behind paintings and loose wallpaper for their hiding places.
How do you treat bites?
Wash bites frequently with soap to prevent infection, apply an ice pack to reduce swelling and
apply ointment to ease itching. Resist the urge to scratch.
How do you get rid of them?
Wash bedding and clothing in hot water and laundry detergent. Delicate clothes can be put in a bag and placed in the freezer for a few days.
Vacuum often, and use a scrub brush to remove bedbugs from mattress seams.
Chemical sprays are available at many stores.
For larger infestations, you may have to call pest-control
How can they be prevented?
Closely inspect luggage and clothing after travel, and the
luggage and clothing of guests entering your home.
Regularly clean your home,
including vacuuming mattresses.
Ensure cracks and crevices on the exterior of your home are
Sources B.C. Ministry of Health, Vancouver Coastal Health