Exterminators find bed bug refugees difficult to treat

Any experienced exterminator can walk onto a new bed bug job site and guess pretty accurately where most of the bugs will be hiding. The bugs have very specific likes and dislikes for harbourage substrates and prefer to be close to a sleeping host. If the exterminator understands this it is relatively easy to find bed bugs. But sometimes I walk into a job site and nothing makes sense. Bugs are not found in the usual locations and the odd locations now have bugs. One of the causes of these confusing patterns is the bed bug refugee.

The bed bug refugee is a person or family that had bed bugs in their home and then moved to a new home and then immediately complains of bed bugs. These folks are often renters and they have a vested interest in convincing the new landlord that the bugs were preexisting. The landlord can make the tenant pay for the exterminator if the tenant is responsible for the bed bugs so the tenant will lie like a sidewalk to avoid making those payments.

When the exterminator walks into these jobs the furniture is arranged differently than it was in the old home and the bug patterns are completely mixed up because the furniture is all mixed up. The following are two examples from my own practice:

I walked into a suite to perform the first treatment. The building was bug free one year ago and I found hundreds of bed bugs in the climb up interceptors that had been recently placed in the suite by the landlord as part of a monitoring program. The infestation was obviously older than one year. So the first thing I asked was how long the tenant had lived in this suite. The answer was one month. An obvious bed bug refugee. I then pointed to a can of RAID on the counter top and asked if they had been using it. The tenant stated “not much.” Whatever….

Interestingly enough 3 neighbouring suites now each had a small case of bed bugs in this building as well. When the infested furniture was dragged through the halls by the new tenants the bugs fell off and caused an infestation of the neighbours – nice. When I began treating the severely infested suite I noted that there were few active harbourages but there was lots of sign where bed bugs had been. The bugs seemed to be thinly scattered throughout the suite. Even a small portable cooking stand in the kitchen was infested. This was going to be tough.

The second time I treated the suite I noticed a piece of severely infested furniture that had not been present the first time. I asked where it came from and learned it came from the fire escape. I checked out the fire escape and the tenant had been storing significant amounts of their infested furniture on the fire escape as it did not fit the decor of the new apartment!!! That was a first – I had never treated the fire escape for bed bugs before. But it was a direct part of an odd presentation of bed bugs with a bed bug refugee.

The second bed bug refugee discussed here was treated two weeks ago. The tenant had moved into a single family home recently and now complained of bed bugs. I checked the couch and beds and they showed no evidence of bed bugs. Hmmmm. As I went through the furniture with treatments I found several pieces of furniture that showed obvious signs of infestation. Even a large mirror in the hallway contained evidence of bed bugs. The tenant had led me to believe the infestation was recent but the evidence was contrary – I suspected a bed bug refugee.

I asked the tenant about the odd findings of bed bugs when I arrived for the second treatment and the tenant then acquiesced that she indeed was a bed bug refugee. The old suite had been treated twice by an exterminator. Before moving the tenant had discarded the couch and beds and replaced them with used bug free items. But the bugs came with the rest of the furniture. So we went through the furniture piece by piece trying to find out which furniture was close to sleeping surfaces in the old house. It turned out the infested mirror in the hallway was attached to a dresser that was now stored in the far corner of the old dingy uninsulated basement! Ordinarily a dresser stored in the basement would have very low risk but this dresser had to go. This was good to know. During our conversations it was discovered that she had been self treating the end tables for bed bugs. The end tables had lamps on them so we inspected the lamps and found the lamp shades were infested. The shades were probably touching the wall in the old house and as the bugs ran for cover they ended up in the shades. In the present location the shades were quite a distance from the wall and I assumed the bugs would not have climbed the slippery lamp and light bulb, walked along the shade wire frame, climbed down the plastic shade liner and then harboured in the lower rim of the shade – pretty decent assumption. But my assumptions were wrong because the furniture was now arranged differently. The conversation with the tenant was revealing excellent clues about where the bugs were located.

The prognosis for this case is now much better because we were able to determine what happened. That half hour I spent with the tenant was invaluable.

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