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Bedbug epidemic bites into Britain thanks to heatwave this summer

Sajeda Momin

Published: Updated:

Bedbugs are generally associated with poor and developing societies, but even affluent British cities are being plagued by the tiny parasites due to rising temperatures. Thanks to this summer’s heat wave, the UK is facing an exponential increase in bedbug infestations across the country.

The reproductive cycle of bedbugs shorten in hot weather allowing them to breed more frequently say experts. David Cain of Bed Bugs Limited, an extermination company, says their breeding cycle shortens from the usual 18 to 21 days down to eight or nine days.

“In the UK there has been a year-on-year increase of bedbugs since 2006, which shows no sign of plateauing. In fact in the next month or two, we will see a ramping up of activity related to the higher temperatures, which makes breeding massively more efficient,” explained Cain.

Cimex lectularius more commonly known as bedbugs are flat, rust-colored insects which grow to about 5mm long – the size of an apple seed – and feed on human blood. They were very common in Britain about a century ago, but their numbers dwindled due to the use of insecticides such as DDT.

However, they have returned with a vengeance and these bugs have developed a resistance to chemical treatments making their eradication harder. “This insect has developed to be the most efficient and adaptive hunter of human beings that we’ve probably ever had,” lamented Cain, who left a lucrative career in finance in London to start his company.

Bedbugs thrive in warm, damp conditions and live in clothes, sofas and other furniture apart from beds, and can be picked up on public transport such as bus seats, trains and even airplanes. Last month, the Indian national carrier Air India had grounded two planes after passengers in the expensive business class complained they had seen bedbugs in their seats. The airline had to call in exterminators to fumigate upholstery and carpets.

Some experts believe that the boom in low-cost travel around the world may be responsible for a rise in bedbugs in Britain. Tony Lewis, head of policy at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health said the bedbug presence in the UK was made worse by people returning from holidays in hot countries with bedbugs in their luggage. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve been staying in a five-star hotel or a dingy Bread & Breakfast, the chances of encountering bedbugs are equal,” said Lewis.

Bedbugs have been found in hotels as prestigious as the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. The Bedbug Registry, which monitors infestations in North America, said there had been a 44% increase in reports of bugs in New York hotels between 2014 and 2015.

The problem is compounded by social stigma attached to bedbugs which means people are reluctant to seek professional help. “Lots of people equate bedbugs with dirt, but dirt has nothing to do with it. Bedbugs can happen to anyone. I’ve been into some awesome Knightsbridge apartments where behind the front door there is a massive bedbug problem,” claims Cain.

Another deterrence to seek assistance is that a significant proportion of the population have no physical reaction to bedbug bites so many people are unaware of an infestation.

Bedbugs are difficult to notice as they crawl out at night and bite exposed skin. Most people feel an itching sensation but no marks, while some can see a red bite that may be mistaken for mosquitoes. It is only in some rare cases that the skin gets red blotches and a doctor needs to be seen.

Bedbugs are born colorless and turn a dark red brown as they fill with blood sucked from humans they live with.

Experts suggest that it helps to remain vigilant for any sign of the pests. They also advise the regular washing of bed linen in high temperatures, vacuuming of beds and using plastic mattress covers to protect from infestation.

This year’s Global Bed Bug Summit in Denver, Colorado heard that the pest control industry to eradicate them could be worth up to $1 billion in the next five years. However a pessimistic Heather Lynch, academic at the Glasgow Caledonian University, suggested that bedbugs may be so endemic that people must learn to live with them.