Under The Microscope: Australia's Bed Bugs

Australia’s Bed Bug Problem Explained

In the 1950s, insecticides eradicated the vast majority of bedbugs and they all but disappeared. Decades later, they’ve now come back with a vengeance - stronger and tougher.

A comprehensive survey of Australian pest managers was undertaken in 2006 to determine the extent of the resurgence of bedbugs. They found that infestations had risen across all states and overall for the nation by 4,500% for the period of 1999 to June 2006, compared with pre-1999 levels.

According to behavioural ecologist, Dr. William Hentley, whose research paper on bedbugs was published in Scientific Reports, two major changes appear to have led to the current problem. "The increase in bed bug numbers around the world seems to have correlated with the reduction in really harmful pesticides, and also the increase in cheap global travel," he said.

This coincides with the survey findings which saw that most infestations (∼46%) occurred in either 1– 3-star motels or backpacker lodges. Recent data sourced from bed bug pest controllers listed on hipages found Redfern to be the No. 1 spot for bedbugs in Sydney, followed by Pyrmont, Darlinghurst, Coogee, Bondi, and Surry Hills. Melbourne CBD and high-density suburbs like East Melbourne, Docklands, St Kilda and Northcote all have high rates of bed bug infestations, a statistic that is likely to be true for most large cities with a highly mobile population.

To combat the rising problem, a multi-disciplinary approach was implemented. The approach included the introduction of a pest management standard called, “A Code of Practice for the Control of Bed Bug Infestations in Australia.” It outlines the best practices in bed bug eradication, the development of a policy and procedural guide for accommodation providers, education of stakeholders in best management practices, and research.

Now, this is all good and well for organizations and institutions. But what can the average Australian do in his or her own home?

What is a bedbug and why is it so hard to kill?

Bed bug bites on the back

Bed bug bites on the back

Bed bugs are small parasites that feed on the blood of sleeping people (or animals). Adult bed bugs have a flat oval body when unfed and swollen and elongated after a blood meal. They are reddish brown in colour and about 4-7 mm long. Although bed bug bites are painless, the bite mark is very itchy and will look red and swollen.

Unfortunately, these blood-sucking insects can live up to six months at room temperature and up to three months without a host. If you want to check your bed for them, you’ll find them in the crevices of mattresses along the stitched edges, on bed frames, and any other cracks or holes around your bed including walls and furniture. They usually leave a trail of cast-off skins, eggs or fecal stains (small dark brown or black marks) in their wake.

Australian entomologists found the bed bugs that are harder to kill are those that have developed a thicker outer surface, called the “cuticle.” Specifically, treatment-resistant bed bugs had cuticles that were up to 15% thicker than other bed bugs. This is why pest controllers now need to use a variety of chemicals at much higher doses to effectively eradicate an infestation.

How to get rid of bed bugs?

If you suspect that you have a bed bug infestation on your hands, you can try washing and drying your bedding and clothing at high temperatures. Try steam ironing your mattress too. These wingless insects die in hot environments, at 45°C or above. (Tropical bed bugs can survive at much higher thermal conditions).

You can also throw away of your mattress. But if you do this, make sure you transport it in plastic to prevent the insects from spreading elsewhere. Dispose of the plastic bags immediately.

Now, most people think that that would be the end of the problem. But you still need to make sure that the surrounding areas - furniture, drapes, etc. - are free of bed bugs. Otherwise, the problem will persist.

In this case, it’s best to hire a pest control professional. They can accurately identify where the infestation is hiding and use the appropriate insecticide to get rid of them once and for all. Keep in mind that this may not be a one-time session. Depending on the severity of the problem, pest controllers may need to visit multiple times.

Tips to prevent bed bug infestation

As with many things, prevention is better than cure. The explosion of bed bugs is happening around the world, not just in Australia. It’s important to keep these tips in mind:

  1. When travelling - either within Australia or overseas - make sure you check your hotel room for bed bugs. They can hitch a ride home on your clothes, shoes, or in your luggage. So make sure you check your bags before settling in and checking out. When you get home, make it a habit to wash your clothes in the hottest water the fabric can tolerate. As for your bags, go ahead and vacuum them inside and out. Then, empty the vacuum cleaner into a plastic bag and seal it.

  1. Speaking of vacuuming, make it a regular staple in your cleaning routine. Vacuum your carpets, drapes, mats, skirting boards, and any crevices in your room.

  1. Avoid buying second-hand furniture, mattresses, bedding, and clothing. If you must purchase second-hand, check them carefully before buying and wash them in hot water immediately when you get home (provided the fabric can tolerate it).

  1. Wash your bed linen, blankets, pillow covers regularly. We suggest once a week or every two weeks.

  1. Invest in anti-bed bug items like mattresses, mattress cover / protector / encasements. The ecosa foam mattresses, for instance, have a waterproof inner cover that protects it from bacteria, dust mites, bed bugs, and etc.

Don’t let the bed bugs bite!

Australia was the first country to take on the bed bug problem seriously. The policies implemented in accordance toA Code of Practice for the Control of Bed Bug Infestations in Australia” has only recently been imitated by many other countries who are facing worsening conditions.

According to Stephen Doggett, Director of the Department of Medical Entomology at Westmead Hospital in Sydney, Australia and foremost expert in the rise and impact of bed bugs within the country, “Infestations are worsening in many countries, except in Australia. Numbers seem to be decreasing, but we are the only continent in the world where bed bugs seem to be going backwards,” he said.

If we continue taking steps to prevent the bed bugs from taking over our homes, we may yet win the war against these blood-thirsty critters.