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Bedbugs: Bake them before they bite

By Ayesha Durgahee, CNN
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Battling bedbugs
  • One London exterminator works with Lola, a specially trained bug-finding dog
  • Much of the world is experiencing a rise in bedbug infestations
  • Heat can be more effective than chemicals in killing them
  • Like little hitchhikers, bedbugs can easily catch a ride on clothes or luggage
  • Bedbugs

London (CNN) -- Mention bedbugs and the natural reaction is to shudder and start scratching.

But one who doesn't get the heebee jeebees is Lola -- canine detective and professional bedbug catcher.

Trained at the Pepe Canine Academy in Florida, the two-year-old Jack Russell is all that pest controller Mark Astley needs.

With Lola's heightened sense of smell, Astley can identify bedbugs and their eggs without having to rely on the telltale signs -- feces that appear as tiny black spots that smear when wiped.

Bedbugs like to stay close to people -- "anything that is in close proximity to where we are or where we sleep," explains Astley, owner of Trust K9.

"Seventy percent of bedbugs tend to be quite close to us, and then within 5 foot, we've got (another) 23%, research shows," he says.

The remaining 7% lurk in the extremities of a house, he says, including corners, in the fabric of the house, in the carpet, behind baseboards, behind wardrobes, and in drawers.

The house he is investigating in Essex, England is empty. The tenants moved out when the first bedbugs appeared, leaving the landlord, who wants to remain anonymous, to deal with the problem.

Wagging her tail and pulling on the leash, Lola is ready to work.

Astley gives the command "Find your Bs" and Lola starts sniffing.

It is in the main bedroom that Lola strikes gold. Next to the wardrobe, she steadies herself with her hind legs and furiously scratches the edge of carpet by the baseboard with her little paws.

"Good girl! Good girl!" Astley shrieks and rewards her with biscuits. A few chomps later, Lola is off again.

Now that key areas have been identified, Astley can have a closer look to assess how bad the problem is.

"I'm looking for either bedbug eggs ... feces -- black spots, take a finger over it and see if it smears. Immediately looking along here ... there's nothing obvious here ... it could well be they are burrowed deep," he says. "Ah! There you go. There's a bedbug."

The size of this blood-sucker is surprising -- slightly bigger than an apple seed.

Bedbugs go through five stages of its life, shedding their skin twice in each stage, as they fatten up with blood.

They can lay up to 500 eggs in their lifetime. Bedbugs can take 10 to 14 days to hatch and will lay dormant, in some cases up to a year, if they can't detect anyone in the room breathing.

It is the carbon dioxide we exhale that alerts them to come and bite us.

Pest control companies like Trust K9 are seeing the number of jobs rocket every year specifically to treat bedbugs.

Rentokil has seen a 24% increase in bedbug exterminations in the United Kingdom over the past year.

"It's becoming more widespread. In recent years bedbug numbers have gone up between 100-500% in North America, in Europe and in parts of Asia and Australia" said Rowan Hooper, news editor for the New Scientist magazine.

"Perhaps the reason they're becoming more widespread is they've evolved resistance from the normal pesticides that have been used to kill them off," he speculates.

The global resurgence of bedbugs is also related the rise in second-hand clothes and furniture shops, and an increase in travel to and from infested regions, typically along the old Silk Route to the far east.

In the United States, the problem has become bad enough that the Environmental Protection Agency has convened two summits on the issue. The crisis is not likely to subside any time soon, scientists said at the most recent one, earlier this month.

Astley gets rid of bedbugs by transforming the infested house into an oven. There are no chemicals involved -- just very hot air.

That has the advantage of killing all of them, including their eggs, he says.

Working with Canadian company DRYAIR, he heats the house to 134 degrees Fahrenheit (67 degrees Celsius) for two to three hours. Nothing can hide -- bedbugs, lice, mites, cockroaches, he says.

Starting at $2,000 for a two-bedroom house, heat treatment is faster and more expensive than chemical sprays, at $480.

Chemical treatment is effective but takes up to 21 days to break the life cycle of bedbugs because the chemicals cannot kill their eggs.

With heat, an infested room or house can be treated at 8 in the morning and be bug-free by the evening, Astley says.

That is good news for hotels who do not want to lose money or their reputation.

"We do get quite a lot of reports of bedbugs," says Emma O'Boyle from the travel website Tripadvisor.

"Of course it's the hotelier's responsibility to sort it out -- and quite often if they notice a review that says 'we've experienced bedbugs,' they have the opportunity to go on there do a right to reply and we always recommend that," she says.

Announcing that they have had the hotel fumigated can help reassure potential guests, she adds.

If you type in "bedbugs" on Tripadvisor, more than 42,000 results come up -- hotel reviews from disgruntled guests.

The site, which has more than 40 million hotel reviews, also brings out a "dirtiest hotels" list every year, naming and shaming the worst offenders from North America, Europe, Asia and India.

One hotel in the dirtiest European Hotels 2011 list had the comment: "25 bedbugs between the two of us."

Bedbugs can spoil any holiday or business trip but there are a few myths that need to be dispelled.

"The biggest myth is that you've got to be a dirty person to get bed bugs -- it's absolute rubbish because bedbugs don't discriminate between rich or poor, dirty or clean. I know for a fact five-star hotels suffer from them, right down to your bed and breakfasts," says Astley, adding he has treated seven hotels in London so far this year.

And it's very easy to pick them up, he warns.

"We put something down... in a hotel room or somewhere we're staying that has a high occupancy or common turnover, and they climb on. They're like little hitchhikers," he says. "I've come out of a hotel with Lola and she's walked passed the baggage in the lobby and spun round and started alerting on somebody's luggage."

If it feels like your hotel room has some unwelcome guests, have a look around the corners of the mattress and the bed frame for those "felt-tip" black spots and rub your finger over them to see if they smear.

If there are no other rooms available to move into, then the safest place for you and your luggage is the bath -- bedbugs don't like shiny surfaces.