- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2001

Strange bedfellows are not uncommon for the nation's capital.

Neither are bedbugs.

The quarter-inch, brown, oval, wingless insects increasingly are infesting hotel rooms, sharing visitors' beds strictly to suck their blood.

"Bedbugs are associated in the public's mind with filthy living conditions, but that's not the case," said Phil Koehler, an urban entomologist with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. "They can be brought into any environment and are very good at hiding, so even upscale hotels can have infestations."

Pest-control companies are reporting a tenfold increase in calls about bedbugs since 1999. Though a nationwide problem, the blood suckers are most commonly found in cities with an influx of international visitors, such as Washington, New York and San Francisco.

Whether a traveler is staying at a $50-per-night hotel or a luxury resort with a price tag of $1,000, the chances of being feasted on by bedbugs are about the same.

Much like mafia calling cards, bedbugs mark their actions. But they don't stick roses in a dead man's mouth; they simply leave droplets of blood on the sheets and pillow cases of their victims.

Typically brown or beige, the insects turn mahogany after a night of feeding. The results are red lumps similar to flea or mosquito bites, Mr. Koehler said.

Until the mid-1900s, the blood suckers also known as "red coats," "chinches" and "mahogany flats" were a well-defined plague. But strong pesticides were developed, eradicating the majority of the insects.

U.S. hotels, in particular, became free of them, until the nation's pest-control practices changed in the 1990s and companies shifted to more specialized baits for roaches, ants and flies.

"Which is a problem, because bedbugs feed on your blood. They are not going to go eat a bait," said Mel Whitson, technical manager for Steritech Group Inc., a Charlotte, N.C., environmental safety company.

The other cause is rising international travel. Last year, a record 51 million foreign tourists visited the United States, up from 48 million in 1999 and 43 million in 1995, according to the Department of Commerce.

Complaints about bedbugs have increased in the past two years, said Sara Pattingill, an entomologist with Terminix, a pest-control company based in Columbia, Md.

Bedbugs "travel with people, obviously, and in the D.C. area we get a lot of travel," she said. "It's just the nature of our region."

Representatives from the American Hotel and Lodging Association and the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., did not return calls yesterday.

Meanwhile, lodging industry analysts are laughing at the issue.

"I just can't believe it. That has never been within the scope of things I've thought about," one analyst said.

Another, John Arabia of Green Street Advisors in Newport Beach, Calif., wasn't surprised, though he knew nothing about bedbugs.

"When they do reports, often it's found that generally hotel bedspreads are not changed often enough and people go in and find all sorts of nasty things on bedspreads," he said. "But it doesn't mean people don't travel."

The procedure for exterminating the blood suckers takes about two weeks. A room is cleaned, sprayed with chemicals, and aired for a week. Repeat.

"It takes a very thorough treatment because bedbugs are so small and fit through such small cracks," said Eric Eicher, president of the Pest Prevention division at Steritech in the Washington region.

"Sometimes the small ones are almost impossible to see," he said. "And they can be anywhere in the room the bed, the curtains, electrical outlets."

The infestation does not necessarily pose a financial threat to the hotel industry, Mr. Arabia said, because hotels tend to always have a number of rooms undergoing general maintenance.

"So if this were to become a big problem for the industry, it could be done without massive material and financial impact," he said.

While the main reported rise of bedbug infestation is at hotels and resorts, the blood suckers are not that choosy about location.

"We've seen an increase in calls for apartment complexes, nursing homes, virtually any structure whatsoever," said Mark Lacey, director of technical and field services for the National Pest Management Association in Dunn Loring, Va.

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