By Julie Washington, The Plain Dealer

MIDDLEBURG HEIGHTS, Ohio — The most effective weapons in the fight against bed bugs are education and erasing stigma.

That was the message conveyed at the Cuyahoga County Bed Bug Task Force 2019 Fall Conference last week in Middleburg Heights. About 300 social workers, landlords, pest control experts and others attended the gathering.

Speakers covered topics such as bed bug biology, bed bugs in public spaces and who pays when a rental unit is infested.

Bed bugs — tiny insects that hide in cracks, feed on blood and are expensive to get rid of — have been on the rise since 2000, said Karen Vail, a professor in the department of entomology and plant pathology at the University of Tennessee.

Cleveland-Akron is ranked 11th on Orkin’s list of the top 50 U.S. cities for bed bug infestations as of January 2019. The top five cities are Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and Columbus. In Ohio, Cincinnati, Dayton and Youngstown also made the list.

Bed bugs have been found in college dorms, hotels, schools, hospitals, movie theaters, trains, office buildings and nursing homes. They are becoming resistant to insecticide, Vail said.

Travel, less indoor spraying, lack of awareness, loss of effective insecticide, clutter and decorating practices also contribute to the rise in infestations.

Bed bugs don’t transmit disease, but they do cause stress, ostracism and expense. “It’s distressing to think something is feeding on us while we sleep,” Vail said.

The best way to deal with an infestation is to call a professional exterminator, conference speakers said. Over-the-counter sprays seldom work. Folk remedies such as oil of lavender and dryer sheets for deterring bed bugs are useless, the speakers agreed.

There are some effective, non-chemical ways of killing bed bugs. These include putting items in a dryer set on high, placing items in a home freezer for two weeks, and vacuuming with a crevice tool. Bed bug detectors, or traps, that can be placed beneath the legs of a bed or upholstered furniture, are useful. These traps are made of smooth plastic; once a bed bug enters the trap, it can’t crawl out.

Vail started the conference with information on the life cycle of bed bugs, accompanied by images of the blood-suckers projected on large screens. Typically, the pests hide in the folds of a mattress or a bed’s crevices during the day, then emerge — attracted by a sleeping person’s warmth and breath — at night to feed.

Adult bed bugs can live 70 days without feeding.

Identifying these insects is tricky. Bed bugs look different during each of five nymph stages before reaching adulthood. Before feeding, they have round bodies, but are elongated after feeding, Vail said. Males and females also look different.

Black smears on surfaces, which looks like mildew but is actually bed bug excrement, are one sign of an infestation.

Bed bug bites can raise itchy bumps or welts, but some people don’t react at all. One telltale sign that bites were caused by this pest is when three bumps appear lined up, sometimes called “breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

By hiding in backpacks, books, clothes, shoes and electronic devices, bed bugs and their eggs hitchhike to schools, libraries, workplaces, churches, theaters, planes, health care facilities and other places where people congregate, said Dale Hodgson, regional technical manager for Rose Pest Solutions based in Cuyahoga Falls.

When bed bugs are found in a rental unit, tenants and landlords often point fingers at each other, said Cleveland Municipal Court magistrate Sandra Lewis, who works frequently with the municipal court’s Housing Court.

Usually, the landlord is responsible for paying the cost of an exterminator. Some landlords split the cost with the tenant. The tenant can be held liable if the landlord can prove that the tenant brought in used furniture that might have been infested, Lewis said.

However, Lewis stressed that professional entomologists can’t pinpoint exactly how or when bed bugs entered an apartment.

Tips for protecting your home against bed bugs:

  • Download the Bed Bug Field Guide app, which has photos, descriptions and information on how to find them and get rid of them.
  • Inspect hotel rooms before you unpack. Put luggage in the hotel bathroom or in plastic bags.
  • Don’t bring home used furniture or household items.
  • Put used books in the dryer on high heat before shelving them.
  • Store items that students take back and forth to school in sealable tote bins at home.
  • If bed bugs are found in an office, isolate personal items in sealed bags, and get an inspection from a professional pest company.

Resources that can help with extermination costs: