When The Bed Bugs Bite

By Randal Burton

Most camp directors haven’t heard the words “bed bugs” since we were young. Right before going to sleep in a Walton’s moment, someone yelled, “Good night, Bill! Don’t let the bed bugs bite!” But when we first learned bed bugs were at the Carolina Bible Camp and Retreat Center in Mocksville, N.C., we were caught off-guard.

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that “the United States is one of many countries now experiencing an alarming resurgence in the population of bed bugs. Though the exact cause is not known, experts suspect the resurgence is associated with increased resistance of bed bugs to available pesticides, greater international and domestic travel, lack of knowledge regarding control of bed bugs due to their prolonged absence, and the continuing decline or elimination of effective vector/pest control programs at state and local public-health agencies.”[1]

An Introduction
The camp’s first exposure to bed bugs was about four years ago. A camper’s parents reported their child arrived home with welts and bites all over the legs, arms, and upper torso. A doctor diagnosed the condition as bed bugs or scabies. That set in motion a series of events by which we have a preventative program and plan of action that has restored the camp’s credibility and given campers a sense of security.

Bed bug bites are difficult to identify. They may take up to 14 days to present themselves. The bites are like those of a flea or a mosquito, sometimes in a straight line or triangle, and look like a slightly swollen, red area that may itch or be irritated. Some people do not react to bites at all and may never know they have been bitten. Other facts we have learned is that bed bugs are not known to spread disease and are mainly a nuisance that can be accompanied by itching, insomnia, anxiety, and skin problems.

The First Attempt
Once we determined where the camper stayed during the session, we had a pest-control agency treat the cabin immediately. Once the season was over, we isolated the cabin and solicited further help from the agency, which sent out the head epistemologist to help with the problem. Once we were under his care, we thought the problem would go away, but we were met with new challenges. First, the chemical that was sprayed caused a great deal of mold and mildew in the cabin. The pest-control company argued that it wasn’t their product, but it matched a pattern that was sprayed on the paneling. The company refused to pay for the removal of the mold and mildew, so we did it ourselves. And the spray didn’t work.

The Second Attempt
Once the public heard about the situation at camp, other issues arose. Campers carried horror stories home. Kids, families, and churches were scared of what might be. Attendance declined, and before long, we found ourselves in damage control. Around that time we were made aware of another local company that had been successful in ridding a larger camp nearby of the same nuisance. We contacted the company and arranged a meeting. The officials were very professional and handled the situation in the most sensitive way. We felt we were on the right track. The company began by inspecting the cabins visually. It brought in a specially trained dog that gave us and the campers a real sense of security. All of the cabins were treated, sealed with a special chemical that provided a barrier to keep the bugs from harboring in the walls.

Interestingly, we were told we had only a minor problem. We were shown a half-dozen pictures of infestations that made our skin crawl, where the walls were literally seething with bed bugs. The company also used a steam machine to treat the specific cabin. We heard that “tenting” was a method to get rid of the bugs but were not advised to use this procedure due to cost and perhaps need. The entire cabin would need to be enclosed in plastic and heated to a temperature in order to eliminate the bugs. What was used on our facility was a portable steamer. Once this procedure was finished and all of the cabins treated, we felt secure.

However, here are some other things to consider:

  • Bed bugs are a risk all people take when traveling to a place like a motel, a college dorm, or any sleeping quarters where other people have stayed and may be infected.

  • Bed bugs are expert at concealing themselves and avoiding capture. They can easily hide in a nail hole, a crack in the bed frame, a seam in a mattress, or folded clothes.

  • They can live for a year without feeding on blood, and can be transported without notice.

Bed bugs leave evidence behind to help people find them. There are exoskeletons after molting, as well as rusty-colored blood spots due to blood-filled fecal materials on mattresses or sheets, especially in the folds. When especially plentiful, they give off a sweet, musty odor. They also leave egg sacs, especially in luggage, so one should be alert and look for the tell-tale signs.

Developing A Protocol
The camp tried to take a low-key approach in letting families know what we had done. We issued a statement in the newsletter that a problem had occurred at the end of camp the previous year, but steps had been taken to eradicate the problem. All the cabins had been treated with the recommended chemicals, and a dog certified in identifying bed bugs had been brought in. The camp was pronounced clean at that time, and the next camping session went forward fairly well.

“Fairly well” means we only had one or two bites brought to our attention. Being proactive, we arranged with the company handling our situation to take steps to help us avoid any further beg bug interaction. The exterminator was to come to camp when we had reason to believe someone had been bitten. Most times, when we observed an issue, we found it could not be confirmed as bed bugs, but we followed the agreed protocol. If a room was deemed suspicious (a bite reported, even if it might be a mosquito) we asked the girls to change into clothes we provided (we keep a supply of flip flops, shorts, T-shirts, and personal items in the office in case of this scenario) join the other campers, and then the company would come and begin to treat their room. We obtained a large commercial dryer through donations and used it to dry the clothes on high heat to kill the bed bugs and their larvae. By the time of evening activities, the girls were back in their cabins and ready to go.

But it didn’t always go that smoothly. There were incidents where staff members—still uneducated on the situation—reacted without due regard for the policies in place. Once, a staff member asked the company to bring in a heat chamber in which to put all the belongings of the female campers, and to heat it to a level that would kill the bugs. No precautions were taken to protect the boys carrying the boxes to the chamber, which risked the spread of the pests to other areas. After this episode, we put into place a good and effective preventative program to help with this ongoing issue.

We expanded this program by asking parents to pack campers’ luggage in clear totes or plastic bags. These items included any cosmetics or other supplies. Fortunately, most parents were eager to cooperate. If campers arrive without following this stipulation, or without putting their luggage in a plastic bag and leaving it in the sun for three or four hours to kill bugs and egg sacs, then we empty the luggage and put the belongings in the commercial dryer. If there is a suspicious situation, the weekly director calls the executive director, and he handles the rest. This approach has decreased our problem considerably. But no matter what anyone does, bed bugs can be brought into a camp in any number of ways, and each incident needs to be treated seriously and without delay. It is important to educate all the staff as to the protocol and the truth about bed bugs, as there is much misinformation out there. There are plenty of recommended treatments, but most do not do the job correctly.

One final note: We contracted with the company to inspect the cabins each month. These employees can find things that most of us would overlook and treat them quickly before they get out of control and costs skyrocket. They know where to look. Since we have done this, the cost of any treatments we have during the camp sessions have been minimized.

Until the country gets on top of this issue, those small, flat, parasitic insects that feed solely on the blood of people and animals while they sleep will be more than a goodnight wish. Cimex lectularius will be here for a while.

J. Randal Burton is Executive Director of Carolina Bible Camp and Retreat Center in Mocksville, N.C. Reach him at (336) 492-7802.

[1] Joint Statement on Bed Bug Control in the United States from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), http://www.lawestvector.org/Bedbugs/Joint_Statement_on_Bed_Bug_Control_in_the_US.pdf, December 14, 2017.