CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Outside of the old bedtime rhyme, most people have probably never heard of bedbugs.
But the little bloodsuckers are real. And they're making a comeback.
After decades of virtually no reports, pest-control companies nationally have begun noticing a huge upswing in the number of bedbug calls.
Orkin, the nation's second-largest pest-control company, reported a 300 percent increase in bedbug cases between 2000 and 2001, a company spokeswoman said. The numbers have gone up 70 percent each year since.
Bedbugs have been found in three Canadian provinces and at least 28 states.
A Union County, N.C., family called the local Orkin branch in Charlotte just before Thanksgiving for a pest problem around their beds.
"They thought they were ticks," service manager Chris Whelan said.
They turned out to be cimex lectularius -- a wingless, flat parasite about the size of an apple seed that is brown in color until it feeds, when it turns a reddish brown.
"They got the name bedbug from the fact they are normally associated in human bedding," said Frank Meek, an entomologist and Orkin's technical manager in Atlanta. "There's several different species of these insects. There's a bat bug [and] a swallow bug. Bedbugs feed on the blood of chickens and rabbits. But humans are their preferred food source."
Dogs and cats are not a bedbug's menu, Meek added.
Bedbugs will dip their snout into exposed flesh, drink about three times their body weight and leave an itchy red welt similar to a mosquito bite. Given the right conditions, they can live for years. Some experts say they can live up to a year without a meal.
Bedbugs have been found in homes, dorms, airplanes and cruise ships, Meek said. They hide in bedding, creases in the mattress, box springs, bed frame, behind pictures on the wall, behind baseboards and anywhere else it's dark, according to an article by WebMD.
It doesn't matter if the room is dirty or clean; bedbugs only care about a dark hole to hide in and access to humans, Meek said.
"It's not a sanitation issue," he said. "It's purely a skin exposure issue."
Some experts fear bedbugs can transmit diseases, but that's not been proved. So far as experts know, Meek said, the worst thing about bedbugs is "the psychological trauma of finding out that you share your bed with an animal that drinks blood."
Bedbugs have been around for hundreds of years and pestered Americans until the latter half of the 20th century, when people started having pest-control companies do regular treatments.
As a result, bedbugs became scarce here. But they continued to flourish in other countries.
And that's where the problem likely began, Meek said. The increase and ease of international travel have provided bedbugs plenty of hosts to ride with back to the States.
Hotels a hotbed
Hotels are a hotbed for the bugs, Meek said. All a tiny hitchhiker has to do is crawl into your suitcase, which most people put on the bed while packing and unpacking.
But Meek says not all bedbugs here are foreigners. Some likely have taken advantage of changes in the way pest-control companies apply their chemicals.
Until 10 years ago, technicians did baseboard spraying -- a procedure that basically blanketed an area. But advances in pesticide technology have made that method obsolete.
Now technicians apply smaller amounts of chemicals to specific areas to treat specific targets. Got a roach problem? That's one pesticide. Ants? That's another.
"Typically, you don't treat for bedbugs," Meek said. If you suspect you've got them, the experts say call in the professionals.
"Don't try to go to a hardware store and try to fight it yourself," he said. "It's not something you really can do yourself."
Clearing them from the bed isn't the problem. That can be done without pesticides. It's making sure they are not hiding in every crack and crevice of a room that can be difficult, even for a professional.
"Many people today will tell you they do not exist," Meek said. "[But] these can be very difficult insects to control."
Do you have bedbugs?
Smell the room. Bedbugs give off a sickly sweet odor similar to soda pop syrup.
Check your luggage before you leave the hotel.
Look for blood spots on the sheets. Bedbugs leave tell-tale signs of their nocturnal visits.
If you wake up and find a bedbug on your skin, pull it off. It does not burrow like a tick.
If you believe you have bedbugs, call a professional. Do not try to kill the critters yourself.
SOURCE: Orkin Inc.