(BLOOMINGTON, Ind.) -- Nasty little bedbugs, once virtually eliminated from the U.S., are making a comeback, insect and pest-control experts say. And they're showing up in surprising places, from luxury hotels to college dorms.
"There is a resurgence. They're happening out there; there's no doubt about it," said Marc Lame, an entomologist at Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
The National Pest Management Association says bedbug complaints have increased 50-fold in recent years. And while IU officials say they haven't yet found bedbugs in university dorms, the pests have shown up on campuses, including a well-publicized outbreak last fall at Rowan University in New Jersey.
"There are universities in surrounding states that have had infestations," Lame said.
Bedbugs are tiny insects, about one-fourth-inch long, that hide in bed frames, box springs and mattresses as well as in carpets and behind baseboards and wallpaper. They come out at night, often unnoticed, and use piercing mouth parts to suck blood from human victims.
Their bites can produce red welts that are sometimes painful or itchy, although there's no evidence they transmit disease.
Lame said bedbugs were a hot topic at a recent Entomological Association of America conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. When a speaker asked if the entomologists had checked their hotel rooms for bedbugs, he said, three reported having found some.
Thirty years ago, you weren't likely to see bedbugs at a conference of insect experts or anywhere else in the United States. Sanitation measures and pesticides had pretty much wiped them out.
"Around 1980, when I was in graduate school, bedbugs were really hard to find," Lame said. "I think we only had one in our collection (at Auburn University). I had never seen a live one."
What changed? Some pest-control experts blame government bans on long-lasting pesticides such as DDT and chlordane. But Lame doesn't buy it, citing research that bedbugs were becoming resistant to the chemicals before they were banned. He thinks a more likely cause is population growth, crowding and the huge boom in international travel in recent years.
Bedbugs hitch rides in travelers' clothing or luggage. Hotel companies spread them by recycling mattresses "down the chain," from luxury to cheap facilities. And students carry the bugs from youth hostels to college dorms.
"There's just a whole lot of global travel going on," Lame said.
Cindy Mannes, vice president of public affairs with the National Pest Management Association, said a lack of public awareness of bedbugs allows the pests to get established before people notice them.
"The consumer really thinks that bedbugs are mythical, that they don't exist, and if they did exist you'd see them," she said.
Getting rid of bedbugs can be difficult, Mannes said. The usual techniques are vacuuming, steam cleaning and the judicious use of pesticides.
"They're not something you can get rid of on your own," she said. "You need to bring in a professional. The biggest part of it is finding them. It takes time to do a thorough inspection to find out where they're living."
At IU, Pat Connor, executive director of Residential Programs and Services, said he hasn't heard of any infestations in the dorms at Indiana or other Big Ten or Midwestern campuses.
"To my knowledge -- and this is to my knowledge -- we've not had an issue with bedbugs," he said.
Kirby Gann of Kirby's Termite & Pest Control in Bloomington said bedbugs haven't taken the city by storm, at least not yet. "I've had maybe one call in the past year," he said.
Lame supports integrated pest management, an approach that relies not on pesticides but on controlling and avoiding the conditions that cause pests to thrive.
With bedbugs, he said, that means educating dorm staff and students to be on the lookout for bedbugs so an infestation can be caught in its early stages.
"Probably the most important thing to do is to have a monitoring program," Lame said.
Mannes, with the pest management group, said bedbugs are equal-opportunity parasites, as ready to suck the blood of the rich as the poor. And they can live in a spotless home as easily as in a filthy one - it's blood they're after, not dirt.
While bedbugs don't cause physical illness, Mannes said, they're capable of producing profound psychological discomfort.
"When you think about it," she said, "it's pretty frightening: You go to bed at night and something's going to be crawling on you."
(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)