Bed Bugs invade Twin Cities

Now that her bedroom is overrun with bed bugs, Shawn Christenson's 13-year-old daughter sleeps on an air mattress in the living room
Jana Freiband

When Shawn Christenson's 13-year-old daughter noticed some red bumps on her legs in early July, she blamed mosquitoes. Then she woke up one morning and counted 50 bites from head to toe, grouped in odd clusters. By August, Christenson had the same bites. She began scratching herself raw.

One day Christenson opened a book and a tiny, flat insect scurried across the page. That's when she realized she and her daughter were not alone in their downtown luxury condo.

"I called the office to say, 'There's a reddish-brown bug crawling around,'" she says. "They knew already because they had 30 units infested."

Christenson wrenched her couch away from the wall and discovered about a hundred tiny yellow skins littering a piece of poster board underneath. The culprit was clear: bed bugs.

The once-forgotten bed bug has rebounded in a major way throughout the U.S. A survey out last month of pest control companies estimated that 95 percent of exterminators had reports of bed bugs in their area, as opposed to 25 percent in 2000. Although New York City has been the most notorious, with infestations in movie theaters and retail clothing stores, Minneapolis recently made Terminix's list of the top 15 most infested cities in the country.

University of Minnesota entomologist Stephen Kells was working in the corporate offices of a large Canadian pest control chain in 2000 when he started getting calls from Toronto, Detroit, and Niagara Falls. For the first time in memory, exterminators were hearing from hotels about bed bugs. And they weren't dying. Perplexed, Kells submerged a few of the insects in insecticide.

"The bed bugs survived for four days afterward and went on to lay eggs," he says. "At that point I knew we were in trouble."

The pest control industry had nearly forgotten about bed bugs after DDT wiped them out in the 1950s and '60s. The earliest anyone in the Twin Cities can remember hearing about them is 1995, though it wasn't until 2005 and 2006 when local exterminators started getting deluged with calls.

Bed bugs were back. And they were hungry.

When Plunkett's owner Stacy O'Reilly got her first bed bug job in 2003, she wasn't sure how to kill the pests.

"We started calling everyone around in the industry and they were just as lost as we were," she says.

Bed bugs are a particularly nasty pest for several reasons. They lie in wait for their host to fall asleep—or at least become very still—before they strike. They push a needle-like mouth into the skin, injecting an anticoagulant and anesthetic, and start sucking from the nearest capillary. They crawl away to a safe spot, defecate—which signals to others that food is nearby—and start mating. They hide deep in walls and furniture. While adults will succumb to poisons, the eggs are still safe and sound.

Bed bugs are also incredibly hardy. O'Reilly says his exterminators tried sprays, vacuums, steam cleaning, freezing—nothing seemed to work. A mattress she and her workers left outside in the snow for several weeks in January came back in with living bugs. They can survive a year without feeding. Recent research indicates that this generation of bed bugs is up to 12,000 times more resistant to pesticides than their ancestors. And they spread in the most unlikely ways. He was shocked when some construction workers managed to transport them on plastic tarps.

Meanwhile, the stories kept getting more gruesome. Several Twin Cities exterminators repeated the experience of being in houses so overrun that bugs rained from the ceiling. Bed bugs have popped up in local apartment complexes, nursing homes, group homes, and hospitals. One exterminator tells the story of a man who went to the ER so chewed up the doctor assumed he'd been in a fire.

Though they know where their first calls came from—Mankato, Rochester, Crookston—exterminators do not see a pattern in how they've spread across the Twin Cities.

"We just don't know where ground zero was," says Kells.

The problem has become a common hassle for landlords. Donna Hanbery, a lawyer whose firm has represented hundreds of property owners and managers throughout the cities, says nearly all her clients have had to deal with bed bugs.

"It really is, 'Welcome to the big city,'" she says.

In 2006, the year of the first International Bed Bug Symposium in Washington D.C., a Burnsville company called Temp-Air began tinkering with temporary heating units, a derivative of products already used to kill meal moths in grain silos and industrial facilities. Using Kells's research, the company produced a huge trailer with a generator inside that hooks up to four portable furnaces.

At about 120 degrees, a bed bug's insides melt and the eggs dehydrate and die. Companies that use the technique raise room temperatures to around 140 degrees and leave it to cook for several hours. Heating an entire apartment or house starts at around $750, and can cost up to $5,000.

Business is booming. In just a few short years, bed bug eradication has risen from nothing to 20 percent of the industry. Every month, it gets busier.

"I think we're going to see things just like the New York situation," says Kells.

Shawn Christenson's building paid for an exterminator to spray chemical pesticides. Two treatments later, the smell—slightly sweet—hangs in the air of her nearly empty apartment. She slashed the cushions on her couch, chaise lounge and chairs to keep people from scavenging them, and threw them out—in total, $2,400 worth of furniture.

"This is where we live now," she says, staring down at a purple air mattress in the middle of the floor. "The only good part is you get less attached to material things."

In the meantime, they've stopped telling strangers about it. It makes people think the Christensons are dirty. Her daughter doesn't want anyone at school to know. But she won't move until her lease is up. In part, she's convinced she'll either bring the bed bugs with her or find them already infesting her new apartment.

"You don't know where you're going to go that's going to have them," she says, throwing up her hands. "Where do you go?"

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