Gas, guns and hazmat suits: On the frontline in the fight against bedbugs
“Stay two paces behind me and don’t sit down anywhere unless I tell you to,” a veteran bedbug exterminator tells me as I follow him into a suspected infested flat in north London.
In his decades on the job, microbiologist David Cain has annihilated swarms of the blood-sucking insects from £125m super yachts off the Spanish coast, a media baron’s £5 million townhouse in Knightsbridge – who he refuses to identify – and Tudor beds in Hampton Court as well as the London tenements.
“Bedbugs are the great leveller,” he says. “I’ve seen captains of industry people, top of their field, reduced to tears shaking in the corner of the room.”
Our inspection comes weeks after bedbug hysteria sparked panic on the streets of Paris and a few of the creatures crossed the English Channel to hitching a ride on unsuspecting tourists heading to London.
We walk past an ominously tossed mattress – a tell-tale sign someone nearby may have an infestation.
With only the blue plastic shoe covers you get at swimming pools for protection – I was expecting a full E.T.-style Hazmat suit. I take a deep breath and step through the customer’s front door.
I’m putting my trust in David’s 20 years of experience as an exterminator, a collector of bedbug memorabilia and as an author of two journals on the insects, that he would shield me from the horror of the blood-sucking mini-beasts that had pensioners and children fleeing a west London library recently.
The call-out is to help a 58-year-old recently retired NHS ethics officer who had read media reports of a looming bedbug invasion. She called David’s company Bedbugs Ltd after finding three bite marks behind her knee sending her into a spiral of anxiety.
David gets to work to give her an answer one way or another nonchalantly flipping over the mattress – I cross my fingers behind my back.
The frontline fight against bedbugs
As he scans the environment, he recalls his first ever pest control job, saying “I tipped the bed over and saw 5,000 bedbugs looking back up at me.
“I felt I was in a Dickensian novel but the décor of the flat was more 1960s. I was hugely repulsed. I wanted to rip my skin off but I got this whole morbid fascination like what the f*** went on to get this. How did they get here?
“In those days the bed bugs we were encountering were not as hardy as they are now.”
The homeowner, who wishes to remain anonymous, is told the good news there are no bedbugs here.
She squeals with delight and throws her arms around her new hero. She happily pays the £75 callout fee for giving her peace of mind after weeks of bedbug-induced insomnia.
“I was thinking I had to throw out everything, my makeup, my shoes,” she said. “I had exhausted myself hoovering. I’m sure I saw one on me.
“It was this tiny slither on my arm and I freaked out. It really hurt. My worst nightmare is an infestation of insects I’m more scared of that than I ever was of Covid.”
David, 46, tells her what she saw was most likely a common booklouse which don’t bite but can cause allergic reactions.
After leaving he says: “That is quite rare how she hugged me. I don’t really like human contact but I let it happen to reassure her.
“She was the type of person that if I didn’t hug her she would convince herself she must have some bedbugs leftover.”
TikTok, the Kremlin, the mainstream media have all been accused of spreading disinformation on the reported spike in cases.
David tells me of one man driven to near-madness by sleep deprivation poured liquid nitrogen all over his bed in a final dramatic act of desperation.
The bedbugs we are encountering now are stronger, more resistant to toxins and have even evolved suction cups on their limbs to climb up all but the cleanest, mirror-smooth surfaces.
Most terrifyingly of all some even know to raise their bodies and “tiptoe” over any poison left out for them.
So how can we deal with them once and for all? I was hoping to find out at PestTech 2023, an annual conference uniting a thousand-strong army of exterminators tasked with saving humanity from the bedbug peril.
Approaching the Marshall arena in drizzly Milton Keynes you pass vans belonging to pest controllers companies called The Extermin8rs, The Eradic8rs, The Fumig8ors and another called simply Colin’s Traps.
One supposed bedbug-detecting spaniel sniffs at the endless rows of exterminator vans like a bomb detection dog would do at a military checkpoint.
David swaggers in like John Wayne into a saloon turning heads in the small world of pest control. People run over to him to say “surprised you’re here”.
As a qualified micro-biologist he had very publicly stormed out from one speaker who got the science wrong and he loudly dismisses new fandangled bedbug treatments he considers “snake oil”.
Other exterminators call him Saxondale – conjuring up Steve Coogan’s underrated depiction of an ex-roadie turned pest controller – because of his penchant for leather trousers that he has custom-made according to his own designs.
When a young bedbug apprentice makes the grade he proudly presents them with their own pair of leather trousers in an initiation ceremony he calls “earning your leathers”.
Back at the show, Birmingham-based air rifle designer David Mills was showing off his customised laser-sighted weapon that can kill a squirrel at 50 yards. You don’t need a licence to buy them – you just need to be 18 years-old he says, loading the gun.
The 60-odd stalls sport taxidermy, rental falcons, stoats, and even snakes on display for a more medieval solution to unwanted rodents.
There are rifle ranges, meeting rooms where middle-aged men huddle over weak coffees and seminars on phantom insect bites and “innovative” pheremone traps.
At one presentation Richard Faulkner, from Envu, tells a gripped audience through a microphone feedbacking horribly he thinks he may have found the solution.
He unveils TruDetx’s Covid-style rapid flow bedbug tests, that mimick the Covid tests we all got used to in the last public health emergency. But instead of jamming it up your nose, you wipe the test on your mattress or where you think bedbugs have been to collect their antigens.
Claiming a 90 per cent accuracy rate and costing a hefty £156 for five tests, the eyes light up on the exterminators gathered around who have been called to a near 196 per cent increase in suspected bedbug infestations in the last year.
Mr Faulkner said: “This gives people scientific back-up to say bedbugs are there even if you can’t see them.”
After the demo, he explains: “The upsurge we are seeing is maybe from the media, but also the freedom of travel after Covid. We’ve heard of bedbugs increasing by up to 65 per cent this year. It’s a very big year for bedbugs.”
”But you’re never going to truly eradicate an entire species,” he concedes. “Every insect is part of a food chain, a life cycle but as long as it’s not inside bothering me do I really need to worry about it?
“Bedbugs have been around for ages even Henry VIII had bedbug exterminators there are portraits of them. They are fascinating, wonderful creatures, in their own way.”
David, though, would rather advocate for a mass public education drive to stop the spread of bedbugs rather than simply increasing the level of poisons that you just “pray and spray” and which the insects eventually adapt to.
“The real danger is putting powerful chemicals in the hands of idiots”, he says pointing to the tragic deaths of John Cooper, 69, and wife Susan, 63, who were found dead when a neighbouring room at the Steigenberger Aqua Magic Hotel in Egypt was fumigated for bedbugs.
“People don’t think about evolution, selective environmental pressures and all the terms a biologist knows but if you are failed dog warden you haven’t come across before.
“The industry just teaches you to spray more and more.”