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Believe It or Not, Chicago Museum Wants Your Bedbugs

By Paul Biasco | January 19, 2013 8:25am

LINCOLN PARK — The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum wants your bedbugs.

The nature museum only has one Chicago bedbug specimen in its collection, and now that  Chicago has claimed the title of bedbug capital of the U.S., scientists there are hoping anyone who comes down with an infestation can jar a bug in rubbing alcohol and send it their way.

"We are back in the age that we have to think about bedbugs," said Karen Wilson, the invertebrate specialist at the Lincoln Park museum. "There is a reference to bedbugs not only in medieval writings but all the way back to Greek times with Aristotle.”

According to the pest control firm Orkin, Chicago had the highest number of bedbug treatments of any city in the U.S. in 2012, making the leap from the No. 2 spot in 2011. Following Chicago in the rankings are Detroit, Los Angeles, Denver and Cincinnati.

"Ten years ago most pest control operators could not have identified a bedbug," said Wilson. "Overall there has been a huge increase in the incidents of bedbugs across the country."

She said it shouldn't be a surprise that the bugs have hit the Midwest after years of being seen as mainly a problem on the East Coast or other cities.

"It's not rocket science to say 'Gee, I wonder if Chicago will see an infestation,'" she said. "We have two international airports and tons of hotels."

Although Chicago is at the top of Orkin's list, Wilson noted that this doesn't mean the city has the most bedbugs, but it could be that the bugs are newer to the area and more people are calling in.

Wilson said the museum fields calls from residents in the city on a consistent basis on what to do about the bugs, including many from families who can not afford to have a pest control company come out.

The bugs, which can grow up to 5 mm in length, live off the blood of animals, mostly humans, and a major problem is that most people won't have a reaction to the bite for a few days or even a week.

That delay can mean the bugs can multiply inside a home, especially in tight dark spaces, like a bed.

Some tips to keep the bedbugs out of your home are to buy an encasement to zip around a mattress, to put clothes in the dryer on medium to high heat after returning from staying in a hotel and to keep clothes and suitcases off the hotel carpet if you are on vacation.

Inspecting your bedroom regularly and being cautious while traveling are they two main ways to prevent an infestation, according to Dr. Ron Harrison, a scientist with Orkin.

One of the methods used to rid an infestation include using heaters to warm up a room and melt the wax exoskeleton's of the bugs, causing them to dry out. Another method is through pesticide treatments, which is less costly than the heat treatment.

"It’s libraries. It’s police departments. It’s public institutions. They can hitchhike on a backpack or person," Wilson said. “You will find people who move from the bedroom, to the living room and then to the car, and it doesn’t work. You can’t starve them out.”