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Bedbugs soften the recession's bite


Ralph Hernandez-Maestre was panicked. He was standing in an apartment so ridden with bedbugs that they were literally falling from the ceiling. What worried Hernandez-Maestre more was that his crew didn't have an extra full-body suit and his head and hair were prime targets for the tiny dive-bombers.

“The infestation was horrendous," he said. "When they interviewed the client she had bedbugs crawling on her. Every spot in the apartment that you could think of had bedbugs."

Despite how disgusting the little bloodsuckers might be, Hernandez-Maestre, a certified entomologist and supervisor of pest control technicians at Magic Exterminating, said bedbugs are keeping some pest management companies alive amid the recession.

"We suffered in some areas like some of our residential pest control but we more than made it up with the epidemic of bedbugs," said Harold Byer, owner of Magic Exterminating, a family-owned business serving New York and Long Island. "I'm sorry to trade in on other people's ills; we did make a lot of money on that. So we're doing very well."

Traditional termite exterminations, an important part of the pest management industry, have decreased over the years, in part due to recent foreclosures and fewer housing inspections for termites that are generally required prior to home sales, said Missy Henricksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association. But bedbugs have taken the place of termites and stimulated business, Hernandez-Maestre said.

"Most of their businesses are doing well," Henricksen said of the National Pest Management Association's 6,000-plus member businesses. "In the past five years there has been a 72 percent increase in bedbug complaints nationally and in New York City there may be more concern."

According to the National Pest Management Association, the bedbug is no bigger than the crumbs in your bed from a midnight snack. They are flat and oval shaped with an amber-colored body that turns deep red after they have taken their “blood meal.”

The bugs are nocturnal and feed on the blood of humans and other warm-blooded animals. They take their name from their tendency to live and feed in the beds of humans, but bedbugs can also be found behind baseboards, wallpaper, upholstery, suitcases and clothing.

They are believed to have originally traveled to the United States with Europeans as they arrived in the 17th century. After World War II, efforts to eradicate them, including the widespread use of the now-banned chemical DDT nearly eliminated them.

"It used to be that our members would get one or two calls a year and now some of our members are getting upwards of 10 calls a week," Henricksen said.

The bedbug epidemic was caused by world travel, experts say. As it has become easier for travelers and trade to get to New York City, it has also been easier for bedbugs to be transported from hotels, homes and buildings around the world, Hernandez-Maestre said.

Furthermore, with the economy keeping people on the move as they lose their homes, downsize or move in with relatives, bedbugs are hitching a free ride, contributing to the growing "pandemic" in the city, said Bob Alarco, an Orkin Hyde Park branch manager who handles mainly residential clients in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and Long Island. “They’ll latch onto anything they can get into.”

Natalie Raben, communications and marketing director for M&M Pest Control, said, "It's been a big part of our business. Our calls for bedbugs have increased tenfold."

She said her apartment became infested so she had to hire an exterminator and wrap all of her belongings, including furniture, in plastic bags, during the treatment. Last month Raben appeared on the “Rachel Ray Show” to show what homeowners and tenants must do if faced with an infestation.

"I call it an immediate need. It's not like 'I want that Fendi Bag,'" she said.

Bedbugs are not picky pests and will infest homes of the rich and poor, said Michael Morales, a service manager for Magic Exterminating.

Once bedbugs invade, it’s not cheap to get rid of them, though there are many effective, but expensive, treatment methods. Hernandez-Maestre said Magic's services start at a few hundred dollars and increase depending on the job.

At a recent bedbug treatment at a one-bedroom apartment in Elmhurst, Queens, Magic’s pest control professionals Everal Francis and Luke Howell sprayed the walls from floor to ceiling, ripped back the carpet and inspected and dusted every crack and crevice with pesticide.

In preparation for the job, the tenants had to put all of their belongings in plastic bags.

"With heavy infestations, they only tend to kill what's on top," said Francis, a field technician for Magic, about the Sterifab, the chemical spray he uses when treating mattresses infected with bedbugs. "You want to make sure you use the vacuum first to get everything, then you spray."

According to the city's Rent Guidelines Board, landlords are responsible for hiring exterminators, which many people don't know, Raben said.

"As far as bed bugs are concerned, it doesn't matter with customers," Hernandez-Maestre said. "They've got the problem, they're going to spend the money. They want the problem gone."

In 2008, “Time Magazine” ranked pest control workers 121 on a list of the "150 Best Recession-proof Jobs Overall," reporting the industry had a projected cumulative growth of 15.5 percent.

"Our industry has been able to survive through recessions,” said Leonard Douglen, executive director of the New York State Pest Management Association. “It's just a question of how profitable."

Source: Digital Media Newsroom