“Nighty night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite!” This is an oft-repeated phrase many of us have heard since childhood. Now thanks to one Labrador retriever, families can sleep a little easier knowing they don’t have bedbugs.
Blue, the black Lab, has an amazing gift for finding these irksome night-crawlers. As soon as he picks up on one, he begins breathing heavily and wagging his tail.
“He just goes rock solid. He sits down and is looking at exactly where that smell is coming from,” said entomologist Jonathan Nixon. “It really is fascinating to see it.”
Nixon moved to Rapid City last year to work as an entomologist at South Dakota State, and was soon confronted with an overwhelming public need for bedbug services. Bedbugs were nearly untraceable in the U.S. 10 years ago, but changes in pesticides and international travel have led to mass outbreaks in the past few years.
That’s why Nixon teamed up with a friend, Kevin Paul, and Blue, to form a company called Bugger Off. Dogs are about 98% accurate in detecting bedbugs. Blue’s olfactory system is so precise that he can even smell a single fertile egg.
Bedbugs are tiny and can be difficult to locate. Adult insects only grow to about a quarter of an inch long. But they leave droppings, small brown spots, and eggs, little white spots. These can usually be found in mattress seams and behind headboards. The marks they leave on the body appear as tiny red welts. Even with infestation, these tell-tale clues are not always present.
Chemical companies can be hired to detect and destroy bedbugs, but that can be very costly, time-consuming and ineffective. Often times when exterminators eliminate the bugs from one room, they just move to another.
“They have to be pretty targeted when they’re spraying,” Paul said. “It’s hard to get rid of (bedbugs) just because they like to get into very small areas. They can be dormant for months and months on end.”
Nixon said chemical companies typically spray around the edges of a room, “but these insects are really really smart,” he said. “They started finding bedbugs in the center of the carpet, away from the treated wall edges.”
Blue and the guys check houses, apartments and hotels. While Bugger Off doesn’t perform exterminations, they can refer customers to companies that can. Landlords can use Blue to check apartments between tenants, and homebuyers can make sure their potential purchases aren’t infested.
Recently, Blue was employed to inspect the luggage of a family who, in the course of moving, had to stay in temporary lodgings that were full of bedbugs. Their new landlord insisted the family be cleared of the insects before moving in.
“I felt like I had a contagious disease,” said Vivian, who would only give her first name. “But I could understand where they’re coming from.”
Blue’s service runs at about $300 per hour, which is less than the going rate for detection in large cities. It still sounds expensive, but this may save people from unnecessary spending on toxic chemicals if it turns out they do not have bedbugs. For many, it is well worth the peace of mind.