In early 2007, during an interview with Dockwalk magazine, Peg Nusser of Lady Bug Pest Control warned readers that bedbugs were making a comeback. Fast forward to 2011, and tales of bedbug infestations in metropolitan areas have commanded headlines in major media publications around the world. Is Nusser the yachting industry’s Nostradamus? Maybe not, but she knows a thing or two about bugs, and the first step in battling bedbugs is to know a little bit about these nasty creatures.
Bedbugs will occupy just about any warm, dark place they can find, and they tend to thrive once they take hold near their favorite food source — a sleeping human. With a supply of human blood nearby, bedbugs have been found living not only under the linens, mattress and box springs of the bed but also in walls, furniture, under wall plates, in cabinets, even under wallpaper and floorboards.
For their size, bedbugs are fast. After dark, they come out of their hiding places to feed on a human host; they inject an anticoagulant to facilitate the flow of blood during feeding, which results in angry looking red bumps that tend to accumulate around the legs, arms, shoulders and waist of the host. Unlike their blood-sucking distant relative, the mosquito, bedbugs are not known to transmit disease — that’s the good news. The bad news is that once bedbugs have taken hold, they multiply quickly and getting rid of them is very difficult.
With our meticulous expectations of cleanliness, we like to think that the yachting industry is immune to these creatures. Not so, says Nusser, who has seen bedbug infestations on boats for years.
“Typically, when I see bedbugs on boats, they are in the crew areas,” she explains. “Crew are at greater risk of picking up bedbugs because of the way they travel. It’s likely that they pick up bedbugs in their luggage either in a cargo hold of a plane, in a crew house or in a hostel.” Although bedbugs are more likely to inhabit less sanitary or rundown venues, they also have been found in five-star hotels, posh clothing stores and movie theaters. They are, literally, everywhere.
And they come with a stigma — there is an assumption that those who are bitten are somehow unclean and so victims tend to go into denial or try to hide the infestation. “This is particularly true for crew,” says Nusser. “I saw one instance where crew had been traveling and staying in hostels for some time before coming on the boat. With everyone carrying soft luggage, it’s easy to pick up bedbugs and when you unpack the bag, where do you put it? Usually in a void right under your bunk is just where the bedbugs want to be.
“In this particular case, they were aware that they had a bedbug problem, but tried to fix it themselves for fear of being fired for having them. Every day they would vacuum the room hoping to get rid of the bugs.” Although it’s easy to find dozens of websites that suggest a vacuum is a viable tool for fighting bedbugs, Nusser does not agree. “Once you have bedbugs on the boat, you need to have it fumigated. There are just too many places for them to hide; you are not going to get rid of them on your own. In this case, a new chief stew came aboard the boat and immediately recognized the bites on the crew. The boat was fumigated and the problem was solved.”
Symptoms of bedbugs typically are obvious. The bedbugs themselves resemble a brown tick and they can grow up to a quarter inch. Angry red bumps that appear overnight are a good indication that you may have a problem. Even if you do not find any bedbugs, look for signs of their excrement on bedding and linens — bedbug scat can resemble small rust stains or flecks of mildew.
Nusser suggests several preemptive measures for keeping the bedbugs at bay. Unpack bags on the dock after traveling or when new crew come aboard. Empty luggage should be stored in sealed white garbage bags. The bags will contain any bedbugs that may be present and when you retrieve them, you’ll be able to see any bugs that may have fallen off against the white background. Before clothing is put away, run them through the dryer’s high heat cycle. Bedbugs are killed by high heat (temps over 45°C).
However, if bedbugs do take hold on the boat, it’s unlikely that you will be able to get rid of them on your own. Because boats are always on the move, the most aggressive treatment — fumigation – is going to be the best option for effectively ridding your boat of these tenacious little bloodsuckers.