Thursday, July 26, 2001 | 11:15 a.m.
Infestations of bedbugs are on the rise nationwide, and a University of Florida researcher says Las Vegas provides an ideal environment for the tiny blood-sucking parasites: hotel rooms and tourists. Scientifically known as cimex lectularis, the insects hide during the day and come out at night to feed off sleeping humans.
Officials at the Clark County Health District said today they check for bedbugs when inspecting hotels, and the last major outbreak was about two years ago.
"Our hotel operators generally do a pretty good job," said Lon Empey, environmental health supervisor for the district. "And when they don't, we notice."
The insects, however, are "very good at hiding" and can go unnoticed even during routine checks, said Phil Koehler, an urban entomologist with the university's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Koehler's bedbug study was released Wednesday.
Bedbugs are being found more frequently in cities that have a high influx of international visitors from Europe, South America and Asia, where the insects are more common, Koehler said. Las Vegas has an estimated 36 million visitors each year and more than 125,000 hotel rooms.
"When people from overseas pack their luggage, they usually pack a few bedbugs," Koehler said in a telephone interview with the Sun. "The bedbugs stay behind, and the next guest in the room gets the benefits of the infestation."
Bedbugs are wingless, have a flat body and can reach a quarter-inch in diameter -- about the size of a ladybug. Their brown color darkens to mahogany-red immediately after feeding.
Bedbug bites can cause skin irritation, but the insects do not transmit disease. Some people discover small, itchy bumps and swelling after being bitten, although others have little or no reaction.
The bedbugs thrive on human blood, not dirt, so even upscale hotels can have infestations, Koehler said. Bedbugs can move from mattresses to drapes, baseboards, behind light switches and the seams of furniture, making it difficult to remove them after they have arrived. What's more, the insects can go six months without eating.
Koehler's research found increased bedbug reports at hotels in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and in his home state of Florida, which hosts nearly 20 percent of the nation's 51 million international visitors each year. Since 1991 pest controls have reported a tenfold jump in bedbug service calls in Florida, according to the Associated Press.
Bedbugs haven't been common in the United States since the pesticide DDT became widely used in the early 1940s. When DDT was banned in the early 1970s other chemicals, including pyretheroids, were brought in to replace it. For the past decade exterminators have become more cautious with sprays and have switched to less toxic techniques.
That's welcome news for people, Koehler said.
But it's also good news for the bedbugs, he said.
The pesky insects are probably more common than any one hotel manager in Las Vegas would like to admit, said William Pratt, curator of invertebrates at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Natural History at UNLV.
Pratt said he received a call from a Las Vegas hotel that had captured several insects in a room where guests complained of itchy skin. The insects turned out to be bedbugs, said Pratt, who wouldn't identify the hotel.
Still, it's likely Las Vegas won't have a problem such as Florida's, Pratt said. Las Vegas' hotels are busy year-round, which means the rooms are frequently cleaned, Pratt said. Florida's tourist season runs from late November to early April, which means light turnover in hotel rooms and more opportunity for bedbugs to settle in, he said.
"What a bedbug needs is undisturbed retreats," Pratt said. "Changing the sheets isn't enough, and it doesn't occur to people to lift the mattress and examine the bedsprings and crevices."
Shelley Mansholt, assistant vice president for public relations at MGM Mirage, said bedbugs have never been an issue at her company's hotels, in part because of the high occupancy rate and daily cleanings. Other hotels contacted by the Sun stated that bedbugs were not a problem. But bedbugs can plague houses and apartments as well, especially ones that are poorly built. Gerald Brown, service manager for Terminix in Las Vegas, said he has noticed an increase in calls from residents this past spring complaining about bedbugs. In several instances the customers were new arrivals and likely brought the bedbugs with them in furniture, Brown said.
Bedbugs are tough to eradicate entirely, even for professionals, Brown said.
"You have to get them where they hide, and that means you have to tear the room apart," Brown said.