It started with a few small, black bugs scurrying across the floor shortly after Gabrielle St. James moved into her Boynton Beach apartment in October. She didn’t think anything of it.
One night in January, she noticed one of the bugs on her couch. Then a second one.
“I opened up the cushions, and they were swarming everywhere,” she said.
To her dismay, an exterminator told her that her apartment was infested with bedbugs — a word she had heard only in the classic bedtime rhyme. Sleeping tight was no longer an option.
From five-star hotels to college dorm rooms and hospitals to the Empire State Building, the bedbug problem is a growing scourge across the country, and now it has come to roost in Palm Beach County.
They’re more than just pests. They can be tough to get rid of, cause itchy bites and even bring about social isolation for their victims.
John Miller, service manager for the family-owned pest control company JP Miller & Sons Services, which serves Broward and Palm Beach counties and the Treasure Coast, said more and more people are calling about bedbugs.
“Five years ago, we might have had a call about bedbugs once a year and we’d be like, ‘Wow, that’s strange,'” he said. “Two years ago, we’d get that call maybe once a month. Now it’s every single day, it seems.”
Miller said an average extermination costs about $200 per room, but it can vary widely.
Tim O’Connor, Palm Beach County Health Department spokesman, said he has seen an increase in calls about bedbugs during the past year, which doesn’t surprise him.
“Being the global society that we are, bedbugs can hitch a ride from New York very easily,” he said.
All the health department can do for residents is recommend a reputable exterminator, O’Connor said, because bedbugs haven’t been found to transmit disease.
The Environmental Protection Agency hosted its first bedbug summit last year. According to The Associated Press, one in every 15 people living in New York City battled bedbugs last year. When they took up residence in a movie theater in Times Square, the seats had to be replaced.
Even the Department of Defense is participating in a meeting about how to eradicate bedbugs in Ohio.
Bedbugs bite at night and, in vampire-like fashion, prefer human blood. They inject an anti-coagulant into the wound before feasting, which can cause the skin to itch and become swollen.
And they can be tough to get rid of. Propoxur, a pesticide, kills adult bedbugs and keeps killing newborns as they hatch, but the EPA banned it for in-home use in the 1990s.
Heat is a possible antidote. Washing sheets in very hot water can work, experts say. The University of Florida has developed a portable chamber big enough for a bed or dresser that gently heats until the bugs die.
Scientists aren’t sure what’s causing the recent resurgence, said Roberto Pereira, an associate research scientist with the University of Florida Entomology and Nematology Department. Two popular theories are an increase in global travel and the prohibition of potent pesticides such as DDT.
The critters were a big problem in the U.S. before World War II — thus the rhyme whose origin has been traced to Depression-era flophouses and even Spanish moss-stuffed beds of Colonial times.
Worse than the itch, victims in New York say, is the bite of social stigma.
Jeremy Sparig, of Brooklyn, told The New York Times that his friends and neighbors “don’t want to hug you anymore; they don’t want you coming over. You’re like a leper.”
Support groups have popped up on the Internet in which victims share their tales of itchy isolation.
These days, infestations are worth watching, Pereira said. In some cases, people have severe allergic reactions to the bites, and scratching them can lead to infections.
By the time St. James turned to professional help for her Boynton Beach apartment, the problem was so out of control that she put all her belongings in a trailer and moved in with her parents in Wisconsin while she figures out what to do next.
She claims that the bugs were there before she moved in. The owner of the apartment says she brought the bugs with her. The case is in court now.
Sally Apgar, an investigator with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County who is helping St. James, said she worked on several similar cases this summer.
“It was a first for me,” she said.
The stigma often keeps people from calling for help until the problem escalates, said Miller, the exterminator.
It often takes several treatments of heat and fumigation to eradicate the pests, he said. Two of his employees treated one sofa bed for 2 1/2 hours last week.
“People often associate bedbugs with unsanitary, rundown buildings, but that’s not the case,” Miller said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a five-star hotel. Bedbugs are found everywhere.”