Lou Sorkin is an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History. He is a beloved, indispensable figure for many New Yorkers struggling with bed bugs. You can see his incomparable photographs here. The NYT recently did a nice piece.
Lou answered our questions via email.
New York vs Bed Bugs: You talk to many New Yorkers, thousands I’m sure by now, who are struggling to cope with bed bugs. What are some of the issues that they are concerned about and seek your advice on?
Lou Sorkin: People wonder if they can trust canine detection especially if the dog is owned by the pest control company. How can different dogs working in the same apartment give different answers. Basics on what to do if an infestation is discovered. Also want to bring in collected insects or various materials for identification. In doing so, some other insects or mites have been identified and it’s comforting to people to have bird or rodent mites rather than bed bugs living in their apartment!
Most people are not equipped to deal with bed bug infestations because they have been “spoiled” by normal pests such as cockroaches, ants, beetles, moths. A bed bug infestation requires more physical involvement on behalf of the homeowner or tenant, something they are not used to doing in combatting other pests. Of course, the expense is also one thing that people also are not equipped to handle, but it is more labor intensive and it does disrupt your life and you don’t want it to happen multiple times.
The managing agents or owners have to realize that treating one complaint (or apartment) at a time is not the way to go. It will be more expensive in the long run. I’ve worked with coop & condo boards, too, who are wrestling with the problems involved with bed bug infestation.
New York vs Bed Bugs: What do you think might be essential components of an education campaign for the city? I know you feel very strongly about identification of nymph stages and the problem of an inaccurate search image.
Lou Sorkin: That’s true. Even at the EPA meetings and the news coverage, images of adults were typically shown as “the bed bug”. Need to educate the public that bed bugs are not always 1/4 inch long and reddish brown in color. A newly hatched nymph is 1/32 inch long and pale to white in color. The thickness of a credit card is about the length of a newly hatched bed bug nymph. If you have the wrong search image, you have an infestation that you cannot locate by visual means alone.
When there are public lectures of some sort at the museum, I have bed bugs in addition to the spiders and insects that are normally shown to people. On occasion, I’ve attached the microscope camera to my laptop and show the live colonies on a large plasma screen for the audience. I’ve taught in the elementary schools and at the Science and Nature program at the Museum various sections on biology of insects and spiders and also bed bugs because children may know more about what’s crawling about than their parents do. I’ve also spoken to physicians about insects and arachnids and, of course, bed bugs so they understand about the various bite reactions one can experience that could very well not fit the “textbook” view that they probably learned in college.
New York vs Bed Bugs: What else should we do to combat bed bugs? I know you have thoughts on the high volume of discarded infested furniture and mattresses.
Lou Sorkin: I can’t understand why in a city like New York (or other cities, for that matter) people throw so much stuff away that could be treated. Why hasn’t a business materialized that collects the furniture, mattresses, box springs, and treats these objects to kill all the bed bugs and eggs. Heat treatment, true fumigation all will work. Mattresses and box springs can be recycled (the mattress and box spring can be dismantled according to the rep from the bedding industry who spoke at the NYC city hall meeting) or why not properly treated (my opinion, not industry rep’s, if in good shape) and covered (with correct encasement). Mattresses and box springs in perfect shape can be encased by the tenant or homeowner. The treated furniture can be dismantled and washed down and reassembled and resold. Can even use dogs to assess before reselling. The money from the sold goods can be reinvested into the funds needed to help people who cannot afford bed bug treatment. The furniture can be given to those who need it.
People feel that pest control industry is making so much money on bed bug treatment and I’m sure many in the industry would donate a small percentage to a fund that could use the donations to fund research, public service announcements, assist in bed bug remediation for those who have trouble affording it, assist people who need help in readying the home for bed bug treatment. The industry is really not limited to pest management but also mattress encasement manufacturers, do-it-yourself companies, in fact, all related businesses that profit from bed bugs.
New York vs Bed Bugs: Perhaps you can tell us about the infestations you are called on, the difficult ones that will always pose a challenge.
Lou Sorkin: The difficult infestations are usually those that have been overlooked and have grown to large ones and ones that have crawled into adjoining apartments (in the case of multi-family dwellings). Part of it is attributable to the tenant(s) not knowing what is going on either due to that person’s mental state, age, or who really needs social services in general. People have the wrong idea about bed bugs and do not want to report the infestation for fear of alerting others that he/she is “dirty” or that other tenants will be angry or the landlord will evict him/her. All of this and more prevents early detection. Also management agents who rely on tenants to alert them to bed bug infestations are notified when the infestations are already entrenched in the apartment or building. They have to be proactive, use early dectection techniques, including canine detection. When an infestation is located, examination of adjacent apartments is crucial to controlling the problem. Treating that one apartment for the infestation may only control the infestation in that apartment or it could soon be reinfested by bugs from adjacent apartments.
One cannot rely solely on pesticide treatment, something people probably have with respect to cockroaches and ants and the use of baits. IPM approach to pest management is required and sealing and closing access points is important for bed bug control. Washing/drying or just drying clean clothes and isolating these prior to treatment is important. Also don’t surf the Internet and buy potentially ineffective or dangerous controls because you feel completely helpless. Bedbugger.com is one site that provides good information and discussion and up-to-date reports from around the world on bed bugs.
New York vs Bed Bugs: Where do you come down on the controversial question of whether additional training is necessary for pest control technicians?
Lou Sorkin: Yes, I think that specialized training classes are needed for technicians. Maybe some do not want to give away their secrets and not give competitors the upper hand. Some PCOs tell me that they are often contacted when others have already done the work and have not taken care of the problem. I’ve taken recertification courses in various aspects of pest control over the years and there are extremely knowledgeable teachers and there are not. All have provided the NYS DEC with course information to register the course and I don’t know if any have ever been rejected, but should have been in my estimation. Maybe it looks good on paper, but the actual presentation is lacking any worthwhile content. The teacher gets paid by the people taking the class, the students receive CE credits, but they haven’t learned much at all or have learned incorrect information. A good class with input from pest control personnel and entomologists can be made as a standard, perhaps. Also on the subject of classes, hotel personnel, superindents, realty agents, dormitory staff, school staff, hospitals, medical offices, general business maintenance personnel should be taught to look for telltale signs, though this is not restricted to actual bugs, but also shed skins, eggs, and fecal drops, in order to locate infestations early and institute surveillance and remedial action.
Detection dogs are also recertified regularly and people should check that out with the company that handles the dogs. Handlers gain knowledge with experience and also time with their dog and will learn more about dog behavior as they go. It is also extremely important that the handler mark and later return to places where there have been alerts. The canine inspection process should not be one where the dog alerts and the handler and dog leaves you with a bill. The dog is alerting and telling you where to look. The area in question (whether it is a piece of furniture or pile of clothes, and so on) must be examined to reveal bed bugs. There may be other insects, it could be a false positive. The recertification process tests the dogs in many ways: if a dog fails, it has to be retaught.
New York vs Bed Bugs: Tell us about the EPA meeting. Did you find it productive? Can a course of action be settled on amid such diverse and sometimes conflicting interests?
Lou Sorkin: It was a productive meeting because there were diverse and conflicting interests. The forum was open and people could voice their opinions and could be heard: there was no judging.
In attendance were people and researchers associated with many different avenues of bed bug research and control, so there was available much knowledge from all of them. The 275-300 attendees were divided into 10 groups in order to discuss the issues and come up with answers to questions. The answers were amazingly similar from the workgroups and these were presented to all on the last day of the conference.
Since there are many disciplines involved with bed bugs, some of which are not immediately identified with infestations, all can assist in combatting bed bug infestations.