Imagine you’re a bedbug—a creepy nocturnal creature, maybe no bigger than an apple seed, that craves human blood. Times are good for you right now in North America. DDT once rendered your species a distant memory, a revolting relic found only in children’s rhymes. But you’ve evolved immunity to the short-lived, environmentally friendly insecticides of today, and you’re on the march. So where would you prefer to nest and spread your progeny? You’d look for a communal setting, one where people are frequently moving and swapping furniture. Tidiness is a minus; substance-induced inertia a plus. The ideal host population would include sheltered young people who have never seen a bedbug or learned to recognize its excreta.
“Universities are in the line of fire,” declares Don McCarthy, president of Braemar Pest Control in Bedford, N.S., and board member of the Canadian Pest Management Association. “You’ve got transient populations. You’ve got a lot of the social aspects that come with being at university—your buddies come over and sleep over; everybody’s going back and forth to parties and study sessions. There is not a major university anywhere in North America that does not know this is a major problem, whether or not they have it.”
There is no evidence bedbugs can transmit disease, and their whole modus operandi is to be noticed as little as possible. But news of their presence can ward off visitors and clients as effectively as any plague—as retailers are discovering in New York City, where flagship stores for franchises such as Niketown and Victoria’s Secret have had to close temporarily to address infestations, and as Toronto learned in August when a mere Internet whisper had Toronto International Film Festival organizers double-checking venues.
News of on-campus infestations occasionally slips through to public notice. Ryerson University in Toronto has had intermittent problems dating back to at least 2006. The same is true of the University of Alberta, which had to evacuate and treat the entire 20-storey Newton Place residence in 2008. McGill was hit tornado-fashion in 2007 and 2008, with New Residence Hall, MORE House, and Solin Hall all affected. The University of Calgary admits to a steady “one or two cases per year,” according to spokesman Grady Semmens. Humber College in Toronto is following up a positive finding last month with a campus-wide sweep of residences using bedbug-detecting dogs.
At Simon Fraser University, bug-sniffer dogs have become a familiar sight; the school uses them pre-emptively, checking every residence once a year shortly after the start of classes. “SFU has not been immune to the bedbug problem,” says Chris Rogerson, associate director of residence life. “No multi-unit housing provider is.”
But Rogerson emphasizes that universities enjoy advantages that private apartments or social housing don’t. “Universities have departments like mine whose job is to educate tenants, dispel myths and misconceptions, and organize quick reactions to problems,” he observes. “We encourage early reporting, and our attitude is, address the bug, not the person.” That’s why the dogs are brought in after the students arrive. “We don’t get into saying, ‘Well, the unit was clean before you got here.’ The best defence is to make sure there’s no stigma attached, so students don’t decide to suffer in silence.”
Routine pre-emptive inspections are becoming part of the arsenal for many schools, according to Mike Goldman, owner of Toronto’s Purity Pest Control and a pioneer of bedbug training for dogs. “Universities have to deal with students, but ultimately they also have to deal with parents,” says Goldman. (Some of those parents may be worried about secondary infestations acquired on home visits; bedbugs aren’t avid travellers, but they can be transmitted in laundry or other personal effects, a potential worry as thousands head back home for Thanksgiving weekend.) “Nobody wants to get the ‘What kind of school are you running over there?’ call.” Dogs can detect live bedbugs super-accurately, but Goldman says they work better when students are given advance notice to tidy up and minimize distraction. “They’re bedbugs,” he says. “The dog and I have to be able to get to the bed.”