Although bed bug complaints and violations were said to be in decline last year, exterminator Bill Swan isn't buying it. According to Swan, NYC's bed bug epidemic is still raging, and he attributes the drop in complaints to an increasing number of New Yorkers essentially giving up, sticking an apple in their mouths and tying themselves to spits for the bed bugs armies to feast upon.
In a lengthy interview with Swan, he shared some of his craziest bed bug horror stories with us, and also explained why it doesn't work to try to get rid of them on your own. To that end, he wanted us to spread the word that his company, NYC Pest Control, is running a special this month! Any one-bedroom apartment qualifies for a $275 treatment, which Swan says is "a phenomenal price." Tell 'em Gothamist sent you for a free bed bug fart detector! (Kidding.)
In the past few years, have you gotten more calls about bed bugs or fewer calls? More. But the one thing I do see is that people are starting to raise their level of acceptance with these bugs. I’m finding them all over.
What does that mean, “raise their level of acceptance?” Well, when these were first starting, it was like alarms were going off. People were, “AAGH, I’ve got bed bugs!” Now it’s like, “Eh, I’ve got a couple of bed bugs.” It seems like they’re becoming a little more nonchalant, like an occasional roach or something.
So what’s the difference, in terms of threat level, between the occasional roach and a couple of bed bugs? Well, the occasional roach would be in your kitchen by a water source, eating your food and things like that. The few bed bugs would be eating YOU. They’re parasites. They feed off human blood.
How concerned should people be? If you just have a few, is it worth paying an exterminator hundreds of dollars? Why can't you kill them yourself? When people try to self-exterminate, they’re not taught how to find cracks and crevices. It’s very small details you’ve gotta pay attention to when you spray. You tend to make them spread.
(Courtesy Bed Bug Hotels)
Because once a pesticide is close to a bug, they will cross it, and they’ll scatter away from it. If they leave you and they can’t go back there, they end up going for your outlets or a hole in your ceiling where a light fixture is or something, and they’ll spread to other apartments. Or if you had them in the master bedroom, they’ll end up spreading to one of the smaller bedrooms.
What’s the worst job you’ve gone on? Ok, for me, I’ve come across a lot of different ones, but probably the one that was most shocking to me was when I was going to a single-room-occupancy to do a general treatment, for roaches and things like that. When I walked in, the gentleman was sitting on his couch, and his wall looked like it was covered in spots. And I’m staring at it, because it looked unusual to me, and I’m wondering why these spots looked like they were moving.
And when I got a little bit closer, there were hundreds and hundreds of bedbugs covering his wall behind his couch. I looked at the guy; he was chewed up, there wasn’t a spot on his face that didn’t have a bite on it. I said, “Sir. Look behind you." He said, “They’re cockroaches.” I said, “They’re not cockroaches, they’re bedbugs, and they’re eating you.”
The guy looked at me as calmly as you could imagine, and says, “In my religion, we don’t kill bugs. Just leave them alone.” Could you imagine? I swear to you. Then I had one other crazy incident happen down here off Atlantic Avenue by Long Island College Hospital. I go in for an evaluation for bedbugs, and I find bedbugs. So, the lady asks me about treatment options. I go over the chemical options, I go over some of the green options, and she says, “Well, would it be possible for you to just come in and vacuum them up and release them somewhere, because I don’t wanna see them harmed.”
I says, “Ma’am. There’s gotta be a candid camera on around here.” I says, “Do you really want me to vacuum them up and release them off in the park like they’re squirrels or something?” And she said, “Yeah.” And I says, “Ma’am. I’ve gotta go. I’ve gotta go.”
You have an incredible perspective on this scourge. I think that’s the word for it.
You are on the frontlines. I tell ya, I’ve come in where people have actually disputed that it’s a bedbug and then they squish it and sniff it right in front of me. And I find that a little gross. I mean, even though I’m an exterminator, I’m not gonna handle these bugs barehanded, unless it’s an emergency and I have to. These people willingly just squish them.
I’ve also come across some crazy barriers. This one guy had his bed up on buckets full of water, with double-sided tape all around his mattress. And then outside those buckets he had diatomaceous earth ringed around his bed. It was like a fence zone.
Diatomaceous what? Diatomaceous earth? It’s a natural dust.
And they can’t get across that? Well, an insect will naturally avoid a dust pile. It’s dangerous for them. They don’t have the ability to scab. If they cross the dust, it can clog them up, they also breath on the sides of their body. It’s a potential hazard for them so they naturally try to avoid it. But the funny part about this story is the bugs were just crawling right up the wall. You could see their fecal matter, the little black spots, going up and down the wall, across the ceiling, and they were just dropping down on his bed.
Oh my God. Yeah, I mean, you gotta realize one thing. The adaptability of all these bugs is amazing. Talk about chemical resistance. We are humans and we don’t build up chemical resistance. These bugs build up a chemical resistance if they’re not sprayed right, and the next generation will be able to survive a spraying. That’s why we’re constantly changing our chemicals.
What I spray your apartment with on the first shot, won’t be the same when I spray it on the second shot. It’s just to try to make sure there’s no crossover in the chemical usage. But in this particular guy’s case, he was literally losing his mind. Saying he couldn’t sleep. He was just losing his mind. And when I pointed out the trail going up the wall to him, he couldn’t imagine it. It was a little comical but sad at the same time. Ya know, you feel bad that...
He had buckets of water around his bed? He had his bed sitting on buckets that were filled with water.
Okay. And then along the edge of his mattress—he didn’t have a box spring—along the edge of his mattress he had double-sided tape ringed all around. And then outside those buckets in a circular motion around the bed, he had the diatomaceous earth.
And they still found a way around that. Sure. They crawled up the wall and dropped on him.
The problem is, they attack you in that one part of your day when you’re supposed to be able to rest and recharge. Right. I truly believe the biggest thing with bed bugs is that they become a psychological issue for most people. And even months and months after they’re successfully gone, any spot triggers this “What is that?” And the preparation that’s involved in eradicating these pests is also a very labor-intensive process. People don’t really wanna go do that two or three times. I mean, I’ve had people tell me 'they’re only bedbugs, don’t worry about them.'
And what do you say to that? Most of these people are foreigners. What can you say to that? When you tell me you know it’s a bedbug and don’t worry about it, you see, one of the things they tell me when you become an exterminator, is acceptance levels. When I go into your home, you may have an occasional roach running around and you’re fine with that. Whereas if you go into the next person’s home, a single roach means a full, blown-out cleaning and spray everything from the roof to the basement. So they’re all different acceptance levels. Which is what I was saying here earlier. People are now starting to raise their acceptance levels with these pests. I’m fully aware that the statistics say that bedbug reporting is going down in New York, but I don’t honestly see that. I truly don’t.
You think that instead of bedbugs going down, people are accepting them more and reporting them less? Yes, and also self-treating. See, the deal with bedbugs is, they bite every 3-5 days. Okay? And, if you get bit once or twice, you write it off to a spider or mosquito or rash, but after a few times, you notice a pattern, and you start seeing them. Any store you go into—a hardware store, a Home Depot—everybody has bedbug spray out there. These people buy ‘em and they wanna spray themselves. So what happens is you will kill a few of the bugs that are right near you. Then the eggs hatch ten days later, they come for you, and you end up buying another spray. People are using a control method for these pests when these pests need to be eliminated. Cockroaches, rodents, we utilize control. You're never gonna totally get rid of cockroaches and rodents from everywhere. But bedbugs is zero-tolerance for control. It has to be zero.
Is there anything you think the city needs to do? Should DDT be made legal again for this specific purpose to get this under control? What needs to change? DDT will eliminate these bedbugs; if you look at the WW2-era they were almost eradicated. What needs to change is one, education. My biggest thing is landlords are very reluctant to do everything they need to do. If you live in the middle apartment, you’re supposed to check the one on the left, the one on the right, above and below you, and landlords are very reluctant to do that for several reasons. One, they don’t want to alarm fellow tenants, and they don’t want the extra cost involved in having to treat other apartments. It’s a fairly expensive process and let’s face it, people with the most money are usually the cheapest people out there. Isn’t it the truth?
Absolutely. I mean, I see landlords saying they want to throw people out because they’ve got bedbugs. How absurd is that? Nobody purposefully brings them home that I know of.
And what do you do to protect yourself so you don’t bring bedbugs back to your home? Well, everybody asks me that question, and the truth of the matter is, I’m not afraid to bring a bedbug home, I’m more afraid of roaches and things like that coming home with me. Bedbugs don’t jump, they crawl. And I’m going into an apartment assuming that there are bedbugs, so I’m not gonna sit down and make myself comfortable, and I’m not gonna let your property touch me. Part of my preparation sheet states that mattresses and other items have to be standing already, because if you’ve got to pick up a queen size mattress, obviously it’s going to come across your body. But if it’s standing up against the wall I’m shifting it left and right. So I don’t personally have a fear of bringing bedbugs home as I would other pests.
Have you ever had to treat any fancy clients that people wouldn’t ordinarily expect to have bedbugs? My old company, yes, they had a maintenance program for hotels and they would treat as needed. Hotels are very simple, because there’s only a bed and when there’s nobody in there, there’s no preparation involved. It’s just spray everything around. But people may be surprised to hear that I’ve done a lot of dialysis centers. I’ve done a lot of waiting areas in doctor’s offices. And, with my old company, we exterminated a lot of ambulances.
But the worst is when I see children and the elderly suffering from an infestation. I'll tell you, personally it torments me when I see people are being bit, and their parents do not take the necessary action. And the same goes for the elderly. It’s usually extremely infested by the time you find out elderly people are being bit. Because either they're desensitized or they’re not noticing it, for whatever the reasons are, and it’s extremely heartbreaking to me when I see old people getting bit and you know, either they have no family or their family don’t really care. Schools are a bit of a farce.
How is that? Well a bedbug that’s usually found in a school is usually a hitchhiker. He got on somebody’s clothes or their backpack, got to school and got out. He’s gonna go right next to the next human he finds and he’s gonna go there. He’s not gonna live in your school. I've probably exterminated one hundred schools and I’ve never found an infestation. But if a bedbug is found and it’s identified, they want to treat. So, that’s another one. The kids that go home are the ones that have to worry. Who’s the lucky lotto winner that went home with that bug? It’s the truth.