Judy Black, vice president of quality assurance and technical services for Rollins, spoke at PCT’s 2020 Virtual Bed Bug Conference on the topic of lessons learned in the bed bug trenches.
Prior to working for Rollins, Black was vice president of technical services for Rentokil North America since 2015 and for The Steritech Group from 2005 to 2015. Black has more than 30 years of practical industry experience and has been working in the field since bed bugs’ reappearance in the early 2000s. At the height of the bed bug resurgence, Black’s team developed inspection and treatment techniques for commercial accounts, including hotels, health-care buildings, government sites, and non-traditional spots like transportation facilities and movie theaters.
Black’s presentation at the 2020 PCT Virtual Bed Bug Conference covered topics such as learning the basics, making control progress, working on the fly, fine tuning an approach and moving forward.
“This (presentation) really forced me to take a look back at that time period in our industry that was really as confusing as it was exciting,” Black said.
Black started with a timeline of events, stating that PMPs began seeing bed bugs residentially in multi-unit dwellings in 2003 and in detached homes from 2004 to 2006. She also said that the media began covering the bed bug issue in 2005, adding fuel to an already raging fire.
The four topics in which Black categorized the lessons she learned were (1) bed bug biology, (2) effective products, (3) business models and (4) hotel operations. Each category highlights issues and changes that she was able to learn from and share with the event’s attendees.
BED BUG BIOLOGY. When it comes to bed bug biology, some of the most important lessons learned were in regards to the industry’s understanding of bed bug survival time without a meal, dispersion, how bed bugs feed in “nature,” pesticide resistance and population dynamics. Within each of the topics, Black discussed what she learned and experienced over time.
“The lesson I’ve learned is that if you don’t really understand your enemy, you’re going to have a tough time developing the best scope of service possible to be able to get rid of it,” Black said.
One example of gained knowledge Black cited was how old reports claimed bed bugs could go a year without a blood meal, but that was in optimal lab conditions. New research confirmed that in the field, neither nymphs nor adults could survive that long. Additionally, she talked about how, originally, a lot of studies were focused on traumatic insemination as it was believed to be what was making the pests disperse; however, it was later discovered that was not the single cause. Black also explained that bed bugs are opportunistic feeders and, therefore, although they only need to feed every five to seven days, that is not a hard and fast rule.
HOTEL CUSTOMERS. Another major topic that Black covered was hotel operations, in which she shared lessons she learned about why guests do not always notice bed bug infestations. Some of the reasons included: it takes a long time for populations to build to noticeable levels and a guest’s length of stay is limited; there are variations in bite reactions; and bed bugs have a secretive and nocturnal nature. Black said she thinks variations in bite reaction are the most important reason infestations are not reported earlier, because not every guest will know they were bitten.
In her discussion of hotel guests, Black reviewed hotel cleaning operations and the processes the company went through in treating for bed bugs. She noted that housekeepers are paid by the room so the quicker they cleaned, the more they got paid. In order for housekeepers to spend time looking for bed bugs, Black said her company encouraged customers to pay a bounty for each housekeeper who reported a bed bug issue.
“We just had this explosion in bed bug reports,” she said. “And, frankly, I think the same Ziploc bag was just being transferred around by housekeepers to report. So, the whole bounty thing just didn’t work.”
Therefore, through trial and error, Black learned what does and does not work in encouraging hotel workers to report bed bugs. She noted it was simply additional education that led to earlier reporting from customers/the public. Also, Black explained how in the early stages of bed bug work, the company she was working for was having the hotel discard any mattresses and box springs that were infested with bed bugs. Since hotels at the time were willing to do so, it did not seem like a major issue. However, when a large number of rooms were infested, all of those rooms would be out of service until the mattresses and box springs were replaced. With a lack of other products and techniques, this was an easy way to get rid of bed bugs, but they later learned it was not efficient.
“We just didn’t have the variety of materials and methods that we’ve got now to be able to treat and be as effective as we are now,” Black said.
SHARING KNOWLEDGE. After discussing bed bug basics, hotel operations, and how such knowledge or lack thereof impacted the way pest control companies approached bed bug treatment, Black transitioned into a discussion on how progress was made.
“A lesson learned here from that bed bug resurgence trench, so to speak, was that you have got to keep up with your trade journals,” she said.
She explained that, over time, keeping up with industry publications, research and news helps in product and treatment development and leads to an increase in overall knowledge about the pests. Black explained that her company’s first step to understanding bed bugs was through university researchers.
“They were absolutely critical in helping give us these pieces of information that helped us develop protocols or ensure that our protocols were the right choices,” Black said.
Despite receiving research results from third parties, pest management companies began to realize that such organizations might not be capable of looking at some of the questions that they had about bed bugs. So, taking matters into their own hands, Black’s company began conducting some of its own research. Some of the questions they aimed to answer included: How common was it for a hotel to have a bed bug issue? How extensive is the bed bug issue within the hotel? Is it worthwhile to inspect rooms surrounding the infested room? Are there signs of pesticide resistance?
Throughout the process of conducting such research, the company looked at about 700 mid-range hotels that represented about 75,000 rooms. After collecting seven years of data, Black’s results showed that from 2006 until 2009, the number of properties that required treatment increased by 105.7 percent. Out of the total number of locations, 200 did not require treatment, which helped to show the company how prevalent bed bug issues were in hotels, Black said.
Additionally, data showed from 2006 to 2009 the number of rooms treated increased by 130 percent. Despite this increase, most rooms did not need to be treated. Only 1.93 percent of the 75,000 rooms were treated in 2009. Black explained that such data debunked the media’s claim that travelers could not go to a hotel without interacting with bed bugs.
As far as treatments, Black explained the process of providing service to primary and secondary rooms. A primary room is one with bed bugs and secondary rooms are above, below, to the left and to the right of the primary room. Black’s company would inspect each of the secondary rooms and, if bed bugs were found, that room would then become a primary room, and so on.
From 2003 to May 2006, Black shared that 19.7 percent of secondary rooms were reclassified as primary rooms but, by 2009, that statistic dropped to 8 percent. Black credits this progress to education.
“I think that the decrease was definitely due to the fact that people were becoming educated and reporting earlier,” Black said.
Black also explained that their clients became experts at looking for bed bugs and communicating problems, and even began hiring the company for proactive, routine inspections.
CHEMICAL APPLICATIONS. In addition to positive results of increased inspection education, Black said the industry better understood pesticide resistance, a lesson that propelled her company to greater success in managing the pests. Black explained that from 2003 to 2005 there were low retreatment rates but, in 2006, those rates spiked drastically. To determine if the problem was resistance to the synthetic pyrethroids they were using, Black said the firm switched to a completely different class of liquid residual and also used a new class of dust. By adding in a residual aerosol, encasements and vacuuming, the company employed improved IPM practices. As a result, there was a significant drop in retreatment rates in 2007 and 2008, she said.
“The conclusion that we came to was that we were doing the right thing essentially as far as our inspections, but from a resistance standpoint, we needed to be a lot smarter than that,” Black said.
As a result, Black said they learned to fine-tune their approach.
“I think it’s a valuable lesson to see that the way we’re doing things now is not really how we did it back in 2005,” Black said.
As the company continued learning how to best approach resistance, some of the university research Black and her team relied on was that bed bugs evolved nerve axons that were not compatible with pyrethroids; they evolved to be “efficient detoxifiers” and they evolved “thicker” chitin. Black discussed areas of increased focus such as location of bed bug activity in hotel rooms and the concept of introduction versus infestation.
As Black showed a diagram of the top five places for bed bugs to be found in a hotel room (the number one location being the box spring), she said that her own initial thought that the headboard would be the number two location was incorrect.
“That was my own personal observation, which is a lesson learned,” Black said. “Nationwide data isn’t always going to support your limited personal observations.”
Back in the early stages of the resurgence, it was common to find hotel headboards with 500+ bed bugs. These situations were examples of infestations, which Black said was a concept the industry had not thought much about in the early stages of the bed bug resurgence compared to introductions.
“At first we were scrambling just trying to kill bed bugs,” Black said. “And I think as time went on, we started thinking about this concept of introduction versus infestation and how can we actually stop that introduction from becoming an infestation.”
Black recognized that one way she learned how to limit infestations was through proactive treatments, but such treatments were not as practical in the early stages of bed bug work.
“I would say we didn’t really have the products, the chemicals that people felt would work as a proactive treatment,” Black said. “Whereas now I think that we do have some products that do hold up well.”
Looking forward, Black listed a variety of tools that the pest control industry now has that they did not have in 2005. Such tools include more educated PMPs with detailed visual inspection and proactive treatment capabilities; educated clients and a growing segment of the public who communicate and report early; more effective pesticides and heat treatments; canine scent detection; and monitors.
“We have a lot more tools available to us now,” Black said.
In conclusion, Black said it’s important that pest management firms continue to evolve. They can drive growth via new service offerings like disinfection services many have offered throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, like she did with bed bugs in the 2000s.
“I have no doubt there is going to be some learning as we go and some fine tuning as we move forward,” Black said.