Bedbug callouts spike nearly 200 per cent but is it all in our minds?

Rentokil saw a 196 per cent increase in callouts last month – but only a 65 per cent increase in confirmed bedbug activity

Barney Davis
Monday 13 November 2023 04:34 GMT
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The frontline fight against bedbugs

Callouts to tackle bedbugs are up almost 200 per cent since last year as panicked Britons fear the bloodsucking insects have taken over their homes.

Exterminators Rentokil said staff had seen a 196 per cent increase in bedbug callouts in October 2023 compared to the year before – but only a 65 per cent increase in confirmed bedbug activity.

The spike comes after infestations were first reported in Paris where the critters took over the subway system.

Weeks later there were sightings across the UK, with children fleeing London libraries and people refusing to sit down on the Tube amid a spike in cases.

Professor Mary Cameron, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said that although no academic studies have been done to confirm whether there had been an increase in bedbugs in the UK, there was a perception of an increase.

Pest control firms have said that the spread of bedbugs is ‘out of control’ (Richard Naylor/PA)

She added: “You probably won’t get any disease from them, but the worst thing is, it’s probably going to cost money to get rid of them.”

With Covid-style rapid flow bedbug tests costing around £165, one manufacturer said it was a “big year” for the industry.

When The Independent joined a flat inspection, the woman inside had convinced herself her home was teeming with the critters. But David Cain, of Bed Bugs Ltd, who charges £75 for a callout, found nothing after flipping the bed and scanning her bedroom for just 10 minutes.

Ealing Library was forced to close after a bedbug infestation

Other exterminators say they have encountered cases of delusional parasitosis (DP) – a psychiatric condition where sufferers have the mistaken belief that they are infested by bugs, worms, or other creatures.

The disorder is most frequently seen in middle-aged, socially isolated women. JMSMA health journal reports that sufferers have taken drastic measures to liberate themselves from the imagined infestation, including quitting jobs, burning furniture, abandoning homes and using powerful pesticides dangerously.

Self-mutilation can occur in severe cases as people try to take samples of themselves to doctors and in others the patient’s medical history is convincing enough that family members can share their delusion.

David Cain is one of the few exterminators claiming he can ‘smell bedbugs’

The American Medical Journal says that actual infestation by bedbugs may produce psychological distress with violent nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, insomnia, anxiety, avoidance behaviours, and personal dysfunction.

Thomas Gath, 42, of Vermin8 pest control in Leeds, said he had been busy with calls from frantic customers.

He said: “They are more likely carpet beetles. You come in and check and there’s nothing at all. I do a full survey, I tell them there’s no sign of bedbugs anywhere.

Thomas Gath and his father David at Pest Tech 2023

“Last week this woman had come back from holiday and she was convinced she brought bed bugs back with her. But it was way too soon for them to show signs. She was adamant.

“I think it was mosquito bites myself but she had convinced herself it was bedbugs after reading the papers.”

He added: “I haven’t seen a rise in cases but I definitely have more calls. I might do three bedbug jobs a week but nine people ring me up.

“It doesn’t waste my time because I charge for the survey. I tell them if it is bedbugs I will take the survey off the price – they are so desperate they just do it.

“These tests cost £25 plus VAT and you have to pass that down on to the customer. I don’t even know how good they are.

“They can still detect bedbug activity for 90 days after you got them all. So that’s not ideal. Now I’m trying to train a dog to sniff them out instead.”

Patrick De Vos, from 1 ENV pest control, said: “We’ve seen a little increase in cases but more people just want security. They want monitoring products that can detect bedbugs.

“I went to Paris two weeks ago for an exhibition I got in my hotel room and obviously you are aware of it. The carpets have been ripped out, all the skirting boards are stripped down.

“They are no bedbugs now but you know they were there before. People think they travel on you but they travel in your suitcase.”

He added: “They can hide away and be dormant for a long time. They don’t overpopulate they go away from the bed hide in a crevice and then come back. They are clever.”

Tony King, owner of Pied Piper Pest Control, said they had been found in offices and cars, as well as homes.

“We’ve been inundated with calls about bedbugs – we’ve been flat out for at least the last eight or nine months with them,” he said.

He added that there was a “bedbug epidemic in west London”, with flats in Victorian houses being a particular source of cases.

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