I’m writing this because I’ve reached a point beyond its happening where I can look back without horror (mostly)–and even with some humor–and be glad for what I learned. I’m writing it also as a public service announcement because as this was happening to us and we were telling people, no one had ever heard anything like it. It’s one of those stories that’s hard to believe unless it happens to you. If the title isn’t enough of a spoiler, I’m going to jump right to the part where we have a happy ending that didn’t involve bed bugs, but everything we did before we found that out was done as though we did have bed bugs. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we didn’t have them. It’s just that it makes everything we went through doubly maddening. This is a bit of a long read, but if you hang in ’til the end, I think you’ll find it somewhat educational and (I hope) a little entertaining along the way.
During the first week of May, 2012, we discovered some little brown bugs in our apartment, almost exclusively in the master bedroom. It was early spring, so even though I hate bugs, I didn’t think much of it because there’s nothing unusual about bugs surfacing after a long winter. I’m not even sure what caused me to look any further into it, but I did and was horrified that what I was finding seemed to point to bed bugs. I killed the few that I found and for some reason I saved one in a baggie (pro tip: if you ever discover a suspicious bug, kill it good and dead but in a way that preserves it as best as possible. Many exterminating companies will charge you up to $50 for an inspection if they come and aren’t able to find any live bugs. If you have a sample, they will waive the fee. It can also come in handy if you need to submit a sample to a lab for testing, but that part comes later).
An exterminator came–the owner of the company himself. He did a complete inspection, found no live bugs and no evidence of infestation, but took one glance at our sample and gave us the bad news. At the time, we didn’t know how bad bad news is when someone tells you that you have bed bugs. We innocently took the several sheets of paper he handed us and probably nodded absently when told us that most of the work would be on our part. We had no idea what we were in for. He said we would need a minimum of 3 days to prepare our place for treatment. I cried and panicked when I read the list in full after he had gone.
If I remember right, it took Aaron and I working together the better part of 5 days to get ready. Think moving, only without the excitement of a new place waiting at the end. And having to remove all the switch plates and outlet covers in every room for the powdered chemical that will be puffed into each one. And moving all the furniture to leave a 3-foot area in front of the baseboards for easy-access chemical spraying (assuming you do a chemical treatment and not a heat treatment, in which case you’ll spend more money and do even more prep). And before packing everything away, put everything that can go in the dryer, into the dryer, for at least 25 minutes on high (extreme heat seems to be the only thing that’s guaranteed to kill these bastards) and everything that can’t go in the dryer into a plastic tub or sealed bag with a chemical strip and leave it there for 2-3 weeks. This means that every day during that time you dress out of a tub or plastic bag. This means that you have to have enough tubs or bags to put virtually everything you own into one, which means you have to spend a ton of money buying them if you don’t have them (we didn’t).
We had to take vacation days to prep and de-prep. And take a small loan from my mom and dad to afford the treatment itself and all the supplemental products you are convinced you must have because the bugs are coming for you, and you must protect yourself with special mattress covers and interceptor cups to go under the legs of the bed. You’ve had to argue with the landlord over whether they will pay for the treatment (they won’t). You’re vacuuming everything and then tossing the bag immediately into the outside trash and cleaning the inside of the vacuum and checking the roller for anything that might be a bed bug egg. You’re obsessed with whether there might be bugs in here or in there or in this or in that and what if you missed one and it was pregnant? You feel the shame of a leper and just as contaminated. You don’t allow anyone into your house.
You’re losing sleep because the bugs are coming for you. You move your bed away from the wall and get rid of the dust ruffle/bed bug super highway. The bugs appeared to be limited to the master bedroom, so I decided I would sleep better if I was in the dining room, where we moved our table out of the way and set up an air mattress. As an extra safeguard, Aaron diligently surrounded the air mattress with some jury rigged double-sided tape—a system that involved twisting duct tape in a complex pattern (see the blurry photo below). The bugs were coming for me and I wasn’t taking chances. I don’t like the idea that there is a bug out there that can survive outrageous conditions and is going to come while I’m sleeping, inject me quickly with a numbing agent so I don’t feel it sucking my blood for 10 minutes, and then leave me with itchy bites (yes, I learned way more than I need to know about these hideous creatures while we were going through our ordeal).
When you’ve gone through your prep and it’s finally the day of treatment, you feel some relief as the technicians arrive. You allow them to calm you and carry you through what they are going to do and answer your remaining questions (you’ve already been on the phone every day asking the poor office staff dozens of questions and you’re past the point of apologizing for it. They know. They’ve done this before). You leave your problem in what you hope are their capable hands. You go away for 4 hours and come back to the smell of chemicals but the knowledge that it’s over except for putting everything back (no small task but at least the worst is over and there are no bugs to come for you).
Until they come again the following spring, 2013. During the first week of May, just as before. I suppose it’s easy to look back and say that we should have asked questions at this point. But we didn’t. We had the opinion of an expert. He was the owner of a reputable exterminating company and had been in the business for years. He told us we had bed bugs and we believed him, bought all of his products, and paid him a lot of money to take care of our problem (they did give us a discount on our second treatment). When it happened again, I went into full prep mode—throwing things in the dryer, packing up tubs, and de-switch plating like a seasoned expert—before I even called the exterminator for an appointment.
The technician we had the second time around, though, didn’t give me the feeling of relative calm that the previous techs had. He accused us (rather rudely) of not being ready because a few things were still left unpacked (things that they had told me it was okay to leave unpacked). I was near tears as he called back and forth to the office to get the all clear to treat our place as we had it (“near tears” doesn’t fully describe my emotional state at that time. It was more like: I’m coming off year two, day five of bed bug treatment prep; I have had very little sleep and am under extreme stress, so this scrawny kid will damn well treat our place AS SCHEDULED or I will personally take him down!). I didn’t leave with the feeling of confidence that I’d had the previous year, but the treatment worked. We were bug free. Again.
Until 2014, the first week of May. At this point, we called in a different exterminating company so we could get another opinion because we didn’t understand how this could be happening at the same time every year. It seemed like something seasonal was going on. But we showed the new company the sample (I had a new sample and one from 2013), were told it’s definitely a bed bug, and we got ready to do it all for a third time. Until Aaron said to me, “What if it’s not a bed bug?” Even with everything that seemed out of place, I found myself questioning him. How could it be anything else? We’ve had two experts tell us it’s a bed bug. We’ve been treated two years in a row. Luckily, my librarian senses were tingling with Aaron’s question and I went into full research mode. I started with a simple Google search for “bed bug look alike.” A few things came up that definitely were not a match to what we had. Then I clicked on a link for “bat bug” and everything started falling into place.
It turns out there is a bug that looks EXACTLY like a bed bug to the naked eye. The only way you can tell these two apart is under a microscope. Something about one of them having longer hairs on their legs or something. I couldn’t be bothered with the science-y details at that point. All I knew is that we were onto something. I started calling the exterminating companies and they didn’t know anything about bat bugs. I looked up bed bug experts in Ohio. I found one at OSU. I called her. I e-mailed her. No response. I was desperate for information at this point. Finally I got someone on the phone who directed me to the C. Wayne Ellett Plant and Pest Diagnostic Clinic at OSU. The people there are the real heroes of this story and I still feel like I could kiss them. For the ridiculously small fee of $20 (by this time, I would have paid my weight in gold doubloons to get to the bottom of this), you can submit a sample to their lab and within a week they will let you know what you’re dealing with. Enter the precious samples I have been diligently collecting and saving for two years. I filled out their form, wrote a check, and packaged up our samples per their instructions.
Even though we now had a suspicion about what they were, the bugs were still coming for us (bat bugs will bite humans in the absence of a bat host and I had some bites–see another blurry photo below, which does a terrible job of showing the bites on top of my foot. I couldn’t be expected to take high quality photos during all this, could I?), so time was definitely a factor. I wasn’t about to put this precious cargo in the mail and risk our sample being lost or wait for it to be delivered. The lab is close enough that I could drive there myself, which I did without hesitation, ferrying my package as though it were the Hope Diamond or the Ark of the Covenant and not a smashed bug barely a half centimeter long. I gave the package to an appropriately lab-coated employee and was assured I would have results within a week to 10 days.
Within only a few days, we had an e-mail that still ranks among the best e-mails I’ve ever received. The message contained their official report, confirming that what we had were BAT bugs and not BED bugs! This meant a few things: 1.) We were not insane 2.) Treatment of these bugs is completely different than bed bugs and will require absolutely nothing of us and zero chemicals (yeah, we wish we had known this before we did bed bug treatments two years in a row. But…bygones). 3.) The landlords would have to pay for this treatment.
Armed with this information, we had our landlords contact an animal control company because if you have bat bugs it means you have (or have had) bats. The inspector came out and told us there was no evidence of bats. We continued to see a few bugs, so I made more calls and found a new animal control company (second opinions–always get one). Everything I had read said that if you have these bugs, there are bats somewhere. Sure enough, even though it was subtle, the second inspector found evidence of bats. It was a matter of waiting for fall and they could come seal everything over. (bats are protected and animal control has to wait until the babies are grown before closing up their roosting area). We saw no bugs in 2015 or 2016, but I still await the first week of May with some trepidation, hoping I don’t see that familiar little brown shape anywhere.
During all of this I did manage to find some things to be thankful for. I had called out to our friends and family for prayer and some answers came one night as I sat on my air mattress island and took comfort in the only thing I could at the moment–God and his word. I was doing a Bible study with friends that asked you to make a list of 3 things you were thankful for about a situation that was causing you stress or anxiety. Not just general things you were thankful for. Things you were thankful for about that situation. I started the exercise with a few superficial things and ended up with a notebook page filled front and back. I started with things like, “I’m thankful these bugs don’t move fast or fly and you can squish them easily” and moved onto “I’m thankful that my house will be deep cleaned and organized when this is over. And that my husband is a heavy hitter when it comes to deep cleaning. When’s the last time the inside of your dresser was vacuumed and dusted with Pledge?” I even ended up thankful that God was using the whole thing to bring out various character issues, knowing that that realization could end up strengthening our marriage and family.
There’s no denying that going through this has changed the way I see things. I don’t like sitting in waiting rooms or any other public seating area. I can’t fully enjoy staying at hotels or going to movies and I take certain precautions if I do (for quite a while, we would leave a change of clothes in the basement if we were going to the movies so that when we got back we could go straight downstairs and put our things in the dryer on high just in case). It took me more than a year after the first treatment to return to a thrift store because back in 2012 I thought that might have been how we got our “bed bugs.” I finally did go back but now I make sure to come home and put everything in the dryer on high first. Then I wash it and dry it normally.
Even though what we had turned out not to be bed bugs, I learned how widespread they are and I certainly know how horrific it is to treat them, so I never want to get them for real. I hope you never get them either, but if you think you have them, I’m happy to act as consultant. Remember that even the experts don’t know everything. Sometimes when something doesn’t seem right, it’s not. You probably know more than you think. Be your own expert when you need to be. Find some things to be thankful for, learn what you can, help someone else if they face what you did.