WESTBROOK, Maine — “Find your B’s,” says Anthony Silva to Sherlock, a young beagle he’s leading through a home they’re inspecting.
Silva and Sherlock aren’t looking for drugs, explosives or other things normally associated with dog searches. Rather, the “B’s” they’re sniffing out are bedbugs.
As Sherlock scans the living room, he stops and scratches at a couch cushion, alerting on the scent of the pervasive parasite. Upstairs, in a bedroom, he hits on the edge of a mattress, too.
There’s bedbugs upstairs and down.
Luckily, Silva and Sherlock are on a training run, in the home of a fellow employee with Brunswick-based Modern Pest Services. The B’s Sherlock hit on were in vials that Silva had planted earlier.
Modern Pest Services, which has offices in Bangor, Augusta, Westbrook, Manchester, N.H., and Woburn, Mass., brought Silva and Sherlock on board earlier this month. The company spent roughly $15,000 on the dog and training for both canine and human.
Robert Stevenson, chief technical officer of the family-owned business, said the company invested in the dog because of the value in early detection of bedbugs. Roughly 40 percent of the dog’s brain is related to its nose. It can take a human a full day to inspect an average single-family home for bedbugs, costing about $300. And if the infestation is early, not widespread, there’s a decent chance the humans won’t detect anything.
On the other hand, Sherlock can inspect a home in 15 to 20 minutes, costing about half as much, and with a much greater chance of detection – no matter how small the bedbug presence.
Jim Dill, a professor with the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension and a bedbug expert, said dogs have been used to detect bedbugs for about four years, and he knows of three other companies in Maine making use of canines.
He estimates dogs are about 85 to 90 percent effective in bedbug detection. One of the problems is they are limited in where they can sniff; they can’t check out ceilings, for example.
“The flip side is if you’ve got a bedbug on the ceiling, you’ve probably got a lot more bedbugs in the house and he’s going to find them anyhow,” said Dill.
And overall they are much more effective than human inspectors, agreed Dill, particularly in small infestations. Dill knows about inspections; he recently produced a video that demonstrates how to inspect a hotel room for bedbugs — before settling in and allowing them to catch a ride home with you in your luggage.
There’s demand for dog handlers to deal with the growing problem of bedbugs. Silva is a professional handler and had been working for the last year in Afghanistan for a security contractor, working with explosives-sniffing dogs. When he came back to the United States, he had four job offers to work in bedbug detection, all along the East Coast.
His new line of work isn’t as dangerous as bomb sniffing, said Silva, but is generally similar.
“At the end of the day, scent work is scent work,” said Silva.
Stevenson, who’s worked for 30 years in pest control, remembers going on his first bedbug job with his father in 1980. For decades, bedbugs were rare. Modern Pest would do three or four bedbug jobs a year, said Stevenson.
In the early 1990s, they showed up on the national scene in bigger numbers, particularly in large cities like Dallas, San Francisco and New York City. In 2003 or 2004, they began showing up in Maine.
Today, Modern Pest teams do bedbug work every day, said Stevenson. Dill said he’s seen bedbug cases mostly from Bangor south. Modern Pest has clients that include hotels, hospitals, nursing homes, private homes and the like, said Stevenson.
Stevenson said his company has gone from doing a few bedbug jobs a year in 2002 to now more than 1,500 jobs annually, which does not include follow up and reoccurring services.
So what caused the resurgence? Stevenson said the biggest theory is the hitchhiking parasites came to the country as international travel increased. And many insecticides have been taken off the market, replaced by chemicals that are pest-specific – and not aimed at bedbugs.
“Society, in general, was unprepared for this pandemic,” said Stevenson.
Around the year 2000, many companies moved toward baiting of pests, rather than spraying, noted Dill. Bedbugs, he said, aren’t attracted to the baits. And there may be a resistance problem – some bedbugs may no longer be affected by some insecticides.
Stevenson said his company sees this as a problem that will last and, in fact, grow.
“Our feeling is it’s not going to go away – there’s no reason it would go away,” he said.
Last year, Modern Pest made even greater investments in the battle against bedbugs, spending $200,000 in equipping two “heat teams,” workers with portable thermal equipment that heats a home to more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit, killing both bedbugs and their eggs.
Stevenson is part of a nationwide panel of experts, with representation from regulators, pest control professionals and the scientific community. They’re looking at the best ways to treat for bedbugs, how to detect them and what sort of policies should be in place to deal with them.
In Maine, there’s a law that tenants must inform a landlord of bedbugs. The law also maintains that the landlord must do something about the bedbugs, Stevenson said.
The next challenge to be met, overall, is finding more effective and less expensive ways of dealing with an infestation, he said.
Dill said there’s no diseases associated with bedbugs – they aren’t known carriers of anything. Some people are allergic to bedbug bites, some get secondary infections with bites.
But, he said, if bedbugs are found to transmit a specific disease, that will ignite a lot more interest in finding ways to kill the parasites.