Tribal Bed Bug Workshop Dispels Myths



There is a lot of fear about bed bugs, and a stigma surrounding them that can keep some people from seeking help with a bed bug infestation.

But bed bugs have been hanging around humans for a long time and aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. That was one of the key messages at a bed bug workshop last month for tribal communities in California, Nevada and Arizona.

“Bed bugs have evolved with humans dating back hundreds of thousands of years when early humans lived in caves,” explained Matt Baur, the associate director of the Western Integrated Pest Management Center, which co-hosted the workshop. “They aren’t a new problem.”

In fact, that long co-evolution also helps explain one of the less-icky aspects of bed bugs – unlike other blood-sucking pests, bed bugs don’t carry diseases that infect humans.

“A good parasite doesn’t kill its host,” explained Andrew Sutherland, an urban IPM adviser for the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, another co-host. “Diseases are usually carried by pests more recently introduced to a host.”

The two-day workshop covered the history, biology and identification of bed bugs, common myths about them and an introduction to integrated pest management. It included a session on how insects develop resistance to pesticides, a look at bed bugs in schools and multi-family housing, an overview of bed bug control methods and a presentation about Arizona’s Gila River Indian Community’s IPM approach to bed bugs. Attendees got to participate in some hands-on activities and take home bed bug resources.

Bed bug fact: The most common way to get bed bugs isn’t traveling and staying in an infested hotel, as most people believe. New research shows that the most common way to get bed bugs is through second-hand furniture picked up at yard sales, thrift shops or antique stores.

Africa Dorame-Avalos, the pesticide program manager for the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, helped organize the workshop with Norman Calero, a project officer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Last year, we developed an issue paper about bed bugs in Indian Country,” Dorame-Avalos explained. “It identified the need to conduct outreach and education about prevention and the biology of bed bugs and misuse and overuse of pesticides and exposure of children and older adults. That’s how this workshop came about.”

Bed bug displays
Examining bed bug displays.

Western tribes can have multiple risk factors for bed bugs: isolated, rural locations; multi-family dwellings; low-income neighborhoods; and nearby hotels and casinos. If an infestation takes hold, sometimes there are no nearby licensed pest-control companies to manage it.

“One of the reasons we planned this workshop is that some tribes have no access to the internet,” Calero explained. “They can’t go to a website and download materials or a training. It’s a challenge, so we decided to get people together here and provide printed resources.”

More bed bug facts: Bed bugs don’t fly and can’t jump, so to get to you they have to walk. And even in their smallest stages – eggs and hatchlings – they are visible to the naked eye.

Hadji Boni attended the workshop as a newly hired technician with the Tribal Health Department in Gila River Indian Community.

“I came with a group of six,” he said. “We assess homes where the residents think they might have bed bugs and conduct heat treatments to kill infestations.”

Another fact: Heat is a great way to kill bed bugs at every life stage. The hot cycle in a household clothes dryer does the trick.

One of the most-interesting bits of information during the workshop was an observation by Boni that he couldn’t remember any mention of bed bugs in the songs or stories of his Apache ancestors. None of the other attendees could either – a hint perhaps that while bed bugs have been bothering people throughout history, they haven’t been bothering Western tribal people for all that long.

“There are all types of critters in our songs,” he said. “Animals. People, mountains, rivers, valleys. If it was important, it was in a song or story. But no bed bugs.”


See our bed bug work group's website for more resources