Some might say hunting season is the highlight of autumn, but a lesser-known group of brave souls are also willing to do what it takes to bag a trophy: rummage-sale hunters. Along with colorful leaves, migrating birds, Thanksgiving and all that, fall is also rummage sale season.
When I was a kid there were more flea markets, but you don’t hear that term these days. Apparently someone discovered that the word “flea” in your market led to squirming and scratching more than actual spending. Who would have guessed?
I suppose it was possible, if unlikely, to bring home a live flea with a piece of used furniture. While “rummage sale” is more marketable, today there are concerns about a worse pest that can hide out in some pre-owned treasures. In fact, people might get downright nostalgic about fleas now that bed bugs are back.
Although DDT was discovered in the late 1800s, it was not widely used until the 1930s. After World War II its use really took off, and bed bugs disappeared as a result. But so did eagles and ospreys. In addition, it was found to cause cancer and birth defects, so it was banned for domestic use in 1972. Even post-DDT, bed bugs remained off the radar until the late 1990s.
Their resurgence in the past 20 years has taken the public by surprise.
Bed bugs don’t spread disease, but they bite plenty and keep you up at night. Plus they’re just gross. They’re not a sign of poor sanitation, and are as likely to be found in a Spartan, spotless home as a cluttered one. The difference is they’re easier to get rid of in a clean home.
Despite their name, bed bugs are not limited to beds. We all know to be suspicious of a used mattress, but they can hide in any space wide enough to slide the edge of a credit card into.
Besides the obvious culprits like plush furniture, other items like wood bed frames and cribs, luggage and backpacks can also harbor the pests.
This is not to say you ought to avoid buying these items, but that you should take time to examine them before purchase. Adult bed bugs are very flat in profile, and roughly a quarterinch long. Nymphs (immature ones) range from 1/16th to 3/16th of an inch. After a feeding, nymphs have been described as “a drop of blood with legs.”
Look closely around piping on cushions and mattresses for brownish-red staining. Bed bug feces look a bit like dots from a fine felt-tip red marker. Check corners and crevices for cast-off skins left behind as they molt. Before carting your rummage-sale find indoors it’s probably a good idea to leave it outside to give it a better inspection than you could at the sale. Bed bugs can live for more than a year between feedings, and can even survive below-zero temperatures as long as it gets cold gradually, so don’t assume an item that was in a barn over the winter is bug-free.
There are other ways to bring these guys home, of course. They can hide in your book bag, suitcase or purse after visiting hotels, airports, health clubs, laundromats — the list is endless. If you find them in your home, don’t panic and throw away your mattress or furniture — that’s not necessary and will do nothing to end the infestation. Health Departments strongly advise working with a pest management professional, even if you want to avoid chemicals. Very often the do-it-yourselfer just prolongs the infestation and winds up hiring a pro in the end anyway.
I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic — more details can be found at epa.gov.bedbugs.
Good luck bagging trophies at a fall rummage sale, and don’t let the you-know-whats bite.
Paul Hetzler is an ISA-certified arborist and a member of ISA-Ontario, the Society of American Foresters and the Canadian Institute of Forestry.