Bed bugs: 3 PMPs tackle cruise ship pest problems


July 3, 2017

Bob Clements, Rick Lewis and Jim Warneke are putting their combined 150 years of pest management experience to good use on the high seas.

If a pest problem is discovered on a cruise ship, rest assured the ship’s pest management team will move rapidly to solve the problem. And that’s exactly as it should be. After all, neither the crew nor passengers want to see bed bugs in their cabin or watch a German cockroach dance across the salad bar during dinner.

Integrated pest management (IPM) is the course most plotted by cruise ships, especially those enlisting the expertise of pest management industry consultants. Pest Management Professional (PMP) caught up with longtime pest controllers Bob Clements, Rick Lewis and Jim Warneke, who together work on approximately 60 cruise ships a year that set sail from cruise ports around the world.

“Doing pest management on ships is a unique situation,” says Lewis. “They can have every single problem we have experienced on land, except that on cruise ships the problems can intensify rapidly because of the small spaces and confined environments.

“The people we work with are aware of this and they aggressively handle pest situations. So they make the whole thing a proactive approach rather than a reactive approach,” Lewis continues. “What we do on land translates to the ships, except it is a bit more intense.”

Warneke, owner of St. Cloud, Fla.-based JSW Pest Management Services, notes that “IPM on the cruise ships is true IPM. It’s not like at a landside restaurant. For the most part, I would feel more comfortable eating in a cruise ship garbage room than in some landside restaurants. It’s unbelievable the IPM and dedication that cruise ships have toward sanitation and pests.”

Clements explains that he, Lewis and Warneke provide a basic IPM program for the staff that includes the ship’s waiters, cleaners and deck hands. “We are not asking them to do additional work, we just want their eyes,” says Clements, owner of SciEdServices, Leesburg, Fla. “We want them to tell us what they see.

“Some of these ships are huge, they might have 2,800 crew members. That’s 2,800 sets of eyes out there,” Clements continues. “We want them to report back what they see to their supervisor. In that way, we can get information back to control rapidly.”

‘Yes, we have bed bugs’

German cockroaches, house flies, fruit flies and rodents can all be part of the pest problem on cruise ships, but bed bugs are a special focus.

“Yes, we have bed bugs,” Warneke admits. But he qualifies the situation, noting approximately 0.05 percent of the rooms on the cruise ships he works on might have bed bugs in a year’s time. It’s because cruise ships are aggressive about taking care of the problem as swiftly as it is discovered.

“Cruise ships attack them. One bed bug is too many,” reports Clements, noting word-of-mouth reputation can make or break a cruise line. “But most of the bed bug infestations are not heavy infestations like you often find in hotels, because the housing staff has been alerted to it and they report it.”

7 bed bug indicators

Clements says cruise ships take note of seven specific bed bug indicators for a possible infestation. “If they find one of these indicators, they do a complete inspection of the entire area,” he explains. The indicators are:

  1. Odor. “Bed bugs have a distinctive odor,” Clements says. “But you usually don’t find this on a cruise ship because the air conditioning is on all the time. You have to go up to the bed and sniff. If it smells like copper, that’s blood.”
  2. Bite pattern. “You have a definite bite pattern for bed bugs,” Clements says. “We show the crew what the bite pattern for bed bugs is, and then we also show them what are not bed bug bite patterns, like for fleas, fire ants or mosquitoes. For bed bugs, it’s usually multiple bites on the neck, back or side.”
  3. Blood spots. Clements says checking bedding and furniture upholstery for small brown spots of dried blood is a routine part of a room cleaning.
  4. Cast skins. “These can be in the bed or along the baseboards,” Clements says, noting that typically, the fragile skins are less than 1-in. long. “If the cleaners see something like this, they are instructed to stop vacuuming and call their supervisor to make sure what it is. They then call the PMP.”
  5. Fecal material. “This looks like pepper or poppy seeds,” Clements says.
  6. Eggs. “They look like little grains of rice,” Clements says.
  7. Nymphs and adults. Inspections will reveal that part of the problem, but usually one or more of the other indicators are already present by the time these life stages are discovered, Clements says.

Treatment beings

After actually identifying the bed bugs, several steps are taken. Of top priority are the affected passengers.

“If there is a bed bug problem, they move the passengers to a clean room and then treat the problem room,” Warneke says. “That is followed by a very thorough inspection program.”

Next, all of the soft goods like sheets, pillows, blankets, drapes and shower curtains are given to the laundry team, where they are washed in water that is at least 140°F. The items are then dried at the same temperature. Using 140°F as a guide will kill a bed bug in approximately 10 minutes, Clements says.

Portable hair dryers can reach more than 150°F, and they can be used to treat luggage. “Put the luggage in a plastic bag and heat it up,” Clements says. “Nothing comes out of the room that is not sealed in a plastic bag. Nothing gets put on the deck.

“Then they check the bed,” he continues. “They inspect every tuft on the mattress. They take the bed apart and check the entire frame. Also, they check all of the furniture in the room. The floor is vacuumed two times in opposite directions and then the bag is taken off the vacuum and thrown into the incinerator.”

Clements says that essentially, the cabin is taken apart and then put back together. They even remove the wall coverings and electrical coverings.

After a pesticide treatment, Clements says, the team returns in seven days to reinspect the cabin: “Then they do the same thing after 14 days, because
bed bug eggs will hatch within seven to 14 days.

“You are never going to stop bed bugs from coming, but you can stop them when they get there,” Clements continues, noting that bed bug infestations are typically limited to four or five a year, per ship. He says part of that is due to the diligence of cleaning teams and their ability to catch the seven indicators early on, and part is due to the effectiveness of many of the bed bug control products currently available to professionals.

All of this IPM work is subject to regulations set by the Public Health Service. Once the ships come out of international waters and into United States’ waters, they are subject to inspection. As part of this program, the cruise ships compile logs detailing the pests that have been found, for example, and then the work that has been performed to control them.

“For the passengers and the crew, they are part of cities — entire cities floating on water. It’s a completely different world,” Clements concludes.

Three industry stalwarts

Among the three of them, Bob Clements, Rick Lewis and Jim Warneke have approximately 150 years of professional pest management experience.

Warneke was with the pest management team of Disney World for a number of years, while Lewis worked as an industry supplier representative. Clements was part of his family’s pest management company, Clements Pest Control, In Leesburg, Fla.

“We get together at least once a year and talk about where we want to go and what we want to do,” Warneke says, noting cruise ship work offers them the rewarding experience of keeping the premises pest-free, as well as the opportunity to be passengers and travel worldwide.

The trio agree that none of their cruise ship work would have been possible without the pioneering work done by Florida pest professional Phil Van Dam. “What we are doing today is an expansion of what Phil started many years ago,” Clements says.

When Van Dam started servicing cruise ships in the early 1970s, one of the cruise ship lines had just three ships, whereas today it has more than 100. Clements notes the industry will likely continue to grow.

No passage for other pests, either

Jim Warneke reports that unlike the “red-alert” level of a bed bug infestation, other pest issues are fairly benign on cruise ships thanks typically to high levels of sanitation from stem to stern. That’s not to say they are always pest-free, however.

“Depending on what ports we go into, there are fly concerns when we are in port,” Warneke offers as an example. “But when the ship leaves, the flies usually are blown off the ship.”

Rick Lewis says fruit flies are a hardy pest on cruise ships. “I seem to encounter more issues with fruit flies than with bed bugs,” he admits, noting that keeping drains and drain lines clean usually solves the problem.

Clements says the primary cockroach found on cruise ships is the German species — usually brought in with passenger luggage. There also is an occasional rodent problem, which the team solves partly with a strategy used during the Black Plague of the mid-14th century: spring-loaded, round guards that go over the ship’s mooring lines so a rat or mouse cannot pass.

Jerry Mix is a member of the PMP Hall of Fame Class of 2005. He may be reached at

Photos: Bob Clements, Rick Lewis, Jim Warneke


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