Survey says bed bugs are big business

By |  July 10, 2017

Three-quarters of pest management professionals expect their bed bug-related revenue to continue to rise, according to PMP’s 2017 Bed Bug Management Survey.

Baltimore — site of the National Pest Management Association’s (NPMA’s) upcoming PestWorld 2017 — welcomes about 25 million visitors annually. Dubbed “Charm City,” Baltimore serves as the home port of several cruise ships and is quite a business-meeting hub, being located just 40 miles from the nation’s capital. The city also apparently is a big draw for Cimex lectularius, the common bed bug. Orkin’s latest Top 50 Bed Bug Cities list, released in January, ranked Baltimore No. 1.

Bob Johnson, Orkin

Bob Johnson, Orkin

“I’m not surprised Baltimore moved up nine slots in the rankings,” says Bob Johnson, Orkin entomologist and Northeast technical services manager. “The annual ranking is based on our number of new jobs, and our phones are ringing off the hook here with bed bug calls.”

Orkin isn’t alone. Three-quarters of the 213 professionals completing Pest Management Professional’s (PMP’s) 2017 Bed Bug Management Survey report they expect their bed bug-related revenue to continue to rise in 2017 and beyond. Many pest management professionals (PMPs) maintain that bed bugs are scary good at adapting and overcoming challenges.

“These crafty critters are developing thicker cuticles and processing toxicants faster,” Johnson notes. “Meanwhile, education of, and cooperation from, the public continues to be an issue. Our nation’s bed bug problem will get a lot worse before it gets better. The bed bugs are running the marathon — while far too many do-it-yourselfers are walking it.”

Blood money

“What termites were in the ’70s and ’80s, bed bugs are today,” Orkin’s Johnson says.

According to Specialty Consultants’ latest research — A Strategic Analysis of the U.S. Structural Pest Control Industry — professionals’ service revenue derived from controlling bed bugs in the U.S. increased 6.6 percent in 2016, reaching $611.2 million.

“We estimate 907,875 bed bug jobs were completed in the U.S. in 2016,” says Gary Curl, Specialty Consultants’ founder and president. “This marks an 11.4 percent increase from the estimated 815,000 jobs completed in 2015.

“In the Midwest, bed bugs were the second-highest revenue-generating pest for professionals,” Curl adds. “If this trend continues, I won’t be surprised to see the industry by 2020 generating $1 billion in service annually from controlling bed bugs alone.”

Seeing big business potential early, Milwaukee-based Batzner Pest Control set up a Bed Bug Services division in 2009. Paul Matusiak, the division’s service manager, says the unit expects to record more than $2.5 million in revenue this year. Batzner’s Bed Bug Services division comprises eight technicans, four bed bug-scent detecting beagles (Lucy, Simon, Roxy and Benji), and four K9 handlers. About 70 percent of the unit’s revenue stems from the commercial sector, including apartment complexes, hotels, hospitals, call centers and similar accounts.

“We still run into tenants and homeowners who have battled bed bug problems for years,” Matusiak says. “Most of them know they have bed bugs. They just don’t know what they don’t know. Too many are still trying do-it-yourself treatments years later.”

Joe Summers, Coastal

Joe Summers, Coastal Pest Management

Joe Summers, owner of Cypress, Texas-based Coastal Pest Management, also sees big business managing these parasitic pests. Summers expects bed bug inspections and treatments to generate at least 10 percent of his company’s 2017 revenue.

“A lot of our first-time calls stem from bed bug infestations,” Summers says. “Our industry’s bed bug management revenue growth is not over, not by a long shot.”

GPC feeders

Stephen Gates, Cook's Pest Control

Stephen Gates, Cook’s Pest Control

Cook’s Pest Control turns bed bug problems into general pest control (GPC) contracts, says Stephen Gates, vice president of technical services for the Decatur, Ala.-based firm.

“We typically don’t sell standalone bed bug jobs,” Gates says. “Usually, they’re either a GPC client, or they will be soon. We want all of our customers to know Cook’s stands behind them, against all structural pests.”

Gates predicts high-rise apartments will suffer the most severe bed bug infestations for the foreseeable future.

“It’s often easier for hotel managers, than it is for apartment managers, to identify and corral bed bug problems. Typically, hotel guests haven’t been there for weeks, never mind years,” Gates says. “By contrast, it’s not uncommon for us to receive calls from managers of large apartment buildings that have tenants who have knowingly suffered horrid bed bug infestations for years, and the property managers are just now discovering it.”

For one severely infested apartment unit, Cook’s deployed a team of three bed bug techs to conduct weekly inspections and treatments, using liquid concentrate pesticides and some dust. It took two months to control the infestation. Cook’s saved a mattress and box spring, using encasements, but some furniture had to be discarded and the unit had to be recarpeted.

“The tenant, a grandmother, had thousands of bed bugs as roommates,” Gates adds. “We also had to treat her daughter’s house weekly for one month due to hitchhiking bed bugs and numerous reintroductions.”

Tiny time bombs

Chris Komarow, Dominion

Chris Komarow, Dominion Pest Control

Chris Komarow, a senior tech with Lancaster, Pa.-based Dominion Pest Control, had one bed bug job in 1998.

“What a difference 20 years makes!” he says. “We typically tackle two or three bed bug jobs every week now.”

Komarow’s worst war story?

“These tenants were bombing for cockroaches, but they had bed bugs also, and the bombs had spread them everywhere,” Komarow recalls. “There were thousands of the little bloodsuckers, covering all stages of development, multiple generations.

“We were fighting two wars — one against cockroaches and one against bed bugs — simultaneously,” Komarow adds. “It’s rather distracting when you’re treating a couch for bed bugs and all these German cockroaches come pouring out.”

Three years ago, Komarow and company established a proactive bed bug management program. Branded “Dominion’s Pre-emptive Strike,” the program includes regular, proactive monitoring and inspections, and targeted preventive pesticide and insect growth regulator (IGR) applications.

“By getting ahead of these ‘tiny time bombs,’ we save clients blood, money and sleep,” Komarow quips.

Batzner’s Matusiak agrees with taking a proactive stance.

Paul Matusiak, Batzner

Paul Matusiak, Batzner Pest Control

“We’re trying to steer the conversation to our clients truly teaming with us and becoming more proactive in the fight against bed bugs,” he says. “It’s not an easy talk to have with many property managers. Many — due to limited time, staff and money — are focused on putting out big blazes, not on looking for signs of small fires.”

Christian Wilcox, technical director for McCauley Services, reports that since 2009, the Bryant, Ark.-based company has boosted its number of bed bugs jobs more than 125 percent — and related annual revenue more than 500 percent. Its bed bug control arsenal includes pesticides, dusts, select heat treatments, and customer education and cooperation.

Christian Wilcox, McCauley

Christian Wilcox, McCauley Services

“In 2009, we fielded one to two bed bug jobs per month, each typically paying $1,000 to $2,000,” Wilcox says. “Last year, we tackled one to two bed bug jobs per week, typically for $1,500 to $3,000 per job.

“I see the bed bug outbreak continuing to spread,” he adds, “but I’m hopeful more infestations will be slight to moderate — instead of severe — as public awareness and customer cooperation improve, and more consumers call on professionals a lot earlier.”

Persistent pests

Steve Rogers, Bug Busters

Steve Rogers, Bug Busters

This reporter felt compelled to call one more bed bug survey respondent, the owner of Bug Busters in Lacey, Wash. How could one pass on the opportunity to speak with Steve Rogers? After all, he could be Captain America.

Reaching Rogers’ voicemail only confirmed this was a must-land interview: “Sorry I can’t come to the phone right now. I’m probably in the middle of talking to someone about a bed bug infestation.”

In 2005, Bug Busters performed eight bed bug treatments totaling about $2,000 in revenue. Last year, the company inspected and/or treated more than 1,000 units for bed bugs. Rogers says the cryptic creatures now account for one-third of his firm’s annual revenue.

Despite the super-surge in work, Rogers says Bug Busters had zero callbacks on bed bug jobs each of the past three years. He credits the feat to thorough training, effective control tools and techniques, and customer cooperation. (Bug Busters makes each client sign “A Promise to Cooperate” contract.)

“One of our competitors actually was pleased when its new bed bug jobs outnumbered its bed bug-related lawsuits,” Rogers adds. “We’ve been in business more than 30 years, and we’ve never been sued. If we do it, we do it right.”

How does one land an interview with Captain America? One keeps calling, and perhaps once forgets the three-hour time difference — that 9 a.m. in Cleveland is 6 a.m. in Washington State. (Sorry, Captain America!)

“You’re as tenacious as the bed bugs,” Rogers greeted me when answering my final call.

“Thanks, I think,” I replied. “But we both know they’ll be around long after I’m gone.”

Publisher and Editorial Director Marty Whitford can be reached at mwhitford@northcoastmedia.net or 216-706-3766.

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