Bed bugs appear to be on the rise in Santa Barbara County, according to Jake Taylor of O’Connor Pest Control, who said that in 2016 his company’s revenue increased by 31 percent.
Kathy Cardiel with county Environmental Health Services (EHS) said complaints are spread evenly throughout Santa Barbara but that Isla Vista’s high rate of resident turnover puts it at even greater risk.
At both hotels and residences, the insects have found their way in. Several pest control companies as well as Cardiel attributed most of the new cases to travelers, students, the homeless, and others who carried the bugs into the county from elsewhere before they spread on clothing and furniture. Taylor also said while bed bugs have always been a nuisance, they’ve grown resistant in the last few years to certain methods of extermination.
In 2016, EHS documented 14 bed bug cases. However, Cardiel said her department “operates on a complaint basis” and only becomes aware of a case when it’s brought to their attention. Local pest control companies are typically the ones to deal with the bugs. Lenz Pest Control of Santa Barbara receives about three calls per day regarding residential infestations. O’Connor Pest Control, also located in Santa Barbara, has treated “50 to 100 cases in the past calendar year,” a representatives said. Trevor Wilson of Santa Barbara Pest Control said they get one to two calls a day about the insects, which are reddish-brown, flat, and oval, and range in size from a pinhead to a penny.
Cardiel said bed bugs travel on people and items and often enter homes on used couches and mattresses. Taylor cited movie theaters, public transportation, and houseguests as common contaminators. Because Isla Vista residents have a tendency to throw their used furniture out on the street — and acquire new stuff the same way — the community is especially susceptible to spread.
The Santa Barbara Independent has documented several cases of bed bugs in Isla Vista — one in a Wolfe & Associates-managed residence on Sabado Tarde Road last summer, one in a privately owned home on Fortuna Road, one at a residence on Pasado Road last winter managed by Dean Brunner Rentals, and four outbreaks in the residence halls of UCSB.
Despite this, the 19 rental agencies with properties in I.V. contacted by The Independent denied ever having a single case of bed bugs in their residences. The Koto Group had “nothing to say, no info, and couldn’t comment.” Island View Properties “doesn’t hear about it out here.” Beach Town Rentals has “never had to deal with it.” DP Apartments “never ever had a case of bed bugs.” The Loop in I.V. has “never had a single case.” And Wolfe & Associates “hasn’t heard of anything.”
A Wolfe & Associates tenant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, shared her experience with the pests last summer. She said the property manager was “not surprised at all” to hear of the outbreak. She reportedly had to pay $1,900 out of her own pocket for the extermination.
According to Taylor, there are three common ways to eradicate bed bugs: fumigation, heat treatment, and insecticides. An entire apartment complex, however, won’t be fumigated in the event of single-unit infestation. Plus, Taylor explained, bed bugs have grown more tolerant to the gases used, and pest control companies now have to use three times the amount of gas for bed bugs as they do for termites.
Heat treatment is an alternative, but it’s not foolproof. Taylor said when residents or guests reenter a treated home, they often bring the bugs back on contaminated clothing. UCSB student Hannah Larrigan dealt with this very issue last summer. After her home on Fortuna Road was heat treated, “The bugs never went away and the landlord took our security deposit to pay for the house to get tented.”
Bed bugs are standing strong against insecticide treatments as well. According to Taylor, pest controllers previously used the chemical pyrethrin. But the bugs grew resistant, and about five years ago the industry switched to neonicotinoids. However, Taylor observed that they are now gaining a tolerance to that chemical as well.
Emmet Hawkes of the Faulding Hotel concurred. Due to the large homeless population that inhabits his hotel, bed bugs are a chronic problem. While he “has made good headway to control the issue” by using an off-site heat chamber that kills the insects on residents’ personal items, there are currently two guests dealing with the bugs. He also has seen several hotels on Cabrillo Boulevard that have been tented, and speculated that bed bugs are the cause. “Bed bugs are really difficult to get rid of,” he said. “It is my understanding that they are becoming resistant to treatment.”
Growing health concerns pose another obstacle. Many chemicals known to be effective have been removed from the market because of health and environmental risks. However, a brand-new chemical called CrossFire does not come with a caution label. Taylor said it is supposed to be extremely effective and could potentially solve what is “one of the biggest growing problems.”
UCSB has its own issues. Third-year student Kaitlyn Matousek recounted her experience with the critters as a freshman in Santa Cruz dorm. Upon discovering bed bugs, maintenance staff informed her they could not use pesticides because of the health issues it would pose to other dorm residents. Matousek said she and her roommates were asked to find their own alternative housing for two days while the room was treated with intense heat.
“We came back to our room after treatment to find that our photos and shoes had melted,” Matousek recalled. “The housing department suggested that we remove our valuables, but we couldn’t take much since we had nowhere to go.”
Shortly after returning to her room and cleaning tiny dead carcasses off her mattress, Matousek realized some of the bugs were still crawling. After she claimed maintenance staff ignored her complaints, she brought them a mason jar full of live bugs. The next extermination effort was successful, she recalled, but not before her next-door and downstairs neighbors had begun their own battles with the bugs.
A resident of San Rafael dorm is currently fighting the pests. After waking up with fresh bites on her neck, eyelid, and shoulders, she called the maintenance department, which performed an immediate insecticide treatment and scheduled a heat treatment, a process that would take three weeks. She was not initially provided alternative housing either. According to the student, a Housing and Residential Services employee informed her “bed bugs don’t carry diseases so it’s not a health concern.”
Cleanliness is crucial to combating the problem. While general hygiene is helpful, Cardiel also cautioned against bringing used couches and mattresses into your home unless they have been inspected first.
Santa Barbara County’s relationship with bed bugs represent a larger problem. In fact, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill last year that requires all landlords to perform pest inspections prior to leasing their properties and disclose information related to treatment and control to their tenants.