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Entrepreneurs scramble to create best bed bug buster

Sep 29, 2011, 9:37 a.m.

By Roy Strom

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Some want to bake them. Others prefer to freeze them. Still others dehydrate them.

Inventors will try just about anything to kill bed bugs, those nasty, reddish-brown, blood-sucking parasites that are the worst nightmare of many hotel guests.

America's obsession with bed bugs has led to a rush of entrepreneurs seeking profit from exterminating them, and about 75 companies gathered this week in hopes of launching the perfect beg bug killer.

"I never figured I'd be in Chicago for a bed bug conference. I never thought that in my wildest dreams," Mike Bourdeau, operations manager at Flynn Pest Control in Massachusetts, said at the second annual Bed Bug University.

Bourdeau said bed bug business is booming. It went from virtually zero percent of Flynn Pest Control's business less than five years ago to about 20 percent of what the company brings in today.

"It's probably going to be a big part of our business for ... the next ten years," he said.

A study this year by University of Kentucky researchers and the National Pest Management Association showed 80 percent of surveyed pest control companies had treated hotels for bed bugs within a year, up from 67 percent a year ago.

More than 80 percent of the surveyed companies said they believed bed bug infestations were on the rise.

Whether there are more bed bugs these days or just more publicity about them is hotly debated, but there is general agreement that the problem is here to stay.

"It will become like roaches and ants. It's not going anywhere. We will deal with bed bugs the rest of our lives," said Phillip Cooper, chief executive officer of BedBug Central, a research and information firm.

Companies attending the conference showed search and destroy methods ranging from bug-sniffing dogs to vacuum-like machines that spout carbon dioxide to freeze the bugs.

For example, The Bed Bug Baker features a heated tent that can hold a dining room's worth of furniture to bake away bed bugs at home. For hotel room infestations, there's an electric heater that can bake the whole room.

Another product is a dust made of crushed fossils called diatomaceous earth that can be sprinkled on floors. It kills bed bugs by dehydrating their shell. Bed bugs walk through the dust, which is also a desiccant, and gradually dry out, said Jeffrey White, an entomologist with BedBug Central.

The measures might seem exotic, but academics and inventors say the number of bed bug hiding spots in hospitals, hotels, homes or even on public transportation, make it hard to apply a "silver bullet" treatment.

While hotel infestations get the most attention, a new study conducted by the University of Kentucky showed college dormitories, nursing homes, hospitals and office buildings are the new battlegrounds. Pest control companies report double-digit growth from last year in treating bed bugs at each place.

"It's no longer going to be the hotels that are the problem," said Mike Lindsey, president of Bedbug Boxes. "So you're going to have to keep chasing it around and find that solution for that particular place."

Lindsey quit his six figures engineering job to chase the dream of being a bed bug entrepreneur.

He invented a box lined with what look like solar panels to heat clothes or luggage to temperatures that kill bed bugs after his family brought the pests home to Colorado from a Mexico vacation. Now he is marketing a suitcase that uses the same strips to roast any bed bugs inside.

Kenneth F. Haynes, a professor who studies insect behavior at the University of Kentucky, said people have a stigma about bed bugs, and are often embarrassed to get help treating an infestation. The industry is trying to defeat the stigma, which could unlock more customers.

For now, a scramble is on to tap a growing market. Once extermination products for the pest are widely accepted the need for a gathering of experts will fade away.

"We don't have a roach conference. We don't have a mouse conference. So, once we get to that point, there will be no need for a bed bug conference," Cooper said.

(Editing by Greg McCune)