Six-legged freaks between your sheets

This is going to make your skin crawl.

Bedbugs 퀌_ those tenacious, bloodsucking little critters that parents teased small children about at bedtime, once eradicated from the United States,퀌_ are making a comeback. A big, itchy, coast-to-coast comeback.

At least 28 states reported an influx of bedbugs in 2002. The bugs have shown up in homes, apartment buildings and even world-class luxury hotels. One entomologist called them “the new scourge of America,” and Orkin Inc., the nation’s second-largest pest-control company, has predicted a 25- to 30-percent increase in bedbug extermination jobs for the next four years.

“We’ve seen at least five times as many cases this year as we did two years ago, when bedbugs first started re-emerging,” said Frank Meek, Orkin’s national pest-control manager.

The reasons for the recent return of the bedbug 퀌_ or, Cimex lectularius to bug aficionados 퀌_ appear to be twofold.

First, an increase in international travel has brought the bugs, which often stow away in suitcases or clothing, to the United States from countries where bedbugs remain common. In addition, many of the pesticides that virtually eliminated the bugs from the United States in the last century no longer are in use because they have proven dangerous to humans.

The bugs start out nearly invisible 퀌_ less than a quarter of an inch long and of such a light brown hue that they are almost transparent. But after they bite a host to gorge on human blood, they turn a deep, mahogany red and can swell to nearly the size of a ladybug.

They drop blood-infused feces all over bed sheets 퀌_ one of the telltale signs of their presence 퀌_ and give off a sickly-sweet odor.

And, perhaps worst of all, they are astonishingly resilient. Although they prefer to make their homes in the crevices of mattresses during the day, bedbugs can hibernate in floorboards or even wooden picture frames for more than a year 퀌_ emerging after the exterminator is long gone, the new bed has been purchased and the residents are back to sleeping peacefully through the night.

Scratching yourself yet?

Danny Lucey knows how you feel. The minute the 22-year-old New Yorker begins to talk about his apartment’s infestation with bedbugs, he starts vigorously raking his fingernails over his arms and legs.

“Just thinking about them makes me start to itch,” Lucey said.

The bedbugs have spread through Lucey’s Queens apartment building, infesting at least seven bedrooms. The guys next door were hit the worst; their mattresses were so infested that the blood-filled bugs were crawling over each other in a scene like something out of a bad science fiction movie.

Pest-control experts emphasize that bedbugs usually are not a reflection of bad housekeeping or poor hygiene. They are often simply a case of bum luck.

Strange as it may sound, there is a strong correlation between bugs in the bed and bats in the belfry. Bedbugs often are carried by bats or birds, particularly swallows, which may nest in attics. The bedbugs then multiply quickly because they thrive in the warmer temperatures provided by a building’s shelter.

“That’s when they begin to make their way through the walls or vents and into the inhabited part of the dwelling,” entomologist English said.

Bedbugs prefer to hide during the day and emerge at night in search of food. They are attracted to warmth and the scent of human breath, so they tend to make their way to the bedroom. Unlike ticks or lice, which like to stay on their host, bedbugs will feast on their sleeping human entre퀏�s, then burrow deep into the mattress or other dark places.

Once bedbugs take up residence, they are extremely difficult to quell. Most pesticides on the market today are very target specific, meaning they work only on a certain insect. And few products are geared specifically to bedbugs.

“In the old days, when we used stronger pesticides and less target-specific pesticides, bedbugs were just kind of killed in the process without us ever even realizing we were getting them,” English said. “But now if you’re spraying for cockroaches, the pesticide often will only kill a cockroach. Or if you’re spraying for ants, you’ll be using something that only takes out ants.”

Residents of Boston’s Allston-Brighton neighborhood know just how bad things can get when bedbugs move onto the block. Earlier this month, the problem grew so severe that several families had to move from their homes and at least one bite-covered child was hospitalized. Building after building became infested, and although bedbugs don’t usually cause or spread diseases, the nuisance factor was immeasurable.

“You wouldn’t think that something as small as a bedbug could make you miss a day of work or completely prevent you from sleeping for nights on end,” City Council member Jerry McDermott said. “But they really can.”

Boston has since launched a full-fledged public-awareness campaign, distributing fliers about bedbugs. McDermott said most buildings are free of bedbugs now, but he still cringes every time he sees someone pick up discarded furniture from dumpsters or sidewalks.

“I just wonder if the problem is getting passed on to the next guy, the next building or the next neighborhood,” he said.

Lucey suspects that could be the case in his Queens neighborhood. Less than three hours after the residents of his building took their mattresses to the curb, someone hauled them off. Some poor soul was about to find out the origin of the cutesy saying, “Goodnight, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.”