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If you remember being tucked into bed with the line, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite, you might've thought the critters were just a figment of someone's imagination. Well, think again.

NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY: It's probably an understatement to say that most people don't want bugs in their beds, particularly ones that bite and feed off our blood. So EPA's Dale Kemery says they brought experts together to figure out the best way to treat bedbugs and prevent outbreaks in homes, apartments and hotels, where they've been spotted in droves from New York to Florida.

Mr. DALE KEMERY (Spokesman, EPA): They're very resistant critters. And they've been treated in the past like cockroaches. But that's not the proper treatment for them.

AUBREY: The EPA invited entomologist Harold Harlan to the conference, a 25-year veteran of fighting pests in the U.S. military, a man who I think it's fair to say has a special rapport with bedbugs. When I asked him to tell me more about these reddish-brown tick-looking insects, he pulled out of this coat pocket a small container of live bedbugs.

Dr. HAROLD HARLAN (Entomologist): See, this one's settled down to feed. See, that one's crawling.

AUBREY: Some were quick to crawl towards Harlan's hands where he lets them bite and feed off his blood. As we wait, he tells me he's been doing this for years. As a way to keep his research subjects alive, when he lifts up his pants leg I can see the scaly irritated skin on his calf from some earlier bites.

Dr. HARLAN: These are itching today, right, that batch there.

AUBREY: Oh, I see that it's a little bit red, a little welty.

Dr. HARLAN: Some people actually get a blister raised at each bite, similar to the effect of a sting of a fire ant.

AUBREY: Harlan says his skin isn't very sensitive, but for many people, the delayed reactions that come two to five days after a bedbug bite can be painfully itchy and emotionally nightmarish, leaving some too panicky to get back in their beds. One bed of solace Harlan says he can offer is that bedbugs don't spread disease.

Dr. HARLAN: I'm confident they do not transmit anything.

AUBREY: Listening to Harlan in the audience were all kinds of people eager to learn more about bedbugs: city health officials, housing administrators, apartment managers and people in the pest control industry. Doug Summers runs a bedbug detection operation in Florida using dogs that are trained to sniff out infestations. And he says they're pretty efficient at it.

Mr. DOUG SUMMERS (Bedbug Detection Operation, Florida): We can go through about approximately two minutes a room with better than the 90 percent accuracy, which it's nearly impossible to do with a visual human inspector that's unaided.

AUBREY: Detection is tough because bedbugs hide in crevices and can remain motionless for months at a time. Once they do go out on the prowl, they're fast. Researchers have trailed bedbugs crawling from one hotel room to the next overnight. Entomologist Dini Miller of Virginia Tech spoke at the conference about why Americans assumed that bedbugs were a thing of the past.

Dr. DINI MILLER (Entomologist, Virginia Tech): We had used DDT so liberally in the 1950s that we had actually eradicated them from most environments in the United States.

AUBREY: Miller says the bedbug resurgence is likely due to many things including international travel and commerce, as well pesticide resistance. She says if you ever suspect that bedbugs have hitched a ride home in your suitcase, put all of your clothes in the dryer. The 120 degree heat is deadly to the insects and then you can sleep tight knowing that the bedbugs won't bite.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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