Bugs Bed Down in Books

The adolescent bedbug on the library couch, taken by Grace in April this spring.

Student Finds a Bedbug

Before she found a bedbug on a library couch pillow this April, Grace* would retreat to the silence of the fourth floor of Miller Nichols often. On that day, she was lying down, relaxing on one of the couches before an afternoon class when she saw it.

“I see this tiny little bug out of the corner of my eye,” Grace said. “So I shot up and moved the pillow that it was on and took a picture, and it matched what I found online of a young bedbug.”
Grace immediately went downstairs to the first floor and told the staff at the front desk. They followed her upstairs back to the fourth floor, where she showed them the couch, and she watched as they wrapped it in plastic. A few months prior, she had seen someone wrapping a chair and thought it strange.

“I thought it was a fraternity prank or something,” Grace said. “And then after I told the librarians down here and they did that, I thought, ‘Oh, so that’s been a problem for a while that they haven’t told us about.’”

Faculty Finds Out

This past week at a department meeting, several faculty members learned for the first time about the presence of at least a few bedbugs in Miller Nichols Library.

An email from Miller Nichols librarian Jessica Williams to concerned faculty confirmed there was some truth to the rumors, but that the problem was exaggerated.

“We’ve had a few isolated cases of bugs in the library, primarily in books as they’re being returned, and have dealt with it proactively and aggressively. Not an infestation,” said Williams’ email. “We have regular inspections to ensure that we don’t have a problem.”

“We’re not keeping it secret, but it seems that the university’s position is that it’s not a real issue that necessitates broad notification,” Williams said. She reassured the recipients the library staff are not afraid to sit in the furniture and no one else should either.

“This is an example of what can happen when no information is released,” said one professor, who has taught at UMKC for more than 15 years and has seen a number of campus-wide advisories. “Rumor mills take over and the issue can be perceived worse than what it is. In any case, the above message [from the librarian] is not official. So, there is no evidence to prove the extent of, if any, infestation.”

Last week a few considerate professors informed their students to be wary of any books taken out of the library, but so far the university has not officially communicated to students about bedbugs–not this week and not for the past year since it evidently began.

Not a New Problem for MNL

UMKC administration maintains it addressed and put into place effective strategies for the bedbug problem when it arose. It is not entirely clear when exactly the bedbug problem arrived at UMKC, but sarcastic Twitter account “The MNL Bedbugs” (www.twitter.com/@mnlbedbugs) started August 2015 seems to offer a clue.

The 2015 posts hint at a significant problem starting at least a year ago:

“Psshh. Like your puny barriers are going to stop us. ¡Vivan las chinches! ¡Viva la revolución! #UMKC #MNL #Bedbugs” from August 11th.

“♫ I’m a lil bedbug, short & stout/anticoagulant in my snout/when I give a nibble, hear’em shout/Grab a book & check me out ♫” from August 12th.

“New bedbug sighting on the fourth floor, y’all! We’re ba-a-a-a-ack! #BedbugsReadToo #MNL #UMKC” from December 9th.

The account holder did not respond to this reporter’s repeated requests for contact.

Another post from August 11th talks about “bedbug-detecting dawg” Scout, whose now quarterly visits to Miller Nichols Library began around that time, as Associate Vice Chancellor Robert Simmons confirmed.

When asked when UMKC began its specific strategies to address bedbugs on campus, Simmons said, “I think when we began to see evidence and began to deal with some specific issues–probably in the last year or year and half.”

The library has taken various steps to control the ongoing issue of bedbugs.

The library has taken various steps to control the ongoing issue of bedbugs.

The Growing Problem, and UMKC’s Solutions

Just this past June, The Kansas City Star and 41 Action News reported that the bedbug problem is growing in the Kansas City metro area, with local pest control services seeing an increase in calls for heat treatments. The problem has exploded nationwide in the last 10 to 15 years.

At UMKC, “we have what we like to think of as a robust and effective response strategy,” said UMKC Director of Media Relations John Martellaro last Friday. “When we get notification that there is an incident or suspected incident, we respond immediately. Pesticides as a general rule do not work, so we opt for heat treatment.”

The EPA and other sources confirm that heat treatments are the most effective at killing bed bugs and destroying their eggs. Director of Public Services at Miller Nichols Library Cindy Thompson said that the library’s strategy for dealing with bedbugs includes Scout’s regular visits, but also staff monitoring all incoming and outgoing books and heat-treating them as needed. The Miller Nichols Library uses two ZappBugg bedbug ovens to treat problematic books and furniture.

“About a year and a half ago was when the library purchased the suitcase unit and probably a year [ago was] when they purchased the large unit,” said Simmons. “The library has specialists that work specifically with bedbugs. [Scout] is one part of it. Obviously, it’s the staff that are looking at books as they come in and as they go out as well.”

The library charges students $15.00 for any damage found in a book, which includes any signs of bedbugs.

“We’re careful about checking books before they get checked out because we don’t want to charge a student for something that happened before, so we’re always really careful about checking books before they go out,” said Thompson. “Not just for signs of bugs, but primarily for things like writing in the margins and tears — all of that kind of stuff. Because we don’t want someone to be held accountable for something someone else did. So we are really careful about that, and we are really vigilant of things going out, things coming in.”

If Scout smells a problem, says Bonnie Postlethwaite, Dean of Libraries, “the dog can’t say it’s that book, so we just pull everything in the vicinity and put it in the oven and take it back out and put it back on the shelves.”

According to Simmons, the University is currently waiting on new furniture for the fourth floor, the same floor where Grace had her experience in April.

“The fourth floor is the largest unrenovated floor of the library, and as other floors have gotten renovated, the existing furniture has gotten moved up to the fourth floor. So it’s the older furniture, it’s also the furniture that has more of the crevices and cracks that bedbugs go to,” said Simmons. While he had no ship date yet, Simmons said the furniture will arrive at some point this semester.

“There’s a general awareness within the librarian profession that this is part of the landscape and part of the environment now and has been for a couple of years,” said Martellaro. “I think as a general rule, libraries across the country keep an eye out for this.”

“We went through the entire summer without seeing any [bugs]–we’ve seen some books with signs,” said Thompson. “I think it’s common enough that everyone should know what to look for and how to deal with it and how to react, but I don’t think it’s common enough that everyone should be freaking out about it.”

“Every pest–and I say ‘pest’ because libraries have a lot of different pests that we have to deal with–has its own way of being treated and exterminated,” said Postlethwaite. “We have to just deal with whatever the issue is at the moment. And we do have all kinds of pests that show up, too… roaches, mice. When we were having the construction [last year], of course as they were digging outside, it sent all sorts of things into the building. It was interesting.”

Not a Word to Students, Until Now

When asked if this information had been released to students at any time in the last year, Martellaro said, “I believe there are signs in the library.” This reporter could not find signs on any of the floors, and neither Grace nor several other students who frequented the library this past year could recall ever seeing a sign cautioning about bedbugs.

When asked about a librarian’s statement that “the university’s position was that this was not an issue that warranted broad notification” and whether there were plans to notify students about the issue, Martellaro said, “At the present time we’re sharing it with [UNews], and we’re hoping that that will have the widespread attention. If it continues to be a problem, we’ll probably send something out through USucceed.”

Simmons and Director of Housing Sean Grube could not definitively confirm that information about preventing bedbugs or other pests was included in any summer orientation for all students or housing orientation.

According to Thompson and Postlethwaite, if staff finds signs of bedbug contamination in a book, they provide the student who returned it with informative documents from the EPA and other sources.

Fourth floor will receive new furniture this semester, according to administration.

Fourth floor will receive new furniture this semester, according to administration.

What Students and Staff Should Know–and Do

“If you see any signs of bed bugs in books, take them back to the library, and bring them to the attention to the librarian or the person at the desk and say, ‘Hey, I think there’s a problem here.’ And they will set [it] aside and put it in a safe spot until it can go to heat treatment,” said Martellaro.

The most important thing, said Martellaro, is that students cooperate.

“It’s important to note that we need the campus community’s cooperation in making sure that [treatment] is effective, and that primarily means making sure that any object that can harbor the pests or their eggs is included in the treatment,” said Martellaro. There have been no official notifications from the University to students as of this report.

“So if we say we’re going to treat a room in one of the dorms, and people grab their coat, and grab their purse, and grab their backpack, and leave…. They’re not only spreading it, but they’re keeping it in their own space because they come back with that stuff.”

Thompson points out that bedbugs can be in other places, not just the library.

“It could be the person you study with or the coffee shop you went to,” said Thompson. “They could be anywhere. I don’t want to be fear mongering, but you need to be aware that they are out there and then know what you can do to stay away from them. I am in here [the library] every day all the time. I’m not afraid of bringing them home with me because I know what to look for and how to be careful. It’s just like with any pest or virus or anything–just need to be aware.”

UMKC is probably more proactive about bedbugs than many other places, Simmons said. “If you look at the things that are happening in our housing and in our library and the things we are doing in our facilities in general, there’s actually probably a lot better environment within the university than they might find if they are living in an off-campus environment,” he said.

Fourth floor will receive new furniture this semester, according to administration.

Fourth floor will receive new furniture this semester, according to administration.

A Final Word

While the University administration did not officially and clearly inform students and faculty for the past year, it has been quietly proactive in ensuring that bedbugs are addressed as they occur. As seen from this past week, just a mere mention of “bedbugs” stirs up panic and visions of infestation. This may explain the school’s virtual silence about the matter.

“We don’t think that students should avoid the library in any way…. The library is an essential piece of the learning environment at this university, so we strongly encourage students to use it,” said Martellaro.

“If we thought there was any reason to warn them about it, we would do so. We just don’t see that,” said Martellaro. “Because the fact of the matter is that bed bugs are annoying and they’re kind of gross, but they don’t carry disease. They’re not going to make you sick. And we are dealing with them on an ongoing basis, so there’s really no reason for students to avoid the library.”

*Per this student’s request, her name has been changed due to her previous employment at the university.

etseng@unews.com

4 Comments

  1. Kenneth

    September 16, 2016 at 3:43 PM

    Blame the victims. Nice job UMKC. What about the girl in the dorm that KMBC reported? Why not just let people know rather than wait? This used to be a great place. Now it’s just a business and a pr firm. The bedbug Twitter page is hilarious. Letting students who pay to go there is not.

  2. Michael Drewe

    October 30, 2016 at 5:34 PM

    Thanks for the article! This brings back memories. The library at the university I attended had a bed bug infestation as well. I think this led to the start of an infestation that took place in the dorm I was living in. I say that because from what I understand bed bugs can travel. So since they were found in the books, they hitchhiked a ride back to our dorms. Talk about an annoyance!

  3. alex hall

    August 21, 2018 at 5:31 AM

    It is wise to hire a professional pest control company, who will rid your house of harmful pests in a hassle-free manner. Pest control companies have expertise in exterminating bugs and they carry out their operations without harming you and your family.

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