There's a lot to love about New Orleans: incredible cuisine, beautiful architecture, jazzy music, warm weather. But, as with most things, you have to take the good with the bad—and, in New Orleans, that means pests. Things that bite and crawl and itch. Everything good about New Orleans has a pest-related downside. The rats and roaches like that roast beef po-boy almost as much as you do, those gorgeous St. Charles Avenue mansions are like Supersized Happy Meals for termites, and the garbage left behind from just one music festival could probably fatten the entire local mouse population. And, sure, it's great to be able to wear shorts in December—if you don't mind mosquito bites on your knees for Christmas.
In the previous installment of "Pest-Case Scenarios," we learned about termites and roaches in New Orleans. Now, we'll look at the rampant problem of rodents, bedbugs, and fleas.
Of Mice and Men: Rodents
Along with the occasional nutria (aka "river rat") or someone's pet gerbil, New Orleans's most common rodents are mice and rats. And nowhere is associated with rodents more than the French Quarter, where rat sightings are about as banal as spotting tourists with go-cups.
The majority of Quarter rats (not the folks who spend hours downing beers on Bourbon Street) are a breed called Norway rats. According to Joe Martin, entomologist and pest expert with Terminix Pest Control, these rats tend to live in underground burrows and are very good swimmers. Being the Michael Phelps of the rodent world means that these rats are perfectly at home by the river, in sewers, or almost anywhere in our flood-prone city.
The other sort of rat, which lives primarily Uptown, is known as a roof rat. These rodents like to get high, and therefore they make their homes on roofs or in attics and trees.
Martin says that the main reason rodents come into human space is for food and shelter. Our houses, restaurants, and various structures provide a labyrinth of nooks and crannies for mice and rats to nest in, as well as a regular smorgasbord of garbage and offal for them to feast upon. He adds that if you actually see a rodent, there could be a problem—and not only for the terrified unfortunate who happens to catch a glimpse of the twitchy and noxious varmint.
"If you saw one in the street, during the day, something is probably wrong with the rat," Martin says. "A rat doesn't want to run into the middle of the street. He wants to eat by his house. A high population of rodents and fewer food sources means that they're going to be scavenging and looking for food, which means they're going to be showing themselves."
Yes, rodents emerge from the safety of their burrows almost only out of hunger or inquisitiveness. But this is not safe for them. By revealing themselves and their whereabouts, rodents expose themselves to their human predators. Once they are discovered while snooping about, they risk being glue-trapped, poisoned, or killed—proving that curiosity really does kill the rat.
Sleeping With the Enemy: Bedbugs
The pest that seems to be all the rage these days is bedbugs. About 10 years ago, bedbugs were practically unheard of, and then, suddenly, they seemed to be crawling into bed with just about everybody.
"Bedbugs sort of made a comeback in 2011," Martin says.
So did Ashton Kutcher.
Nowadays, in New Orleans, bedbugs as a problem rank up there with potholes and our too-limited supply of Indian restaurants: bothersome, but manageable.
"We may not have as big a bedbug issue as some cities, but due to our high travel and our tourists, we have bedbugs," Martin says. "We get a handful of calls for bedbugs every day."
Unlike fleas, who prefer to take a bite out of Fido or Fuzzy, bedbugs feed exclusively on human blood. These little vampires-between-the-sheets need human blood in order to lay eggs and reproduce. Unfortunately, however, if you think that you can eliminate bedbugs by removing yourself and your nourishing blood supply from your home for a week or so, keep in mind that these bugs can survive for as much as a year without feeding.
Bedbugs hide out in the box springs, bedframe, or headboard of your bed. When you tuck yourself in for the night, they smell the minty fresh carbon dioxide on your breath, which is like a dinner bell to a bedbug, signaling them that it's time for supper.
"They then take a nice little ride down your bed, and they're going to get you on a non-hairy spot of your body," Martin says.
Talk about strange bedfellows.
The especially challenging thing about bedbugs is that they get into everything. Martin says that he's found them inside of cellphones, TVs, and other electronics before. You can get them just about anywhere—hotels, movie theaters, the office, the bar. And whether you want to pick them up or not, they're really a sure thing—it's almost guaranteed that they will come home with you and let you take them to bed. All they expect in return is dinner.
But the good news is, a bedbug scare is often a false alarm.
"A lot of people think they have bedbugs and do not have bedbugs," he says.
Apparently, bug hypochondria is real. There is an actual psychiatric disorder known as delusional parasitosis, or Ekbom's syndrome, which gives someone the false sensation that he or she is being attacked by bugs or parasites.
"It's the concept that you're being bitten, and you're really not," Martin says. "That can make you think you have bedbugs," when it might, in fact, be just static electricity, paper particles on your skin, or fleas.
But if you really do have an infestation, what's the best way to fight bedbugs? Have your entire house chemically treated, or just stop shaving for a couple weeks. "Bedbugs are adapted for humans, but if your body is too hairy, they won't be able to get a grip to get the blood," Martin says.
Either way, it's probably worth having the pest control experts check it out, so you can rest a little easier at night.
Sleep tight. Don't let the bedbugs bite.
Jumping Out of Your Skin: Fleas
Between the mosquitos, which see you as their personal lunch counter, and the fleas, which have a craving for canine, everyone in your household is prone to being eaten alive. Your cats and dogs are in constant risk of becoming dinner for thousands—the number of fleas that could be hanging out in the depths of their fur at any given time. Fleas greatly prefer animal blood but will resort to feeding on human blood if desperate and hungry enough, in much the same way we'll eat ramen noodles and Cheez Whiz when gourmet meals are beyond our means.
There are over 2,200 different varieties of flea, the majority of which live on raccoons, possums, rats, and your beloved fuzzy companions. Fleas will hop on your animals when they are outside, but even if you keep kitty on lockdown, it doesn't mean she's immune—fleas will hitch a ride on your clothing and find their way to your indoor pets. These bugs cause not only itching and discomfort to the animals, but they can also cause skin infections, tapeworms, and other such ailments.
Like many other insects, fleas are more active in the summertime, so we're just coming out of prime flea season—seeing the light at the end of a very scratchy tunnel. Fleas' two favorite pastimes are torturing your pets and jumping. They can jump as far as seven feet, which, according to a TV commercial for a local pest company, means that "fleas can jump up to 80 times their own height. That's the equivalent of a six-foot man jumping over the Eiffel Tower."
The tricky thing about fleas, Martin says, is that they can get into cracks in the hardwood floors, in walls, or under your house, where it can be harder to exterminate them. Not to mention that they can survive even after their four-legged food supply is long gone. To make flea-slaying even more challenging, sometimes insecticides don't kill their eggs, giving them free rein to reproduce—which they do fiercely. These fertile little jumpers can multiply at a rate of as many as 22,000 fleas in just 60 days.
A flea fun fact, according to Martin: "Fleas like white socks or white towels," he says. "So, if you walk around your house in white socks, they'll jump on your white socks. Or, if you throw a white towel down, they'll jump on that white towel." After which, you'll surely want to throw in the towel. Or perhaps burn it.
Whatever sort of pest is bugging you, try not to let the creepy crawly things get under your skin. Pests here are an unfortunate reality, like hurricanes and humidity, that you simply learn to live with. It's just life in the Bug Easy.