Photo by Tayhlor Sims
Tony Downing of Allied Termite and Pest Control in Alton with his bed bug-sniffing beagle, Ellie.
They feed on a human’s blood, hide anywhere that’s half the thickness of a credit card and are “the world’s best hitchhiker.”
Bed bugs may only cause irritation to about 60 percent of the population, according to Tony Downing - a bed bug expert who works for Allied Termite and Pest Control in Alton - but those people allergic to the bed bug’s bite might consider it a nuisance that can cause physical discomfort, psychological anguish and financial woes.
Downing, a bed bug consultant for Allied, will tell customers what he can do to eliminate that person’s bed bug infestation, if there is one.
But he considers himself “the idiot at the end of the leash.” Downing said when he has trouble finding the bugs or needs to make sure he’s found all of them, he sends in the professional hero with four legs – Ellie, the bed bug-detecting Beagle.
“She’s in full control when we’re doing a bed bug job,” Downing said. “It might take a human hours to tear a house apart to find one bed bug, but a dog will find it in a minute and 30 seconds.”
From commercial fisherman to bed bug expert
Downing was a commercial fisherman in New England when his wife, at the time, talked him into getting a job in the pest control industry.
In 2004, he started working with Budget Termite & Pest Control in Rhode Island, and one harsh winter he found had an interest in detecting and eliminating bed bugs.
Downing discovered, along with other pest technicians, how to mix certain chemical cocktails involving non-repellant pesticides, which would kill the bed bugs.
After about three to four years, Downing decided to move around to different states to see what other pest control technicians were doing to fight the bed bug.
“It was the wickedest bug – and still is – out there,” he said. “It was a big feather in my cap about getting to know as much as I could about it.”
Downing said he experimented with several systems on how to kill the bug, such as cryogenics and heating systems.
“It’s like tools in a tool box,” he said. “So if you say you only have one method of killing bed bugs, that’s like building a house with a hammer. You’re going to need a saw.”
The New England native said he eventually became a consultant and started to train companies in various states on what could be done to exterminate the bug.
Downing said he has traveled in the last 10 1/2 years to Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Virginia, Arizona, Missouri and now, Illinois.
He has been in Alton working with Allied as a consultant since August.
Downing said bed bugs have started migrating toward the Midwest for quite some time.
“All the major hubs where all the major airlines come in, that’s where they are the worst,” he said, adding Chicago is the No. 1 city with bed bug infestation.
“They’ve learned their lesson in New York and they’ve learned their lesson in L.A.,” Downing continued. “They’re still battling bed bugs but are getting to the point where they are somewhat winning. Education is everything with this bug.”
The flat, reddish-brown bug gets its name from hiding in bedrooms or in any room in the house, where they are at least 20 feet away from their human host, Downing said. The bed bug hides best in clutter, where there are numerous spots for them to disappear.
According to Downing, bed bugs will come out and suck the blood of a sleeping human host, injecting the person with painkillers so they can’t feel anything while they are being bitten.
When the person wakes up, if they are allergic, they will have bite marks that itch for 10 to 20 days. A person can start to develop more bite marks, which means the bed bugs are multiplying.
Downing said, “The bed bug is not a sanitary bug. It has a symbiotic relationship with us being that we’re its blood supply. All we are to them is farm animals. They’re harvesting our blood from us and they’re multiplying, and that’s all a bed bug does.”
He said the bed bugs are not only found in rooms of a house, though.
“That’s the big misconception,” Downing said on the bug’s name, adding that they can be found anywhere near a human host.
He said the U.S. bed bug infestation has been on the rise in the new millennium with airlines and hotel industries being somewhat to blame.
The U.S. “got it because of world travelers from around the world all come to the United States to visit,” Downing said.
“When you get a bunch of bags in an aircraft, and the aircraft takes off, and it goes up to altitude, it’s really cold,” said Downing. “Well, the warmest spots on that aircraft are going to be in the middle of that luggage. Bed bugs are very good at finding thermal voids. That’s why the heat system doesn’t always work because they’re professionals at finding what temperature is going to best suit them so they can survive.
“They made it through the last extinction,” he continued. “They’ve been sucking the blood of mammals for millions of years. They’ve just adapted to some of our methods to killing them.”
Downing said scientists used pyrethrin – a pesticide that would break down quickly so it didn’t end up in citizens’ drinking water – but the bugs developed a thicker shell over time to resist the chemical.
He said now pest control technicians use cell blockers – another group of pesticides that gets on the bed bug and is absorbed through their shell, preventing their cells from growing and killing them and any other mate they inject it with.
The bed bug does not transmit any diseases and its normal life span is 18 to 36 months.
That is unless a canine helper helps eliminate them more quickly.
Downing said he got Ellie because he got tired of trying different bug-killing methods and telling homeowners the bugs could be gone, but he had no way of knowing.
“I’ve seen women cry,” Downing said. “I’ve seen a whole family sit down and cry, especially when you have just told these people it’s going to take them $2,500 to do a bed bug job for their whole entire house because they were really infested because they didn’t know what it was and dealt with it for a year.”
‘Having X-ray vision’
When Downing got Ellie from Nebraska, she was 3 months old and didn’t know how to detect bed bugs — yet.
After she turned 7 months old, he spent $15,000 on bed bug detection training for himself and Ellie at Delta K9 Services in Phoenix.
The 15-pound beagle is 4 years old now and still “trains every single day” on bed bug detection, Downing said.
He said Ellie’s scent receptor count is what helps her sniff things in the air a mile away.
Downing compared a human nose’s receptor count of about 1 million to the beagle and bloodhound breed’s 350 million.
“With Ellie, if she’s sniffing you, she’s sniffing the pizza sauce that you might have had at lunch. She’s sniffing all the ingredients of that pizza sauce,” Downing said. “She’s sniffing where you have been, what other animals have been around you, whether you’re pregnant, whether you’re male, whether you’re female, what your pheromone is, what your cologne is, the soap that you use and all the ingredients in the soap, the bread that you touched and all the ingredients in that bread.”
He said the pheromone of the bed bug is “very slight” and that all Ellie sees is a “scent cone.”
“It’s like having X-ray vision,” Downing said. “It’s being able to see the bed bugs behind the baseboard and on the other side of that baseboard through the sheetrock, through the box spring and the mattress and all the covers and everything else.”
To help her train for bed bug detection on a routine basis, Downing said he uses her love for food and toys.
“Whenever you get a bed bug detection dog, it has to have either a high food drive or a high toy drive,” he said. “Well, Ellie is bazonkers about both. She has a very high food drive and she has a very high toy drive, which means she can be trained with a piece of food or a tennis ball. It doesn’t matter to her.”
Downing said the duo has “kind of a symphony going on” when it comes to finding the bed bugs in residences, or such places like the Alton Housing Authority, where she has searched all 103 units.
“When she stops is when I pay attention.”
Her name originated from Elly May Clampett, a character played by Donna Douglas on the television show, “Beverly Hillbillies.”
“The reason behind why I gave her the name Ellie is because bed bugs are such an ugly, nasty bug,” Downing said, “and it kind of takes a bite out of the bug when you have cute, little Ellie coming over to find them and get rid of them for you.”