Inside the Race to Crush Paris’ Bedbug Crisis

Humans are teaming up with dogs to eliminate the blood-sucking pests, but there's no overarching strategy, just eye-watering costs.
Pest control spraying bed
Pest control workers from Societe Mesnuisibles spray insect killer solution onto the interior of a sofa bed, inside an apartment containing bed bugs, in Paris, France.Photograph: Nathan Laine/Getty Images

A cute little beagle with big smiley eyes … how could you not fall in love with Watson? But the residents of my Parisian building were terrified when they saw him enter. Watson is not like any other dog. He’s trained to detect the tiny insects that have been all over the front pages of French newspapers for the past few weeks: bedbugs.

This fall, fear has become paranoia. Pictures of bedbugs in cinemas, metros, and trains have saturated social media. “I’ve been getting so many calls from worried people lately,” says Watson’s owner, Charlotte Ducomte, founder of the company WatsonDetect. For years now, she and Watson have been going through the city and its suburbs to detect bedbugs in private apartments and company offices. These past few weeks, she’s been inundated with calls from people who “wanted to have their apartment checked … just in case.” There is “ia bedbug panic in Paris” right now, she says.

Bedbug numbers in France have surged in 2023. There’s been a 65 percent increase in pest control visits for the insects across the country this year compared to last, says France’s Union Chamber of Insect Control.

This is partly due to the weather. According to Jean-Michel Bérenger, an entomologist who cofounded the National Institute for the Study and Fight Against Bedbugs in 2018, heat accelerates a bedbug’s life cycle, and September and October have been particularly hot in Paris—average temperatures have been 4.5 degrees Celsius above normal. “When the temperature inside your house is 25 to 26 degrees Celsius (77 to 78.8 Fahrenheit), it takes only five days for the bedbug eggs to hatch. In normal conditions, when the temperature is around 20 degrees Celsius, it takes 10 days,” he explains.

But the current plague of bedbugs is also part of a general rise in their numbers in recent years, says Bérenger. The modern world, filled with people constantly on the move, easily allows the insects to spread. Ducomte says numbers have been increasing in Paris since 2002 and attributes this to more visitors to the city, driven by cheap flights and the convenience of Airbnb. “People move a lot more than before … and thus, they are more likely to be infested,” she says.

When Watson moves through my apartment, he doesn’t stop anywhere. Lucky me. Pausing is his way of showing his owner that he can smell bedbugs, which in the early stages of an infestation can be hard to detect—the insects are quite shy, often hiding inside furniture frames or under floorboards during the day and coming out to feast at night. With few effective tools for detecting small numbers of bedbugs, dog-based services have become increasingly popular in the city, even if the limited research on them suggests their accuracy can be patchy.

And even if a dog can sniff the insects out, it can’t get rid of them. This has to be done by humans. Parisian pest control companies are doing a healthy trade too.

For Hygiène Premium, which specializes in insect and rat control, traditionally about 40 to 50 percent of people calling them have trouble with bedbugs. “Now, that’s eight people out of 10,” says Sacha Krief, its associate manager. Overall, his company has seen a 30 percent increase in the number of bedbug-treatment cases.

According to Anses, France’s national health security agency, the average cost to get rid of bedbugs is 890 euros ($937), and the price is often even higher in Paris. “It can go up to 1,000, 2,000, even 3,000 euros. Not many people can get this out of their bank accounts overnight,” says Antoine Demière, an advisor to Paris’ first deputy in charge of urban planning. Given the large amounts of money involved, a national registry of certified companies is in the works to prevent unscrupulous actors from scamming clients—40 cases of bedbug-related fraud have been reported to France’s directorate for consumer affairs over the past few months.

For social tenants, there’s protection against these high prices, thanks to a 2020 agreement signed between the town hall and social housing groups. Each household pays an additional 4 euros per year on their rent, and, in cases of a bedbug infestation, the city will take care of it for free. “Our top priority is to protect lower-income Parisians,” explains Demière. “We don’t help the poorer population because they’re more likely to get bedbugs, but because they’re less likely to be able to pay thousands of euros to have their home disinfected.”

However, it can take up to several weeks before the social housing groups hire private pest control companies to take care of the problem—way too long to contain the crisis, says Ducomte.

These companies have traditionally used chemicals to get rid of bedbugs, but they are using them less and less, says Bérenger: “The European Union now prohibits the use of some, and people are less and less eager to have chemical products all over their house.” Plus, bedbugs are getting resistant, he says. “They won’t die, they’ll just move on to another apartment, especially when the protocol is not professionally executed.”

For these reasons, French companies are now prioritizing “mechanical solutions.” The main three are steam treatment, cryogenic technologies, and heat guns—the goal being to kill bedbugs and their eggs using either very high or very low temperatures. These processes are more expensive than chemical ones because they require more people, but they also save a lot of time.

“When you use chemicals, the house or the hotel room must be emptied for two to three weeks,” says Bérenger. “But one morning can be enough to treat an entire school with dog detection and a mix of the mechanical solutions.” The entomologist has already treated schools in this manner in Marseille; Demière confirms that schools have also been disinfected with mechanical solutions in Paris. 

But even with these measures, Bérenger thinks overall numbers are unlikely to decline, given recent trends. Instead, “the number of bedbugs will probably continue to increase until it reaches a plateau,” he estimates. For him, the current media hype is useful. More people are now aware of the problem and know how to recognize bedbugs—thus, the problem of an infestation can be addressed earlier in many instances.

Yet public awareness brings a new problem: misinformation. “Everybody now thinks they know everything about bedbugs,” says Krief. “But people tend to forget that pest control is a real job. You can’t get rid of bedbugs with chamomile oil.” 

The national government’s response to the problem this autumn has been slow—something that Demière, of the Parisian government, ascribes to “the French administration mille-feuilles.” To him, the little layered cake is a good illustration of French bureaucracy, with the different parts of the system not joined up and working together. As of now, there are no national rules or regulations on bedbugs. This makes it difficult to establish efficient ways to contain the pests—but there are some proposals on the table.

For instance, in France it’s mandatory for home owners and tenants to have home insurance. Paris officials are pushing for the addition of a bedbug clause in this insurance—but without increasing premiums too much: “The idea would be to add a few euros a year to the mandatory insurance,” says Demière. “We all have to be insured against fire, even though, luckily, very few people will have a fire in their home. Why couldn’t it be the same with bedbugs?” This might not stop the insects from spreading, but it would at least help people avoid getting hit with huge bills. The availability of insurance might also convince people to treat infestations as a priority, which could lower the rate at which the bugs spread.

The mayor of Paris is involved in talks with the government and is also in touch with members of parliament, who have recently brought the subject to the National Assembly: On October 3, left-wing MP Mathilde Panot brought a bedbug (in a test tube) into parliament to force the government to take action to contain the crisis. A ministerial meeting took place on October 6, but so far, nothing has been announced. But with on nine months until the 2024 Paris Olympics, which will bring in hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world, time is running out for France to get on top of the problem.