clock menu more-arrow no yes

Bedbugs!

A perp sheet on the culprit in a nationwide epidemic, plus prevention and extermination options you've been itching to know about.

Nymph Nosferatu

Photo by Louis Sorkin & Randy Mercurio, <a href="http://www.amnh.org/" target="_blank">American Museum of Natural History</a>

Like most youngsters, this juvenile Cimex ("bug") lectularius ("relating to a bed or couch") loves a bedtime snack. But that ain't warm milk he's sipping—it's human blood, straight from the source. The common bedbug, though nearly wiped out domestically thirty years ago, is back—in U.S. communities of every type. "This is not a low-income issue," says NYC Councilwoman Gale Brewer, an official working to halt the spread. "Anybody can get bedbugs." And the nymph pictured here, after just a few weeks, will mature into a fecund foot soldier in this bedbug battalion sweeping the States.

Bug-Food Nation

Photo by <a href="http://www.orkin.com/" target="_blank">Orkin, Inc.</a>

"We've treated in 47 states, but the industry has confirmed activity in all 50," says Frank Meek, director of technical services for Orkin. "And though most locations are still hotel/motel, dormitory, multifamily situations, the number of occurrences in private residences is growing rapidly"—an increase Meek attributes, in part, to the explosion of international travel. "The bedbug is a great hitchhiker," he says, "and one inseminated female can establish a colony, since she's going to produce 200, 300 eggs in her lifetime. Plus it can survive up to 18 months without a food source. Like all insects, it's adapted to do exactly that: survive. As one of my professors used to say, 'Bet on the bug.'"

Strange Bedfellows

Photo by Courtesy of Terry Borton, <a href="http://www.magiclanternshows.com/" target="_blank">American Magic-Lantern Theater</a>

Descended from the nest parasites of bats, the wingless bedbug—a.k.a. chinch, crimson rambler, mahogany flat, redcoat, wall louse—has long been a scourge of humanity, one whose enormously negative impact belies its tiny size. In this magic lantern slide circa 1894, artist Joseph Boggs Beale conveys the horror of an infestation with a grotesquely exaggerated specimen. In reality, an unfed, full-grown bedbug is less than a quarter-inch long.

Anatomy of Annoyance

Photo by Courtesy <a href="http://www.parasiticdiseases.org/" target="_blank">Parasitic Diseases</a>, Fifth Edition, Apple Trees Productions

Bedbugs lurk behind walls and in crevices. "They're so wafer-thin they can crawl into the smallest cracks, they're avid feeders, and they're as fast as greased lightning," says Dr. Dickson Despommier of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. "But they essentially disappeared because of the overuse of DDT." The 1972 U.S. banning of DDT is one explanation for the insects' rebound. But, though the bugs are once again "a serious nuisance", Dr. Despommier doesn't see their reemergence as a public health crisis. "As far as we know," he says, "they don't have the capability of transmitting diseases. That's important to point out, because it's easy for people to overreact to these things."

Taking One for the Team

Photo by Daniel Paul Simmons III

Dr. Louis Sorkin, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, keeps a bedbug colony in a jelly jar. "The female lays her sticky eggs, which cement themselves in. You'll also see black spots of fecal matter, and in infestations you can actually smell them: they sometimes produce a sweet, pungent odor that some people say is like raspberries, coriander, or citronella." When it's dinnertime, Dr. Sorkin offers himself up as a human sacrifice. "After feeding," he says, displaying a circular welt on his arm, "the bugs go into hiding then shed their skins to grow. After each shedding they have to get another blood meal, after which they hide, digest, shed, and get larger until they reach the adult stage, which could take up to two months or longer."

Fill 'Er Up

Photo by Louis Sorkin & Randy Mercurio, <a href="http://www.amnh.org/" target="_blank">American Museum of Natural History</a>

"Adults are reddish-brown, even when they haven't fed," says Dr. Sorkin. "But when the nymphs first hatch, they're pale white or clear and only about a millimeter long, so they're very hard to see." For scientists, the infants' translucent bodies offer unique opportunities for study. "Under a microscope, you can see the probosis stylet moving in and out as the head moves up and down," he says. "You actually see the gut filling up with blood." But it's not what the creatures take out of humans that causes trouble; it's what they put in—the saliva they inject often prompts an allergic reaction resulting in itchy, raised red welts.

A Case In Point

Photo by Daniel Paul Simmons III

"Believe it or not, this is so much better than it was," says Mina, presenting her insect-scarred arm. Several months ago, she and husband Jonathan (not their real names) noticed the first telltale signs. "But I didn't immediately jump on it when I found a few drops of blood on my sheets." Having lost the early advantage, the couple soon found their situation escalating. "We'd be reading in bed at night, and I'd look up to see ten bed bugs crawling on the ceiling," Mina says. "There was this real feeling of dread, knowing that when we turned out the light they'd come down and bite us."

Battling Back

Photo by Courtesy <a href="http://www.bugclinic.com/" target="_blank">The Bug Clinic</a>

"Jonathan did some research," Mina says, "and found this place with a collection of poisons." Called The Bug Clinic, it sells professional exterminator supplies to the public. The couple invested about $150 in an anti-arthropod arsenal, dismantled their bedroom, and attempted the job themselves. "There was a huge improvement right at the beginning," Mina says. "Now we've brought the level down so that we don't see them anymore." But Jonathan and Mina aren't resting easy—many neighbors in their porous hundred-year-old building in Greenwich Village are similarly afflicted. "The bugs are so small they can even live between the boards in our distressed hardwood floors," she says. "It's an uphill battle."

The Professional Touch

Photo by <a href="http://www.orkin.com/" target="_blank">Orkin, Inc.</a>

"Consumers should never try this on their own because they end up putting harsh pesticides where they're not necessary," says Orkin's Meek. "We're dealing with a blood-sucking ectoparasite attacking people in their beds, where they should be most comfortable, so we don't want to add the stress of subjecting them to pesticides." According to Meek, the key to eradication is process more than product. "You can kill bed bugs with mild materials: we utilize steam to kill the eggs and a product that's basically rubbing alcohol to kill the adults. But the bugs are hard to find, so it's a slow process. When talking to a pest controller, make sure he has experience with bedbugs—and ask for references."

Other Expert Options

Photo by Courtesy <a href="http://www.thermapure.com/" target="_blank">ThermaPureHeat</a>

Pros differ on methodology. Some blast the pests in their nests with limestone dust (NIC 325) or diatomaceous earth made of fossilized shells. These non-toxic desiccants kill the bugs but present minimal risk to humans and animals. Says Joel Fagin of New York's Dial-A-Bug. "We shoot NIC 325 into the wall voids to prevent infestation from one apartment to another." Though it's organic, he cautions against dousing your home with the stuff. "You don't want to stir up airborne substances."

A chemical-free alternative, called ThermaPureHeat, basically cooks the bugs to death. The process involves all sorts of gadgetry: thermal-imaging photography (pictured here), remote probes, and hydronic heating tubes or Mylar air ducts. But it's fast, safe, and effective, according to E-Therm president David Hedman. "We're in and out in three to four hours. We know that bedbugs die at a 130-degree surface temperature. And we're gonna kill the bugs."

It's Not Just the Bugs That Hurt

Photo by Courtesy <a href="http://www.parasiticdiseases.org" target="_blank">Parasitic Diseases</a>, Fifth Edition, Apple Trees Productions

Whichever treatment you choose, expect to shell out serious shekels. "It's hundreds of dollars and up," says Martha Craft, Orkin's public relations director, "but customers can save a little money if they're willing to do the prep themselves". Thoroughly vacuum, remove light switch and outlet covers, pull carpet away from baseboards, carefully fold bedding and wash it in hot water. One thing you shouldn't do, though, is pitch the whole bed. "We don't recommend that people throw out mattresses and box springs unless they're structurally comprised," says Craft, "because our treatment kills both adults and eggs inside."

Ounce of Prevention, Pound of Cure

Photo by Daniel P. Simmons III

Of course, the best offense is a strong defense, and there are simple steps you can take to lessen the likelihood of infestation:

1) Plug the holes: "It's like looking at an English muffin," says Dr. Despommier. "These bugs seek out nooks and crannies in the environment, so prevent them from having breeding sites such as cracks, loose wallpaper, thousands of pictures on the wall. Just get a little bit handy with a spackling palette and some caulking products."

2) Clear the clutter: You don't have to be a packrat to be an unwitting bedbug collaborator—as Dr. Sorkin points out, "even screw holes in furniture" offer crevices where the critters can congregate.

3) Don't invite the little bastards in: "If you're staying in a hotel, ask for a vacuum cleaner to vacuum out your suitcase," Meek says. "When you get home, don't take your time unpacking; put the laundry immediately into the wash. And if possible don't store the suitcase in the living space." Also, beware those street-side finds: one person's treasure could be another's discarded infestation.

Toy of the Times

Photo by <a href="http://www.giantmicrobes.com" target="_blank">Giantmicrobes, Inc.</a>

In the midst of the current invasion, it's no surprise that this snuggly stuffed animal styled after a bed bug is one of Giantmicrobes, Inc.'s top sellers. "It's going neck and neck with Dust Mite in its category," says Charles Foster, director of marketing and business development for the purveyor of pathogen plushies. "We're enjoying the added publicity!" So if all else fails, and the relentless advance of Cimex lectularius continues unchecked, at least we can wrap our wounded arms around one nocturnal visitor that won't bleed us dry.