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What’s Eating You

December 13, 2010
by Brendan Buhler
a close-up photograph of bedbugs

The recent uproar over bed bugs barely scratches the surface.

Bugs have always been in our houses and on our persons.

Truly, the arthropods shall inherit the earth. Or they would inherit it, if they weren’t already running the show—insects outnumber us 200 million to 1. Ants alone may account for as much as one third of all animal biomass on earth, according to an estimate by Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson. But in the summer of 2010 bed bugs seemed to be on our mind more than usual.

New York, and therefore a large portion of American news consumers, were terrorized by bed bugs. But so what? There’s a story like that almost every summer, because there’s not a lot of news in the summer, and yet there are just as many pages and broadcast hours to fill.

So bed bugs are no big deal and you should sleep easy, America. Bed bugs are not as bad as you’ve heard.

They are much worse than you have heard, says Gail Getty, a leading bed bug expert and entomologist at Cal’s Urban Pest Management Center. “I don’t think people should necessarily panic at this point, but everything we know in the scientific community suggests this is going to get worse, the numbers are going to go up,” Getty says.

Bed bugs were a common household pest in America up through the 1930s, but after the massive DDT fumigation campaigns of the ’40s and ’50s, only small pockets of the insects remained. Their resurgence in the last decade probably has a number of causes, Getty says. The pockets of American bed bugs that remained grew increasingly resistant to existing pesticides (so bringing back DDT is unlikely to help). Insect control has become more targeted after specific pests, meaning that if you call an exterminator in for your cockroaches, he’s just going to kill your cockroaches and not everything else in your house. Lastly, bed bugs were never comparably reduced in the rest of the world, and international travel has become more common.

If these trends aren’t creepy enough, consider how bed bugs’ sex lives—which make even rape-happy otters seem like models of enlightened gender relations—influence their migration patterns.

Bed bugs have the expected genitals, Getty says, and they’re fully capable of having insert-tab-A-into-slot-B sex to reproduce. That’s not what happens. This is: “The male grasps onto the female, and it’s very graphic, and they’re rolling around. It’s not a smooth-looking thing. And the male takes his reproductive organ and starts to stab her all over her body, all over her abdomen, and he punctures a hole through her—and remember she already has one that would work just fine—and he punctures a hole through her and releases his sperm into her blood.”


“It is interesting, and it’s really, really fun to watch,” Getty says.

Although not so much to participate in. At the end of this stabbing intercourse, the female bed bug, bleeding and vulnerable, abandons her native colony and sets off to find a new home. Say, the next hotel room over, the apartment downstairs, or your bedroom. And there she lays her eggs.

The best explanation so far, Getty says, is that this is a behavioral evolutionary strategy to reproduce in a less competitive environment that incidentally increases population distribution. Basically, bed bugs spread through bad sex, which is so bad it is known to science as “traumatic insemination.”

(And isn’t that a phrase we should all be using more often as we go through our days? Like: “Hey Pat, how was the meeting?” “Ugh. Four hours—a real traumatic insemination.”)

There are a lot of reasons to be appalled by bed bugs. They enjoy what is called a blood meal, which is to say you. Oh sure, so do fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes (more on them later). But it is somehow far creepier that when we are curled up in our armchairs or our beds, letting sleep knit up our raveled sleeves of care, we are bed bugs’ chief nourishment in life’s feast.

It’s tempting to be grateful that bed bugs use anesthetics when they bite, but they only do it so sleeping humans don’t swat. Bed bugs need some ten minutes to consume their meal, which is several times their body weight. They also inject us with anticoagulants to keep our blood flowing. Those bloody spots on the sheets? They’re rarely because you rolled over and squished a bug. If only. The spots are there because you kept bleeding after your parasites had supped.

Not that a lack of blood spots constitutes proof that a bed is bug free.

When Getty checks into a hotel room, she either leaves her luggage in the hall or takes it into the bathroom and puts it into the tub, which for bed bugs is too hard and cold, and also too far from dinner. She lifts up the bed sheets and checks the mattress for blood spots. She looks for bed bugs—which range in size from four millimeters down to really, really tiny—in the mattress piping. Then she looks for bugs between the mattress and the box spring. (Bed bugs love the box spring—it’s like the suburbs, close to fine dining but without the nightly perils of inner-city living.) Then she checks the bed skirt and under the lamp and the alarm clock (more suburbs).

“But even then, seeing nothing doesn’t mean you don’t have bed bugs,” Getty says.

So you wait to see if you get bitten. But even a lack of bites marks isn’t proof of absence. On some people, bites don’t show up for seven to nine days after they’ve been bitten. Some people never show bites. Others get horrible rashes.

All of this means it’s very easy to pick up bed bugs and bring them home. (Worried you might have stowaways? Bag up your clothes before you come home and throw them into a hot washing machine immediately upon your return. As for the suitcase, spray it, bake it, or toss it out.) They breed exponentially, Getty says. Within six months, 40 bed bugs become well over 1,000 new roommates.

Once you have bed bugs, getting rid of them isn’t cheap. Let’s say you have a three-bedroom detached house. To do the job right in California, Getty estimates you would end up spending $1,000 on inspections and another $1,000 on integrated pest management, which combines spraying with steam, vacuuming, and the laundering of most of your cloth possessions. You’ll probably want another inspection two weeks later, too. If you live in an apartment, well, let’s just say your landlord isn’t going to be happy. The entire building will have to be inspected and treated.

Also, there is the horrible social stigma of being lousy with bed bugs. No one wants to come to your place (understandable), no one wants to get close to your person (unnecessarily cruel, since bed bugs like beds more than coats), and worst of all is the unspoken rebuke, like it’s your fault for being a dirty, dirty person. Which is just not fair, Getty says. Bed bugs have “absolutely nothing to do with sanitation.” Sure, they like a little clutter to hide in, and you’d probably have protected yourself a bit if you put allergy wrap around your box spring, but they are not cockroaches. You can’t bring bed bugs upon yourself by leaving food out. You are the food.

There are two pieces of good news about bed bugs. First, Getty says they have been way more of a problem in New York than California, which means that it is entirely possible that right now bed bugs are chowing down on Donald Trump.

Secondly, there have so far been no proven cases of bed bugs transmitting disease to humans. That makes them special among familiar bloodsuckers. Mosquitoes pass on encephalitides and fevers. Fleas carry bubonic plague, which once wiped out a third of the population of Europe and halted the expansion of the Mongol Empire. Bed bugs, which have been with us since before recorded history, have just made us itch.

Still, the prospect of chronic itching, loneliness, and insolvency has been enough to drive America wild over the last several months. Imagine what would happen if people gave a moment’s thought to the critters that could do them real harm.

Or, as Getty says, “Cockroaches: There’s not a lot of good things about them.”

And this from a scientist who laughs with delight while describing all of the substances cockroaches will eat and how they’ve made our homes their own. They like our suburban lawns. They like our urban dumpsters and sewer systems. Were they capable of it, cockroaches would no doubt thank us for this wonderful habitat we have built for them. There’s so much here to eat. They like bookbindings and stamp glue, both being manufactured from rendered animals. They even like our toenail clippings.

The problem for us is that though cockroaches are wonderful at breaking down our waste, they really will eat anything organic. Getty has visited infested apartment buildings and seen infant humans who have had their eyelashes gnawed off while they slept. Plus, cockroaches’ willingness to eat anything and their indifference to where they defecate means that they’re common disease vectors, six-legged plague pits spreading staph infections and salmonella. The shedding of their body parts and feces creates roach dust, which can cause childhood asthma.

Roaches were here before us, and they will most likely be here after our species is deceased. Remember that old gag about cockroaches being able to survive nuclear war? It’s kind of true. Sure, an arthropod incapable of resisting a penny loafer is not going to have much luck with the concussive force and resulting fire storms from a fusion bomb, but most of them will survive the radiation. Radiation is most damaging to dividing cells—this is why radiation therapy kills more cancer cells than normal cells. Unlike us mammals and our constantly dividing cells, cockroaches and their kin only undergo cell division for 48 hours of each week, which gives them more time to repair any radiation damage. Professor Joseph Kunkel, a cockroach expert at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, estimates that three-fourths of the cockroach population would survive a radiation blast that would exterminate humanity.

Cockroaches have done very well in human civilization and are better travelled than their taxonomy suggests, Kunkel says. Of the ten cosmopolitan species of cockroach, the two you are most likely to encounter in the United States are the American cockroach and the German cockroach. The American roach is likely from North Africa and a passenger of the slave trade. The German roach likely originated in Southeast Asia and travelled into Europe with the spice trade and from Europe to the Americas. (In Germany it is called the Russian roach, and in Russia it is called the Polish roach.)

Bad neighbors though they can sometimes be, insects are co-inhabitants of human civilization—or, rather, we are co-inhabitants of their older civilizations. Some of them are six-legged overlords. Take the mosquito. Now there’s an insect to worry about.

Mosquitoes are one of the most potent vectors for blood-borne disease, so potent that you can argue they shaped human evolution. Malaria borne by mosquitoes has been one of the most ferocious and persistent killers of humans, so much so that in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, parts of the Middle East, and India, much of the population carries genes for sickle cell anemia, which in their recessive form can stymie malaria.

Mosquitoes are also vectors for yellow fever, dengue fever, West Nile virus, and assorted encephalitides, says William K. Reisen, a research entomologist at UC Davis’s Center for Vectorborne Diseases. California has fought a ferocious battle against mosquitoes over the years, eradicating malaria and other fevers. Protecting humans and livestock involves 63 government agencies throughout the state with a combined budget of more than $100 million.

The fight against disease is likely to get harder as our population grows, people travel more, and climate change alters habitats. Diseases we thought had been eliminated from the developed world will come back. “These things are knocking at our door,” Reisen says.

If you’re looking for friends among the ubiquitous insects, Getty says, look to ants.

Ants don’t spread any nasty diseases and they hardly bite (well, fire ants, sure …) and really, they’re quite helpful to your local ecosystem. Heck, they’ll even try to kill any termites you have hanging around.

Getty says, “The bottom line is, if they’re not in the house, don’t worry about ’em.”

Ladybugs, now they’re a favorite. “I’m delighted by any little ladybug I find,” Getty says. They’re beetles, of course, a favorite of many naturalists.

But if she could pick any insect to stumble upon serendipitously, Getty wouldn’t mind finding a termite.

“I gotta admit, I get excited by termites,” Getty says. “They were my first love, the first insect I ever studied.”

Brendan Buhler is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont with his wife and a household pest named Evie. His work has appeared in Sierra and California, most recently “Wanna Make an Issue of It?” in Fall 2010.
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