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How to Fight a Scourge: Scenes from the Bedbug Summit

9 minute read
David Von Drehle/Chicago

In the 1950s, after they saved the world from Hitler and before they perfected the three-martini lunch, the Greatest Generation wiped out bedbugs — or so they thought. They hit the tick-size parasites with DDT by the barrel, then mopped up with malathion.

But here’s the thing about the tiny bloodsuckers: they have an amazing ability to stay on task. Years passed. DDT was banned. People grew complacent. Parents still said, “Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite!” But their children just giggled. Meanwhile, a few critters survived. In havens around the world, they focused intently on the bedbug agenda of hiding, feeding and multiplying, which they can do at a rate of 10,000 babies in three months.

(See TIME’s video on bedbugs.)

And now they’re back! Nimbly hitchhiking across the globalized planet, bristling with built-up resistance to insecticides, the common bedbug — Cimex lectularius — has planted its nasty little flag “in all 50 states and around the world,” according to entomologist Jeffrey White, star of the Internet series Bed Bug TV.

New York City is being hit the hardest. Bedbugs have been found in the Empire State Building, at the United Nations, in the Time Warner Center and in the offices of the Brooklyn district attorney. They have infested cool shops like Hollister, Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria’s Secret and Niketown. Even tony Bergdorf Goodman has hired trained beagles to sniff the premises for the telltale odor of these stinkbug cousins.

But once they make it there, they can make it anywhere. “New York is the handwriting on the wall,” says bedbug expert Richard Cooper. In a recent survey of 1,000 pest-control companies across the country, 95% said they have encountered bedbug problems in the past year. Anecdotal reports suggest that the bugs are quite fond of Ohio. At the same time, infestations have risen 800% in Alaska over the past five years. Bedbugs love warm, dry climates. They seem to do just fine in the northern woods of Canada too.

At a hotel near O’Hare International Airport on Sept. 21 and 22, more than 350 people gathered for the first ever bedbug summit. Interest was so high that it sold out five weeks in advance. Government officials, academics, property managers, pest-control technicians, insecticide chemists and antibug inventors thronged lectures asking where the critters are coming from and how to kill them once they arrive.

It’s possible that bedbugs are simply the latest in a long string of public panics over epidemics that eventually proved to be manageable, from killer bees to bird flu. But that would not quite capture the grim mood of the Chicago summit. One scientist showed, using DNA evidence, how the bugs hop blithely from continent to continent on clothing, carry-ons, backpacks and purses. Another tracked the eruption of bedbug colonies through a single multistory apartment building. Another flashed a photograph of a robust bedbug literally glistening with drops of poison rolling off its back. “These are tough critters,” declared Michael Potter of the University of Kentucky. Dini Miller of Virginia Tech echoed, “It is nearly impossible to eradicate these bugs with insecticides alone.”

So — deep breath — what do we need to know about these persistent, resistant little devils? Start with the fact that, even as they are leaping up our ladder of national fears, they neither vault nor fly. But oh, how they can scurry.

The good news about bedbugs is that they don’t appear to transmit diseases. This is perhaps surprising, given their otherwise disgusting nature. A bedbug’s life is nasty, brutish and gross — hiding in the crevices and cracks and folds of headboards, mattress seams, box springs, baseboards and bureau drawers until it’s time to wander out in search of a meal.

(See how Ohio dealt with bedbugs.)

Yet despite the fact that they are less dangerous than other bloodsuckers like mosquitoes and ticks, bedbugs can do very real psychological damage. “They’re creepy,” White explains. “They’re invading your sanctuary, your bed, and suddenly you can’t sleep because they’re coming out of your walls, out of your box springs, to feed on you in the night. I’ve seen people fall apart emotionally because of an infestation.”

So much for the good news. The bad news stems from their vile mating and travel habits. Male bedbugs are as relentless as the guys on Jersey Shore; they inseminate the females by stabbing them in the abdomen with an appendage that looks like a rusty can opener. Female bedbugs may wander as a way of escaping. Talented stowaways, they can hunker down in the seam of a suitcase, say, and because they can endure long periods in cramped environments without eating or even moving, they are perfectly adapted to modern airline travel. At the other end of the journey, their new host unwittingly welcomes them home by plopping the suitcase on a bed or sofa to unpack.

Bedbugs are often associated with squalor, but according to Cooper, their resurgence was initially aided by the jet set. The earliest contemporary infestations — starting in the late 1990s — were found in upscale hotels and resorts. The bugs aren’t picky about whose blood they swig, however, and now the greatest danger Cooper perceives is the growing likelihood that bedbugs will become so populous in lower-income, multifamily dwellings that they will be nearly impossible to eradicate.

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At the Chicago summit, experts drove home the idea that battling bedbugs depends on early detection, and early detection depends on educating the public. Bedbug bites produce no reaction in approximately 1 out of 3 humans; among people who do react, the resulting itchy welts can be mistaken for mosquito bumps or allergic reactions. White says one thing to look for is bite marks in clusters or rows of three — no one quite knows why, but that can be a bedbug signature.

Another sign that the bugs have moved in: tiny rust-colored or black spots (telltale blood or feces) on mattress seams, behind headboards, on the underside of box springs, above baseboards or at the junction of wall and ceiling. This spotting can sometimes be mistaken for mold.

(See Joel Stein’s “Space Invaders.”)

A number of lures and traps are designed to help homeowners and property managers survey for bedbugs. One simple and relatively inexpensive gizmo is called the ClimbUp Insect Interceptor. A set of plastic dishes, these devices are placed under the legs of a bed. Bugs using the bed legs to commute to and from their mattress feeding grounds can climb into the trap but can’t climb out.

Catching them early, before the bugs disperse throughout the house, is “the single most important fact” in battling bedbugs, Cooper preaches. Once they’ve been discovered, it’s time to call in the cavalry. Independent scientists at the Chicago summit were scornful of household products that claim to wipe out bedbugs. Even sprays and bombs that might kill the critters on contact cannot penetrate the crevices where bedbugs hide. Indeed, self-help can do more harm than good by driving the bugs into more remote hiding places — and the more they disperse, the harder they are to eliminate. One summiteer, Amanda Shaw of Bloomington, Ind., battled bedbugs for more than two years before she finally called in the pros.

Judging by the number of note-taking exterminators at the summit, however, even pest-control professionals are still searching for tips. There is no perfect insecticide. Even if DDT were magically restored to the market, bedbugs have evolved a resistance to their once mortal foe. Many professionals advise clients to zip their mattresses and box springs into impermeable casings, but not all products are created equal. Summit organizer Phillip Cooper (brother of Richard) says he has seen hungry bugs squeeze between the zipper teeth of ineffective mattress cases.

(See how stinkbugs are closing in on bedbugs territory.)

The exhibition hall in Chicago suggested the range of bedbug-fighting strategies. Mobile ovens offered to bake the bugs to death. (“Heat is the bedbug’s Achilles’ heel,” says White.) Powerful vacuums proposed to suck them to oblivion. Some experts favored steaming; some favored poison dust; some suggested electrocution. A woman from Australia claimed to have eliminated her infestation by installing simple barriers on her bed legs and waiting patiently for the bugs to starve. That can be a long wait, given that Yale scientist Joshua Benoit has a live bedbug he has fed just once in the past two years and eight months. By using a combination of several techniques, competent pest-control companies should be able to wipe out an early infestation within a few weeks. The cost to tackle a single-family home can easily run past $1,000.

A better solution, experts agree, is to avoid importing bedbugs in the first place. Be cautious in public places where upholstered or wooden surfaces meet backpacks and purses — movie theaters, public libraries, even changing tables in public restrooms. Travelers should inspect hotel beds and headboards for signs of bedbugs; keep suitcases off the bed; unpack outside upon returning home; and put travel clothes immediately into a hot-water wash. At least one vendor offers plastic bags that dissolve in the laundry, so that travel clothes can be sealed at the hotel and dropped directly into the hot-water cycle. If you really want to be thorough, you can buy a $330 PackTite oven designed to bake your luggage to a bug-killing temperature. Otherwise, it might help to seal your suitcase in a plastic garbage bag.

Awareness and innovation should eventually make bedbugs a manageable problem for most people, says Phillip Cooper. “Mark my words: In the next 10 years, a silver bullet will be found. Somebody made Velcro, and it changed the world. Somebody will figure out how to deal with bedbugs, and after that, it will be just another pest, like roaches or yellow jackets.” Avoiding a plague of bedbugs in America’s low-income neighborhoods is a trickier matter. Residents of inexpensive apartments and rooming houses may not know how to spot the pests, or they may not want an exterminator poking through their few belongings. Landlords may lack the money or the will to take on bedbug infestations.

White hopes to launch a charity this year to offer bedbug control to poor families, and he says the most urgent task for bedbug scientists is to find a less costly way to conquer the insects. Meanwhile, governments will need to rewrite their rule books. For while history shows that we can’t entirely eliminate bedbugs, no matter how strong our poisons might be, we can resist them — provided we muster some of their focus and determination.

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