The other day, I pulled up a map of my Brooklyn neighbourhood on the Bedbug Registry, an online database of self-reported bed-bug infestations, and a familiar dread clenched my gut. It was a feeling I thought was long gone. But the infestations were marked by red dots that spread across the streets like a rash of throbbing bed-bug bites. My apartment, thankfully, wasn’t there. Still, I appeared to be surrounded. I didn’t like it.
With my computer mouse, I clicked on the dots close to my street number. An entry for a building around the corner, above a laundromat run by one of the building’s tenants, described a bug-infested bed base leaning in the laundry’s entrance for several days. Down the street, another blamed an infestation on a neighbour who worked as a flight attendant. And, a few blocks away, someone claimed: ‘We saw people in white hazmat suits carting stuff out of some apartment in this building.’
Hazmat suits, I thought. You don’t say.
We share a long history with bed bugs – small parasitic insects that plump up to the size of an apple seed when they gorge on human blood – and it stretches back hundreds of thousands of years. The bugs might have originated in Mediterranean caves, where they fed on bats, and then shifted attention to our ancestors, who then bequeathed the pest, generation after generation. Eventually, as humans interacted through trade and travel, the bed bug conquered much of the globe.
But its dominance went through a hiccup in the five decades following the Second World War. During this time, the bug was a mere phantom in the United States and parts of Europe, Asia and Australia, wiped out, in part, by DDT and other modern chemical marvels. The pest was so rare that it shrank in our collective memory until it seemed like it didn’t exist at all, save as a bogeyman in a nursery rhyme: Good night, sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.
hen, starting in the early 2000s or so, bed bugs descended like a plague on New York and other cities across the world. The exact story of their comeback isn’t clear, but the best version is this: not long after the DDT deluge, some of the bugs had evolved resistance to the insecticide – an evolutionary inevitability – and survived in pockets worldwide. Then, as new airline regulations made travel cheaper and easier, the resistant bugs spilled from these confines, landing in cities with more people crammed together than ever before.
Today, more than half the world’s population lives in urban spaces, which, with their vast apartment complexes, are kindling for a bed-bug infestation of massive proportions.
Those of us born in the post-war years were so naive to the bug’s existence that its sudden resurgence felt like an unprecedented and orchestrated foreign attack. It was great fuel for angst. ‘If something catches you by surprise that you don’t know about, it’s scarier than something that you grew up knowing about – that’s just part of living,’ says Franklin Schneier, a research psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute who has treated patients with bed-bug anxieties.
The swelling of new bites made my legs look like grotesque props from a horror movie.
Soon, the lingering threat of a bed-bug infestation was part of our collective psychological urban fear, like getting shoved under a subway train as it barrels into the station or being crushed by debris from a dodgy construction site.
I know from experience. My punched-gut feeling during my recent perusal of the Bedbug Registry was familiar because I’ve had the bugs three times in three New York apartments. The first was in Hell’s Kitchen in 2004, and I had no idea what was attacking me at night – only that it tormented me, itched, and sent me to the emergency room with a nasty bite on my elbow that had become infected, sending red streaks up the back of my arm.
My doctor put me on antibiotics and, later, steroids to combat the swelling of new bites that made my legs look like grotesque props from a horror movie. (For the record, most people don’t have such a bad reaction to a bed bug’s bite.)
My doctor tested me for Lyme disease, which came back negative, and told me to call an exterminator. I did, again and again, but nothing helped. After a couple of months of this torture, my father suggested I had bed bugs – he thought he had read about such cases in a medical journal. I didn’t believe him at first. But then I started my own research and learned that the bug was real, complete with a natural history and Linnaean name: Cimex lectularius, meaning ‘bug of the bed’ or ‘bug of the couch’.
What followed felt like a descent into madness as I did load after load of laundry, tore apart my room, and hired a new exterminator – likely essential acts. I found only a single bed bug, although more could have been in hiding. Sleepless weeks followed: I lay covered in mosquito repellent by night, staring at my ceiling and flinching at every skin twitch, my bed pulled away from the wall and surrounded with double-sided sticky tape – useless tactics, all. But I had no new bites, and the problem appeared to be gone. My strong allergic reaction might have been lucky. I had caught the bugs early, before they were able to multiply beyond my control.
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