Don't Let the Bedbugs Bite

Decades after banning some dangerous household pesticides, the country is suffering an uncomfortable side effect: Bloodsucking bedbugs are back in force

02-01-2007 // Hannah Schardt

TWO MONTHS after moving into an apartment in Queens, New York, Caitlin Heller woke up covered in red welts. "I thought I was being bitten by gnats," she says. "Someone suggested bedbugs, but I didn't believe they existed." Then she noticed the "little dark smudges" moving around on the edge of her mattress. After some research, Heller's heart sank: Bedbugs do exist. They exist all over the United States--including, a year ago, in Heller's beloved new apartment. In fact, decades after being all but eliminated in this country, the bloodsuckers are experiencing a renaissance.

The bedbug (Cimex lectularius), an exotic species that first arrived in the United States with early European colonists, has likely been bugging humans for millennia, according to entomologists. The flat, wingless insects--an adult is about the size and shape of an apple seed--feed primarily on human blood, though in a pinch, they will snack on a household pet, particularly a bird or rodent.

In the middle of the last century, widespread use of pesticides--home sprays as well as DDT--nearly wiped out the U.S. population of bedbugs. But in the 1970s, DDT and some other pesticides were banned because of their devastating effects on the environment and on human health. In recent years, "pest control companies have really moved towards baits and away from an indiscriminate use of insecticides for pests like cockroaches and ants," says Susan Jones, an entomologist at Ohio State University. "Since bedbugs feed on blood, they aren't affected by bait."

So bedbugs were left alone to breed, feed and spread. A female can lay as many as 400 eggs in a lifetime. Eggs hatch in 10 days, and young bedbugs reach maturity within two months. In the warmth of a building with a steady supply of human blood, the insects can live for up to a year--sometimes on a single meal. Immature bedbugs look virtually identical to adults, only colorless; once a juvenile has eaten a blood meal, it is able to molt its skin and grow, eventually reaching its full size and changing color.

Jones, who has spent most of her career studying termites, became interested in bedbugs a few years ago, when they first crept back into the headlines. In 2003, New York City's ritzy Helmsley Park Lane Hotel quietly settled a lawsuit brought by a businessman who claimed his stay in the hotel left him covered in itchy welts. That case caught the attention of Americans, many of whom had never heard of bedbugs outside the old nursery rhyme: "Good night, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite." Soon, the insects seemed to be everywhere: fancy Manhattan hotels, apartment buildings in Cincinnati, private homes from coast to coast.

"We're having an outbreak," says Dale Pollet, an entomologist at Louisiana State University. Several cities--especially in the eastern United States--have suffered bedbug infestations of varying degrees in recent years. "A lot of it can be attributed to foreign travel," says Pollet. "Bedbugs travel easily in suitcases, and if you get them in your bed, they'll feed at night and infest the room you're in."

Still, they are not considered major pests. Unlike mosquitoes, which can carry malaria and other deadly illnesses, or even cockroaches, which spread harmful bacteria, bedbugs are not known to carry diseases. That's not to say they are harmless; a severe infestation can lead to anemia in very young or very old people. And even for healthy adults such as Heller, a bedbug infestation can be profoundly stressful, even depressing. So is there anything beneficial about bedbugs? "There doesn't seem to be," Jones says ruefully. "I hate to say it because almost all insects play a role. Mosquitoes pollinate, and they provide food to animals. But bedbugs--these are parasites of humans and that's about it."

Since it looks like bedbugs are here to stay, experts say that humans need to learn to deal with the parasites. "One of the main things is to prevent them in the first place," says Jones. She recommends that travelers keep their luggage closed tightly while they're in hotel rooms and inspect their bags before heading home. An infested home should be frequently vacuumed--mattresses, furniture and baseboards. Still, infestations will occur, and Jones says that both exterminators and the public need to be better prepared. "There needs to be an education of the pest control industry," says Jones. "A lot of people in the industry are no longer aware of what a labor- and time-intensive job it is to get rid of these things."

For Heller, getting rid of them meant washing every piece of clothing and bedding she owned in hot water. Since the infestation was centered on her mattress, she got rid of it and started sleeping on the sofa bed. Finally, after several months, countless loads of laundry and three visits from the exterminator, her apartment is now bedbug-free. But that doesn't mean she rests easy. "A few weeks ago, I found three bites on my ankle. They turned out to be mosquito bites, but bedbugs are always the first thing I think of," she says. "They just take over your life."

Hannah Schardt is a senior associate editor of this magazine.

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