What’s Eating You?

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

Truly, the arthropods shall inherit the earth. Or they would 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 bedbugs seemed to be on our minds more than usual.

New York, and therefore a large portion of American news consumers, were terrorized by bedbugs. But so what? There’s a story like that almost every summer, because reporters have less news to cover yet just as many pages and broadcast hours to fill.

So bedbugs are no big deal and you should sleep easy, America. Bedbugs are not as bad as you’ve heard. Right?

Actually, they are much worse than you have heard, says Gail Getty, a leading bedbug expert and entomologist at the University of California-Berkeley’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,” Getty says.

Bedbugs were a common household pest in America up through the 1930s, but after the massive DDT fumigation campaigns of the 1940s and 1950s, only small pockets of the insects remained. Their resurgence in the past decade probably has a number of causes, Getty says. The bedbugs that survived fumigations grew increasingly resistant to existing pesticides. Insect control became more targeted toward specific pests, meaning that if you call an exterminator for cockroaches, he’s just going to kill your cockroaches. Finally, bedbugs 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 bedbugs’ disturbing sex lives–which make even rape-happy otters seem like models of enlightened gender relations–influence their migration patterns.

Bedbugs 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; they’re rolling around. It’s not a smooth-looking thing. The male takes his reproductive organ and starts to stab her all over her body, all over her abdomen, and punctures a hole through her–and remember she already has one that would work just fine–and releases his sperm into her blood.”

At the end of this stabbing intercourse, the female bedbug, 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, bedbugs spread through bad sex, which is so bad it is known to science as “traumatic insemination.”

There are a lot of reasons to be appalled by bedbugs. They enjoy what is called a blood meal, which is to say you. Sure, so do fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes. It is somehow far more unsettling, however, that when we are curled up in our beds, letting sleep knit up our raveled sleeves of care, we are bedbugs’ chief nourishment.

It’s tempting to be grateful that bedbugs use anesthetics when they bite, but they only do it so sleeping humans don’t swat. Bedbugs need some 10 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. 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 bedbugs 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 bedbugs–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. Then she checks the bed skirt and under the lamp and the alarm clock.

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

So you wait to see if you get bitten. But even a lack of bite 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 bedbugs 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.) And they breed exponentially, Getty says. Within six months, 40 bedbugs become well over 1,000 new roommates.

Once you have bedbugs, getting rid of them isn’t cheap. Let’s say you have a three-bedroom 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 bedbugs. No one wants to come to your place, no one wants to get close to you, and worst of all is the unspoken rebuke that the infestation is your fault for being a dirty person. That’s not fair, Getty says. Bedbugs 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 bedbugs upon yourself by leaving food out. You are the food.

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

Second, there have so far been no proven cases of bedbugs 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. Bedbugs, which have been with us since before recorded history, just make us itch.

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

As Getty says, “Cockroaches: There aren’t a lot of good things about them.”

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 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 whose eyelashes were 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 firestorms 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 undergo cell division for only 48 hours of each week, which gives them more time to repair 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.

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 the Center for Vectorborne Diseases at the University of California-Davis. 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, says Reisen: “These things are knocking at our door.”

If you’re looking for friends among the ubiquitous insects, Getty says, look to ants. Ants don’t spread any nasty diseases, they hardly bite, and, really, they’re quite helpful to your local ecosystem. Heck, they’ll even try to kill any termites you have hanging around.

Brendan Buhler is a Vermont-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Sierra and California. Excerpted from California (Winter 2010), the award-winning alumni magazine of the University of California-Berkeley.www.alumni.berkeley.edu/news/california-magazine

Have something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the July-August 2011 issue of Utne Reader

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