Bed Bugs & Beyond

An outbreak of paranoia (and lint) sweeps the city

Three young women walk into Dunkin' Donuts, each wearing sleeveless shirts and jeans. Diane scans them.

"I look on the arms and earlobes for bites," she says. "I look at everyone that way now." The three, now ordering coffee at the counter, are clean.

Diane looks over her shoulder and then back toward me. She reaches into a bag on the table—she won't put anything near the floor, where a bedbug could be lurking. She leans forward and whispers, "Have you seen them before?"

 Cimex lectularius, not to be confused with bunnyex dustus.
illustration: Bill Mayer
Cimex lectularius, not to be confused with bunnyex dustus.


See also:
When the Bedbugs Bite
Those little red bumps are the least of it
Photo gallery by Mara Altman

She pulls out a jar; inside is a Q-tip and three dead rust-colored bugs. A friend gave her the bugs to conduct executioner-type experiments. She's trying to find her own best method of mass slaughter. She, along with many others on the blog, believes New York's pesticide laws are too strict. DDT has been off U.S. shelves for more than 30 years—not even exterminators can use it. But if this woman has one thing besides bedbugs on the brain, it's the will to kill them, and in the jar is DDT. She procured the substance from a retired-scientist friend. The stuff works wonders. She said the little bastards died within seconds. Many bedbug victims from the blog believe the government should legalize the use of DDT for indoor use only. "I used to run behind DDT spray trucks," Diane says. "I'm still here. It's these bedbugs that are going to kill me." She says if the government doesn't help with the growing epidemic, she might have to seek help from higher-ups. "I'm ready to call Oprah," she says.

She puts the jar back in the bag; she pushes the top down tight so she can kill the bugs twice over, this time with asphyxiation. "Do you think anyone saw them?" she asks.

The interview is over. I have to catch a train back to the city and she has work to do. Her husband just came home from a business trip to California and she has to go spray his luggage. For someone so anxious, I would've expected her to edge back in fear of even touching me. But she shakes my hand goodbye, heartily. It's not germs she's afraid of getting; it's the bugs. As we part—I toward the escalator and she toward her car—she yells out some advice. "Don't sit!" she said. "Never. Don't do it. Don't sit down!"

Naturally, there's a group of New Yorkers who've found a way to profit from the growing paranoia about bedbugs. At the New York Pest Expo, organized and sponsored by Bug Off Pest Control Center, 325 professional exterminators from the tristate area convened in November to discuss, among other things, how the bedbug brouhaha has given the profession a fresh wave of business.

The convention took place at the seemingly bug-free armory off of Fort Washington Avenue in Washington Heights. Company-sponsored booths hawking pesticides and an array of spraying tools ringed the red-rubber racetrack. When I stepped inside and saw all the exterminators lounging on bleachers, gazing at a PowerPoint demonstration, I couldn't help but wonder how many creatures they had collectively killed, but I tried not to hold that against them—not even the guy wearing suspenders with skull-and-crossbones designs.

The conference was a whole-day affair—9 a.m. to 6 p.m.—and covered everything from overcoming roach bait aversion to understanding foggers, subsoil tools, borate sprayers, and foaming equipment. Andy Linares, the coordinator of the event, saved the bedbug update for last—he knew people would stick around for that. At 4:30 p.m. he introduced a pretty, blonde, curly-haired entomologist, Deanna Branscome, to discuss the pest that seems to have exterminators baffled, but also in awe. Some see the bug as the perfect plight to help them climb the ladder in their careers. "They don't cause disease," says Jose Colon, an exterminator from K.E.B. Pest Control, "but there's a lot of money in it." Linares says any exterminator charging less than $400 a room doesn't have a clue what he's doing.

The American Museum of Natural History's resident entomologist, who's also a licensed pest-control technician, Louis Sorkin, also pulled up a swath of bleacher. He's become a mini-celebrity because of the resurgence of bedbugs—a server at a café even recognized him from a New York Times article on bedbugs when he came in to buy a muffin and coffee. He's been quoted in at least a dozen other publications. Though he's got a head of graying hair, when he was talking about bugs, he reminded me of a pre-teen who loves nothing more than to go outside, scrounge up some insects, and scare his family members by tacking them to a bulletin board.

The day before the convention, I had visited him in his office. He used to concentrate mostly on preserving and labeling spiders, but since the bedbug craze, it has fallen to him to become the pest's official media contact. His office is on the sixth floor of the museum, away from the elephants and blue whales, and crammed with boxes, bags, and paperwork. By his desk, there's a plastic bag containing a Kellogg's All-Bran cereal box that's infested with some kind of bug, waiting to be identified. He logs on to the Yahoo bedbug group every morning to share advice he's picked up thus far. He told me that lately there has been confusion between bedbugs and other little bugs: carpet beetles, bird and rodent mites, shiny spider beetles, and parasitic wasps. That confusion has fed the fears of many, he explained.

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