Bed Bugs & Beyond

An outbreak of paranoia (and lint) sweeps the city

He wanted to show me the difference. He brought out a Grey Poupon–sized jar filled with squirming bedbugs. He said he keeps them in his office specifically so that he can show bedbug reporters what they look like. There is a screen over the top. To keep the bugs alive, Sorkin holds his wrist to the screen for five minutes, letting them feed on him.

Sorkin went to the Bug Off convention the next day as part of his ongoing efforts to ensure that his information is the latest. As Branscome strode up, the male exterminators whistled and clapped as if she were their favorite comic-book hero come to life. The first issue she addressed is one that has mystified us all: Is it bedbugs, or bed bugs? According to this expert, it's two words in the United States and one word in Europe (in direct opposition to Village Voice style). With information like that, the $100 entrance fee has already paid for itself.

Branscome points to a slide of a multitude of bugs magnified to the size of a cockroach.

 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

"They have a smell," she says. "Has anyone here ever smelled it?"

Hands pop up all around. Some don't wait to be picked and just shout out: Yucky! Stinky! Sweet! Like raspberries!

So many exterminators in the crowd have had experiences with the pests, and yet most still don't know how to deal them a knockout dose. Is it a coincidence or a conspiracy?

Branscome explains that bedbugs don't only feed at night, although it is their favorite time to eat. That's when their prey is easy to attack, already still and unconscious. They puncture the skin and use an anesthetic so they can take their time eating—bedbugs are posh, like guests at a five-star restaurant, and they want to enjoy every molecule of the chef's daily special. They attach for five to 10 minutes, until they are fully engorged. As they scamper off, the bite starts to itch. Less than half of those whose blood gets sucked have a reaction to the bite, which makes matters even more complicated and dangerous. If you don't know you have bedbugs, then you can innocently spread them around.

Exterminators usually have to make one to two visits—at $400 per room—though it is not uncommon for them to return. After all, exterminators explain, there must be continuous inspections to ensure complete eradication. Bedbugs are so itty-bitty that hundreds of eggs can fit on the head of a screw, and they can hole up in the smallest spaces—the crease of a lampshade, the hinge of a cupboard. And what makes them even more terrible is that they are obscenely durable—an adult bedbug can live more than one year without a meal. The chemicals, such as DDT, that formerly worked are now off the market for the role they played in causing silent springs, so exterminators are still lacking an answer to the problem.The best they can do is integrate many techniques: eliminate clutter, vacuum everything, inspect, monitor, and douse the place with chemicals. Meanwhile, they happily accept their fees.

Just as the attendees began fidgeting, Branscome brought up a popular topic: bed- bug mating. Everyone perked up; that's when I found out that exterminators giggle. You might assume that bedbugs have good sex lives, given the amount of time they spend in the sack, but the name given to their mating habits debunks that theory. It's called traumatic insemination. The male punctures the female's abdomen with his appendage; too many punctures and mating can be fatal.

"That's why they're tearing us up," said one exterminator in the front row. "Those girls are mad!"

Anti-Viagra: That's what Linares calls one of his most promising bedbug-fighting pesticides. The pesticide was originally used for cockroaches; it freezes them in an adolescent phase so they never could mate. But Linares found the substance does something different to bedbugs. It shrinks their appendages, making them unable to harden up and penetrate. I didn't ask what the substance does to bipedal mammals.

Bugz in the Hood is his moniker, but let's call him Paul because he's the Paul Revere of this battle, warning the public with his alarm: The bedbugs are coming, the bedbugs are coming! Because of their red color, bedbugs were referred to as "redcoats" by an earlier generation of neurotics. If there's no action to minimize their numbers, Paul envisions these little creatures as the cause of the next economic meltdown, causing multi-million-dollar lawsuits and the closure of five-star hotels. Even air travel would come to a standstill (planes are, after all, one of the likely explanations of how these bugs travel so fast from place to place). He refuses to be named, for fear of stigma and out of concern that contractors will use his bedbug problem as a reason to condemn his apartment, which is in the heart of the swanky neighborhood around Columbus Circle. Because much of his time is consumed by bedbugs, I wonder if he's given them a nickname: motherfucking sons of bitches? "It's longer," he says, "but easier to get out."

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