How Did Bed Bugs Get To The United States

Return of the bed bug

Evolution and luck have been aiding this bloodsucking parasite’s global spread

Bed bug resting on the fur of one of its animal hosts — a bat.

Gilles San Martin /Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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May 15, 2015 at 6:15 am

If you haven’t met a bed bug, count yourself lucky. These bloodsucking insects have been staging a dramatic comeback in recent years. They can be found in hotel rooms, airplanes, clothing stores and, occasionally, movie theaters. Accidentally bring one or more of these lentil-sized bugs home and your family could have trouble evicting them.

The wingless bugs are reddish-brown, oval-shaped and have six legs. Some people think bed bugs smell musty. Others compare their scent to rotting fruit or pencil shavings.

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Bed bugs live on blood. They usually eat every few days or week, but they don’t need to eat that often to survive. The tiny bugs can go months without a meal. After such an unwanted fast, or even any time they haven’t recently fed, their bodies will be flat. And that helps them hide in little cracks near a bed. But once a bed bug has gorged on a meal — usually human blood, and usually while you are asleep — it plumps up like a miniature balloon. Then it returns to hiding in wait of its next meal.

Cluster of bed-bug bite marks. Magalle L’Abbé/ Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) In the past 15 years or so, the bed bug, orCimex lectularius(SY-meks LEK-choo-LAR-ee-uhs), has become common all over the United States, Australia, Europe and parts of Asia. Its comeback has surprised many people because until recently, the pest had been rare for some 60 years in these parts of the world. During that time, some people didn’t even know the bed bug existed. They thought it was a made-up creature from the nursery rhyme:Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.

But despite its modern infamy, this pest has been around for a long, long time — hundreds of thousands of years. The earliest bed bugs probably lived in caves, feeding on bats. Those caves may have been in the Middle East, but no one knows for sure. When early humans or their relatives started spending time in such caves, the bugs may have started biting them instead of the bats.

Today, some bed bugs still live with bats in caves, churches and attics in Eastern Europe, says Ondřej Balvín. As an entomologist, he studies insects. In 2012, Balvín and his colleagues at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, studied DNA from bed bugs. They compared DNA from the bugs that still feed on bats to the DNA of bed bugs that feed on people. This helped show how long ago bed bugs switched to dining on us.

Scientists know how often DNA typically changes over time, ormutates.The scientists then applied that knowledge to the changes they saw in the DNA of bed bugs slurping human blood versus bat blood. These data suggested bed bugs began living with — and feeding on — our early relatives some 245,000 years ago. More research must be done to confirm that number. But if it’s right, it means the bed bug may predate modern humans.

Out of the caves

However long ago that was, the pest followed our ancestors as they moved out of caves. Bed bugs also are good at hitchhiking. Today, for example, they can hide away in suitcases or bags to move from one home to another. Back in the caves, the same thing likely happened. Only then, the bugs probably latched onto our ancestor’s furs or whatever else they wore or carried.

Hungry bug scouting the best place to dine. ugg/ Univ. of Georgia/ Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) As people started living in villages, towns and cities, bed bugs did too. When people invented boats and other ways to travel, some bed bugs would have stowed away in them. Before long, these immigrant insects were a part of human communities the world over. Eventually, bed bugs migrated to America on the same boats that brought human settlers.

The parasites were a common pest in the United States and elsewhere until the late 1940s. That is not long after people started using a powerful new insect killer: DDT.

This bug killer could rid people of all sorts of unwanted pests, including flies and mosquitoes. Americans and people elsewhere sprayed DDT all over their homes. There was even wallpaper that had DDT inside it. The poison probably didn’t wipe out all of the bed bugs. But it did kill enough of them to make the bugs rare.

Until, that is, they found a way to bounce back.

The big comeback

Today, exterminators in all 50 U.S. states are treating bed bug infestations. Spotting new outbreaks also has been increasing rapidly. In the early 2000s, one survey found that only 25 percent of exterminators had been called out to treat bed bugs. By 2011, 99 percent had done so. A similar trend has played out across the globe. One study, for instance, found that by 2006, Australians were battling 46 times as many bed bug infestations as they had just six years earlier.

4 reasons not to ignore signs of bed bugs

How did bed bugs become so common after almost disappearing? Experts think there may be many reasons working together.

“I really do think it was arrogance on our part to think that we had stopped a biological system,” says Dini Miller. “Really, I’m kind of surprised we didn’t have this resurgence earlier.” Miller is a bed bug expert at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Best known as Virginia Tech, its located in Blacksburg.

One big part of the bed bug picture is the ability of these pests to adapt to their environment. This is known as evolution.

Bed headboard treated with diatomaceous earth to control a bed bug infestation. New York State IPM Prog. at Cornell Univ./ Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

An organism’s genes are always developing random changes, calledmutations. If one of those chance mutations makes a bed bug better able to survive DDT, that bug will live. When it reproduces, its offspring also may carry this now-beneficial gene.

Over time, DDT killed off the sensitive bugs. This left behind more and more of the bugs with that new genetic tolerance to the poison. Eventually, DDT had little or no effect on most bed bugs in heavily treated communities.

Americans stopped using DDT in the 1970s. That’s when evidence began to show the chemical was hurting birds and other valued wildlife. But in some other countries, DDT is still allowed for some uses (such as fighting the mosquitoes that carry malaria). Scientists think that pockets of DDT-resistant bed bugs survived in these countries even when the bugs no longer were common in the United States.

Bed bugs: The ultimate carry-ons

There’s another reason bed bugs have been emerging as a growing problem. They’ve been on the move. Big time.

Starting in the 1980s, people started traveling by airplane more often because new rules made it cheaper and easier to fly. As the price of tickets dropped, more people could afford to travel long distances. It also became easier to fly even between very remote countries.

Experts now think that as people throughout the world started moving more, they began carrying DDT-resistant bed bugs with them. No one is sure exactly where, however, those resistant bugs came from.

Warren Booth is an entomologist at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. He is among researchers who think the bugs likely came from one region of the world (although they don’t yet know where). Other scientists aren’t so sure. For instance, Michael Potter of the University of Kentucky in Lexington, thinks resistant bugs may have migrated from many regions at once.

Another advantage for the bugs: More people live in cities than ever before. Because city dwellers tend to live close together — such as in apartment buildings — bed bugs don’t have to move far to find new hosts.

Other features of modern life also may have played a role in the bed bugs’ spread. People who travel spend time in a lot of environments that are friendly to bed bugs. In minutes, a planeload of people from one city will unload and a new group will take their seats. Hours after one hotel guest checks out, a new guest may check into the same room. And then there are all of those people who buy used furniture or rescue it from some discard pile on the street.

Through all of these ways, people have been making it easier for the bed bugs to find new hosts on which to dine.

As these pests have spread, they’ve also proven harder to kill. One big reason is that few insecticides that are effective at killing bed bugs also are considered safe enough to use in our bedrooms.

Pyrethroids (Py-REETH-roids) are one class of chemicals that can be used there. Unfortunately, they kill bed bugs in a way very similar to how DDT works. So all of the bed bugs that can stand up to DDT also tend to be immune to the effects of pyrethroids.

Scientists feed bed bugs (on purpose)

Like Potter, Subba Palli is an entomologist at the University of Kentucky. In 2012, he and a team of scientists found that some bed bugs also have special versions of molecules called enzymes that help them break down insecticides. That tends to make the chemicals less deadly. His team reported its findings inPLOS ONE.

The next year, in 2013, researchers at Virginia Tech found evidence that some bed bugs may be evolving thicker shells, known as exoskeletons. This could make it harder for the poisons to get in and do their damage. Dini Miller, Reina Koganemaru and their team reported the finding inPesticide Biochemistry and Physiology.

“It’s pretty fascinating to think about how these have all evolved,” says Booth at Tulsa. While it’s proven good for the bugs, “it’s not good for those that have infestations in their homes.”

Fighting back

Since entomologists figured out how to raise bed bugs in the lab, they have begun learning all kinds of information about the insects’ behavior. They also are probing new ways to control the bugs. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news: It will take a lot more work before that research turns up new and improved bed-bug killers that are ready for prime time.

For example, scientists have long known that bed bugs, like many insects, talk to each other through chemicals called pheromones. One type — aggregation pheromones — help bed bugs find their way back to their hiding places after they bite you. These chemicals show up in bed bug poop. These signaling chemicals attach to sensors in the bed bugs’ antennae. As the insects get closer to their hiding place, the pheromones get stronger and stronger.

A mix of bed bug eggs and fecal droppings (dark blotches). Harold Harlan/AFPMB/ Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Last year, Joelle Olson and a team of other entomologists from the University of Minnesota in St. Paul cut the antennae off of bed bugs. They wanted to see if it changed the bugs’ ability to sense those homing signals. But cutting the tips off didn’t seem to matter much. When the scientists instead removed the pedicel — a part of these antennae closer to the head — the bed bugs now got lost. They couldn’t find their way home.

The researchers looked at a bed bug pedicel under a powerful microscope and found it had tiny smooth structures with little holes. These may be olfactory organs, the bed-bug equivalent of our nose.

In the lab, researchers have identified some of the chemicals that make up the pheromones that bed bugs find so alluring. They are now trying to develop traps that use these pheromones to coax the pests to their death. Gerhard Gries heads one team in Canada working on this at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. Last December, his team published a paper inAngewandte Chemiedescribing six of the chemicals that make up the aggregation pheromones.Five of the chemicals attract the bugs to their hideouts. The sixth makes the bugs want to stay there (at least until they get hungry again). A bed-bug trap employing these baits might cost only pennies, the scientists say.

Eek! What if you get bed bugs?

Still, such bug traps won’t clear an infestation — unless the pests actually climb into them. And not all bugs will enter a trap, even one perfumed with pheromones. Some bugs might instead prefer the smell of their original homes. Because of this, scientists also are probing new ways to kill bed bugs without using pyrethroids and other commercial chemicals.

Today, it costs up to $256 million to create each new pest-killing chemical, according to CropLife America. It’s a group that represents companies that make pesticides. It also takes almost 10 years of research testing to bring each new bug killer to market.

That’s why researchers at Pennsylvania State University in State College are excited about a fungus calledBeauveria bassiana(Bo-VAIR-ee-ah BASS-ee-AH-nuh). It occurs naturally in soils all over the world. It also kills insects. The fungus’ dusty white reproductive cells, called spores, stick to the outside of an insect. As the spores grow, they enter the insect’s body. Eventually, the spores bloom and clog the bug’s internal organs, killing it.

A dead bed bug infested with the fungus Beauveria bassiana. The spores of this fungus are under investigation as a possible pest-control treatment. Penn State Univ. In 2012, Penn State entomologists tested the fungus on different types of bed bugs. Within three to six days, each insect was dead.

But even with all this exciting new research, the pest isn’t likely to disappear entirely, notes Stephen Doggett. He’s a medical entomologist at Westmead Hospital in Sydney, Australia. It takes a long time for scientific research to get tested and retested. Only after that can it be turned into a product that you can buy in the store. Another problem: Bed bugs are really hard to kill with any single method. Use just one and a species is likely to develop mutations that make it immune. That’s why exterminators usually have to use many different approaches at once.

Concludes Doggett: “Unfortunately bed bugs are going to be around with us for a long time, as no magical control solutions are on the near horizon.”

Brooke Borel is the author ofInfested, a new book on bed bugs.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, clickhere)

antenna(plural: antennae) A pair of long and then sensory organs located on the head of arthropods, including bed bugs and other insects.

bed bugA parasitic insect that feeds exclusively on blood. The common bed bug,Cimex lectularius, sucks human blood and is mainly active at night. The insect’s bite can cause skin rashes and welts that sometimes look like a mosquito bite, but different people react in different ways.

bloom(in microbiology) The rapid and largely uncontrolled growth of a species, such as algae in waterways enriched with nutrients.

DDT(short for dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) This toxic chemical was for a time widely used as an insect-killing agent. It proved so effective that Swiss chemist Paul Müller received the 1948 Nobel Prize (for physiology or medicine) just eight years after establishing the chemical’s incredible effectiveness in killing bugs. But many developed countries, including the United States, eventually banned its use for its poisoning of non-targeted wildlife, such as birds.

DNA(short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

entomologyThe scientific study of insects. One who does this is anentomologist.

enzymesMolecules made by living things to speed up chemical reactions.

evolutionA process by which species undergo changes over time, usually through genetic variation and natural selection. These changes usually result in a new type of organism better suited for its environment than the earlier type. The newer type is not necessarily more “advanced,” just better adapted to the conditions in which it developed.

exoskeletonAn external system that supports the bodies of certain animals, including insects, crustaceans, and mollusks. In insects, the exoskeleton is made of a hard material called chitin.

gene(adj. genetic)A segment of DNA that codes, or holds instructions, for producing a protein. Offspring inherit genes from their parents. Genes influence how an organism looks and behaves.

genomeThe complete set of genes or genetic material in a cell or an organism. The study of this genetic inheritance housed within cells is known asgenomics.

infestTo create a parasitic community, such as when wasps infest the porch of an abandoned house. Such a community of pests is known as an infestation.

insectA type of arthropod that as an adult will have six segmented legs and three body parts: a head, thorax and abdomen. There are hundreds of thousands of insects, which include bees, beetles, flies and moths.

insecticideA poison applied to kill insects.

olfaction(adj. olfactory) The sense of smell.

organ(in biology) Various parts of an organism that perform one or more particular functions. For instance, an ovary is an organ that makes eggs, the brain is an organ that interprets nerve signals and a plant’s roots are organs that take in nutrients and moisture.

pedicelA slender stalk or stalk-like part. It normally occurs at the base of something, such as a flower, where it will be attaching to the stem.

pheromoneA molecule or specific mix of molecules that makes other members of the same species change their behavior or development.Pheromones drift through the air and send messages to other animals, saying such things as “danger” or “I’m looking for a mate.”

pyrethroidsA modern family of chemicals that are used to kill insects. It is a human-made version of a naturally insecticide that is made from crush chrysanthemum flowers.

speciesA group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

sporeA tiny, typically single-celled body that is formed by certain bacteria in response to bad conditions. Or it can be the single-celled reproductive stage of a fungus (functioning much like a seed) that is released and spread by wind or water. Most are protected against drying out or heat and can remain viable for long periods, until conditions are right for their growth.

Bed Bugs FAQs

What are bed bugs?

Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) are small, flat, parasitic insects that feed solely on the blood of people and animals while they sleep. Bed bugs are reddish-brown in color, wingless, range from 1mm to 7mm (roughly the size of Lincoln’s head on a penny), and can live several months without a blood meal.

Where are bed bugs found?

Bed bugs are found across the globe from North and South America, to Africa, Asia and Europe. Although the presence of bed bugs has traditionally been seen as a problem in developing countries, it has recently been spreading rapidly in parts of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other parts of Europe. Bed bugs have been found in five-star hotels and resorts and their presence is not determined by the cleanliness of the living conditions where they are found.

Bed bug infestations usually occur around or near the areas where people sleep. These areas include apartments, shelters, rooming houses, hotels, cruise ships, buses, trains, and dorm rooms. They hide during the day in places such as seams of mattresses, box springs, bed frames, headboards, dresser tables, inside cracks or crevices, behind wallpaper, or any other clutter or objects around a bed. Bed bugs have been shown to be able to travel over 100 feet in a night but tend to live within 8 feet of where people sleep.

Do bed bugs spread disease?

Bed bugs are not known to spread disease. Bed bugs can be an annoyance because their presence may cause itching and loss of sleep. Sometimes the itching can lead to excessive scratching that can sometimes increase the chance of a secondary skin infection.

What health risks do bed bugs pose?

A bed bug bite affects each person differently. Bite responses can range from an absence of any physical signs of the bite, to a small bite mark, to a serious allergic reaction. Bed bugs are not considered to be dangerous; however, an allergic reaction to several bites may need medical attention.

What are the signs and symptoms of a bed bug infestation?

One of the easiest ways to identify a bed bug infestation is by the tell-tale bite marks on the face, neck, arms, hands, or any other body parts while sleeping. However, these bite marks may take as long as 14 days to develop in some people so it is important to look for other clues when determining if bed bugs have infested an area. These signs include:

  • the bed bugs’ exoskeletons after molting,
  • bed bugs in the fold of mattresses and sheets,
  • rusty–colored blood spots due to their blood-filled fecal material that they excrete on the mattress or nearby furniture, and
  • a sweet musty odor.

How do I know if I’ve been bitten by a bed bug?

It is hard to tell if you’ve been bitten by a bed bug unless you find bed bugs or signs of infestation. When bed bugs bite, they inject an anesthetic and an anticoagulant that prevents a person from realizing they are being bitten. Most people do not realize they have been bitten until bite marks appear anywhere from one to several days after the initial bite. The bite marks are similar to that of a mosquito or a flea — a slightly swollen and red area that may itch and be irritating. The bite marks may be random or appear in a straight line. Other symptoms of bed bug bites include insomnia, anxiety, and skin problems that arise from profuse scratching of the bites.

Because bed bug bites affect everyone differently, some people may have no reaction and will not develop bite marks or any other visible signs of being bitten. Other people may be allergic to the bed bugs and can react adversely to the bites. These allergic symptoms can include enlarged bite marks, painful swellings at the bite site, and, on rare occasions, anaphylaxis.

How did I get bed bugs?

Bed bugs are experts at hiding. Their slim flat bodies allow them to fit into the smallest of spaces and stay there for long periods of time, even without a blood meal. Bed bugs are usually transported from place to place as people travel. The bed bugs travel in the seams and folds of luggage, overnight bags, folded clothes, bedding, furniture, and anywhere else where they can hide. Most people do not realize they are transporting stow-away bed bugs as they travel from location to location, infecting areas as they travel.

Who is at risk for getting bed bugs?

Everyone is at risk for getting bed bugs when visiting an infected area. However, anyone who travels frequently and shares living and sleeping quarters where other people have previously slept has a higher risk of being bitten and or spreading a bed bug infestation.

How are bed bugs treated and prevented?

Bed bug bites usually do not pose a serious medical threat. The best way to treat a bite is to avoid scratching the area and apply antiseptic creams or lotions and take an antihistamine. Bed bug infestations are commonly treated by insecticide spraying. If you suspect that you have an infestation, contact your landlord or professional pest control company that is experienced with treating bed bugs. The best way to prevent bed bugs is regular inspection for the signs of an infestation.

This information is not meant to be used for self-diagnosis or as a substitute for consultation with a health care provider. If you have any questions about the parasites described above or think that you may have a parasitic infection, consult a health care provider.

Why bed bugs have made a horrifying comeback

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For 60 years, Americans thought they’d vanquished bedbugs forever. They were wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.

Bedbugs have been a staple of American life since the Mayflower. In 1926, infestations in hotels and apartments had become so common that experts couldn’t recall a time when theyweren’ta problem. People hated being bitten in the night by these pesky bloodsuckers hiding in mattresses, but the bugs seemed impossible to wipe out.

Then everything changed in 1939, when a Swiss chemist named Paul Hermann Muller discovered the pesticide DDT, which proved stunningly effective at killing insects. For decades thereafter, DDT and other chemicals helped keep America’s homes and hotels bedbug-free.

But it didn’t last. Since 2000, a new strain of pesticide-resistant bedbugs has been popping up in the US. In 2009, there were 11,000 reported complaints in New York City alone. In New Jersey, a Rutgers study found, fully 1 in 8 low-income apartments had infestations, with bugs hiding in sofas, beds, and tiny cracks in the wall. Many residents don’t realize anything’s amiss until they wake up in the night with strange bites and rashes. By then, the unwelcome guests can be tough to get rid of.

One of the best recent books about bedbugs is Brooke Borel’sInfested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedroom and Took Over the World(the book was partially funded by the Alfred Sloan Foundation). Last year, I called Borel, a science journalist, to hear more about how bedbugs made a comeback, why they’re so tenacious, and whether we might ever get rid of them again.

Brad Plumer: I’d half assumed bedbugs were a very recent phenomenon, so it was fascinating to see that even the ancient Egyptians were trying to cast spells to ward them off.

Brooke Borel:Yeah, one thing that struck me were the similarities through history. When the bedbug resurgence happened in the last 15 years, we had all these newspaper articles saying, "Oh my god, they’re in the movie theaters, they’re in this place, in that place." But that’s always been the case.

You can go back and read descriptions of old beds with jars around the legs that contained paraffin to ward off bedbugs. That’s just an old-school version of these little traps you can buy today to put under your bed. It’s an old story that’s been repeating itself forever.

BP: There was this 60-year period after World War II where we’d vanquished bedbugs. How did that happen?

BB:A big part of that story happened in 1939, when a Swiss chemist [Paul Hermann Müller] discovered the insecticidal properties of DDT. These were the first synthetic insecticides, and they were way more effective than the natural botanicals or elemental poisons we had been using previously.

Most insects had never experienced this type of poison before — and they were very vulnerable to it. So we were able to knock bedbug numbers down. One key thing about DDT is that it leaves a residue on surfaces for a long time: months, maybe even a year. That was especially effective against bedbugs, because they hide in cracks either during the day or whenever you’re not there to provide food. Earlier sprays might have dissipated or not gotten down into the cracks where the bedbugs were. But DDT leaves a residue, and bedbugs would walk through it in order to come eat.

There might have been other factors in knocking down bedbug numbers, too. Some experts point to different housekeeping practices that emerged after World War II — people were using vacuum cleaners more, and so on. That’s more anecdotal than anything else. Or in the United Kingdom, they were able to reduce bedbug numbers before the war, in the 1930s, because they completely tore down all these tenement buildings and rebuilt them.

Bedbugs crawl around in a container on display during the second National Bed Bug Summit in Washington, DC, February 2, 2011. (Media for Medical/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

BP: So how did bedbugs make a comeback? It wasn’t simply because we banned DDT in the 1970s, was it?

BB:No. Some people still say the only reason we have bedbugs now is because we banned DDT [after concerns about its threat to wildlife]. But that’s just not true. We would’ve had this problem regardless of the ban. The bigger problem is that bedbugs were becoming resistant to DDT, and that was starting to happen way before the ban occurred.

DDT and other pesticides work on the nervous system of insects — often by screwing with their ion channels and leaving them open so that it fries the nervous system. These new resistant bedbugs were essentially able to close that channel again, so that didn’t happen.

BP: Okay, so some bedbugs evolved resistance to DDT. But how did they become so widespread?

BB:The idea is that pockets of resistant bedbugs evolved somewhere in the world, probably in more than one place. Then in the 1980s and 1990s, you have this huge increase in air travel both domestically and internationally — it got cheaper through the deregulation of airlines in the US and a set of new treaties in the 1990s. That probably helped spread these resistant bedbugs.

The question we still don’t know is where, exactly, the resistant bedbugs came from. One hypothesis is that it started in Eastern Europe. There’s also the idea that resistant bedbugs came from somewhere in Africa because of the use of pyrethroid-impregnated mosquito nets. I think that’s pretty compelling, too. [ Pyrethroids are another pesticide that works by preventing the sodium channels of insects from closing.]

American Museum of Natural History entomologist Louis Sorkin feeds bedbugs on his hand in New York, April 17, 2014. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

BP: So what is it that makes bedbugs so tenacious and hard to kill? Is it just this pesticide resistance?

BB:I think it’s the combination of so many things. They’re cryptic insects, and they hide during the day, which makes them hard to detect with the human eye.

But the resistance is definitely a problem. Bedbugs have what’s called a knockdown resistance — it’s the same genetic mutation that gives them resistance to DDT. Separately, there are enzymes called P450s that break down the insecticides more quickly, so that they’re not as toxic to insects. There’s also research that some insects may be growing thicker exoskeletons, making it tougher for insecticides to penetrate.

There are other factors, too. Some people aren’t allergic to them, so they might catch the problem only far later, when it’s become a really bad infestation. Also, bedbugs can spread very easily in cities — because to get rid of them you have to work with other people sharing living space or sharing walls. That can be incredibly difficult.

There’s also a lot of shame involved in having bedbugs. And it’s expensive to get rid of them. So people might initially try to hide the fact that they have an infestation —until it gets worse and worse, and then it’s spilling over to neighbors.

BP: You mention in the book that you’ve experienced bedbug attacks several times. What is it that makes them so hellish?

BB:Before I answer that, I will say the reason I think I’ve encountered them so often is that I’m really, really allergic. Like in this Chicago hotel [where, in the book, she gets bitten], I was staying with a friend, and he didn’t get any bites. But he just might not have been allergic. A lot of people might sleep in beds with bedbugs and not notice at all.

Now, on the psychological part, probably any psychiatrist who has dealt with someone with bedbugs will tell you the same thing.

There is something about the fact that your bedroom is your sanctuary, and you’re also the most vulnerable in your bed, because you’re sleeping. You really don’t get much more vulnerable than that; you’re literally paralyzed. And to have something that’s hiding that you can’t see that comes out and attacks you in your sanctuary, that is just really psychological difficult.

Pestec technician Carlos I. Agurto inspects a couch cushion for bedbugs at an apartment April 30, 2009, in San Francisco, California. Cases of bedbug infestations are on the rise across the US, with many people bringing them into their homes after visiting hotels and airports. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

BP: Why can’t we just invent a new chemical or insecticide to kill these bedbugs?

BB:It’s a pipeline problem, just like the discovery of antibiotics or other drugs or other insecticides. It gets increasingly difficult to find the right chemicals and figure out whether they’re safe enough for us to use.

Bedbugs are especially difficult, because they live in our bedroom, and that’s one of the places we want to be especially careful when it comes to applying insecticides. So that’s part of the issue there.

It’s also incredibly expensive to research and develop the ingredients that go into an insecticide. The estimate for pesticides is something like $256 million per active ingredient over a period of around a decade. And even though bedbugs seem like a big problem, and it seems like you could make money making a bedbug insecticide, it’s not anything compared to the amount of insecticides we use in agriculture. So it’s not necessarily a major focus of the chemical companies.

BP: So what are the best ideas experts have come up with for getting rid of bedbugs?

BB:Keep in mind that there’s a caveat for anything I could possibly say here. I do think heat treatments are very helpful — bedbugs don’t seem to be developing a resistance to those. Basically you heat a room to a certain temperature, and it kills the bugs and the eggs, without chemicals involved.

The caveats, though, are that this is expensive; it can cost thousands of dollars. It’s not necessarily the best approach in an apartment building, because if you only treat one unit, and the neighbors have bedbugs and aren’t taking care of the problem, then you’ve probably wasted that money, because the bedbugs are going to come back.

Then the other problem is that people have been hearing about this and trying to do their own heat treatments. They’ll use a space heater or something inappropriate, and their houses will catch fire. So it’s not for everyone.

Bedbug insecticide products are displayed at the Bed Bug University North American Summit 2010 on September 22, 2010, in Rosemont, Illinois. (Brian Kersey/Getty Images)

BP: You did a lot of reporting on the multimillion-dollar industry that’s sprung up around controlling bedbugs. And you seemed to come away skeptical. Why?

BB:I think that especially in the United States, we’re still in this Wild West era for bedbug control. There are some people who really believe in their products, but their products are bad. You could walk into a store and see a product that says, "Kills bedbugs on contact." To a consumer, that sounds great, but all that means is you have to spray it directly on the bedbug. But bedbugs are often hiding, so that’s not necessarily helpful.

There’s a lot of opportunity to take advantage of people’s fears. Even the Federal Trade Commission has caught wind of this — they had two cases against two companies against products advertised as all-natural contact killers, and they said, "You can’t advertise like this."

BP: Having written the book, what advice would you give for someone who discovered bedbugs in their room?

BB:As far as the psychological stuff goes, I would say it’s going to suck — but don’t panic!

In every city and state, there’s a hodgepodge of rules for who’s responsible financially for a bedbug infestation. So the first step is getting educated on that. If you do rent, your landlord may be legally required to pay for bedbug treatments.

As far as actual treatments go … I have a little section in the book where I say what I would do. It’s not going to be right for every person. Because I’m so allergic, I’d know pretty quickly if I did have bedbugs. So before calling an exterminator, I would try to do all my laundry, do a search and see if I could find the bedbugs and where they’re coming from, clean up, and then see if I was still getting bites. But that’s mainly because I’d be able to tell easily if I was still getting bitten.

But that’s not necessarily right for everyone, and I don’t recommend that for each person. For the most part, I’d suggest people call a professional — though it can be daunting to figure out who’s good.

BP: Do we know if the bedbug problem is getting worse in the United States?

BB:It’s a little tough to say. In general, I don’t think the problem’s getting better; I don’t think there are fewer bugs. I do think people are not freaking out about them as much and are more knowledgeable on how to deal with them.

There’s a survey by the National Pest Management Association, where they interview pest-control people from all over the world and ask how many bedbug cases they had in the last year. And those numbers have continued to rise. Then again, that’s an industry group, and they’ve been making money out of this.

It also really depends on the city. I’m working on an essay about bedbugs in New York City, where numbers show that 311 calls about bedbugs are going down, but those numbers can be deceiving [since a lot of people don’t necessarily make 311 calls when they have bedbugs].

BP: You interviewed a lot of scientists for the book — I loved all the pictures of researchers who raise bedbugs for study by feeding them on their own arms.

BB:Some people still do that, though for a lot of these bedbug research labs they have way too many bugs to be able to do that. One of the fascinating things I learned was that it took a long time for scientists to figure out how best to keep bedbugs alive in the lab, given that they’re so hard to kill in the wild.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Most Bed Bug Infested Cities in the USA – See How Bad It Is

The bed bug infestation which we thought was over post the Second World War era has actually made resurgence in the 1990s. Today, bed bug cities are a national problem in the United States. The bugs are everywhere: in five star hotels, movie halls, clothing centers and even our daycares and schools. Nearly 95% of pest control management agencies in the country claim to have encountered a bed bug issue.

Bed Bugs: You can run but you cannot hide

When it comes to bed bugs (known asCimex Lectularius), the problem istwofold– not only are they extremely difficult to get rid of; the failure to take necessary safety precautions eases their spread them from one city to another. Hapless travelers are at the greatest risk as they encounter bed bugs in hotels and in airplanes and end up bringing them home through their luggage.

According to a survey conducted byNational Pest Management Association(with inputs from entomologists at The University of Kentucky), the number of bed bug cities in America in this decade are up by 10% as compared to the previous decade and by 25% a decade before that.

It is not only America that is suffering from bed bug infestations: even cities in Australia, United Kingdom, Europe and Africa are also facing them. Many of the pest control operators in these countries also believe that bed bugs are the hardest to get rid of than any other bugs.

According to expert pest management researcher, Clive Boase (who has conducted many pest surveys in United Kingdom), the early 1930s had actually seen a significant reduction in the bed bug issues since more National Housing Schemes came to be implemented; additionally, the home inspection rules for checking for vermin were also made more stringent. Similarly, the United States also enjoyed a brief period in the 1940s where there was significant reduction in these pests. This was mainly due to widespread use of DDT based insecticides. However, the same is not true in this era; the use of chemical control is not feasible for widespread use mainly due to higher costs; additionally, the bed bugs themselves are getting more and more resistant to such insecticides.

The rise of bed bug cities is encouraging Governments to rethink their insecticides. However,three factorshave to be considered before one can actually create a new line of insecticides:

  • They should be safe for use around pets and children.
  • They must be effective in killing bed bugs.
  • They should be economical.

Even DDT, which was effective in the earlier half of the 20 th century, is now no longer effective in killing bed bugs, as resistant strains of bed bugs have been seen in Hawaii, Japan and Korea as well as in Israel, and Iran.

Top 10 Bed Bug Infested Cities in the United States

A survey conducted by a reputed pest management company in 2013 has yielded the following list of bed bug cities in North America:

  1. Cincinnati
  2. Philadelphia
  3. Detroit
  4. New York
  5. Columbus
  6. Los Angeles
  7. Dallas
  8. Chicago
  9. Houston
  10. Baltimore

In addition to these bed bug cities, the following cities in US have also reported an increase in number of bed bug complaints as compared to the year 2012:

  1. Sacrament- An increase of nearly 54%
  2. Milwaukee- Nearly 53%
  3. Las Vegas- 50%
  4. Columbus- 47%
  5. Baltimore- 46%
  6. San Bernardino- 41%
  7. Louis- 40%
  8. Cleveland- 36%
  9. Louisville- 31%
  10. Denver- 28%

What time of the year are bedbugs most common?

In the bed bug cities mentioned above, nearly 49% reported an increase in the number of complaints in warmer months. However, in remaining 51% bed bug cities, the problem was reported throughout the year.

Where are bedbugs seen in the bed bug cities?

Bed bugs are more common in residential dwellings but they are also being reported in schools, offices and shops. Movie theatres are also not spared. Nearly 9 out of 10 pest control professionals report treating single family homes, condominiums and rental apartments.

Here are further statistics regarding bed bug cities in United States:

  • Nearly 75% of infestations are also seen in hotels and motels.
  • 47% of college dormitories reported an infestation.
  • 46% of nursing homes had increases infestations as compared to 2011.
  • Office buildings and schools reported 36% and 41% infestations.
  • Public transport and libraries came in last with 21% and 12% infestations across the country respectively.

Bed Bug Infestation: A bit of good news

A bit of good news in these reports is that the compared to data received in 2011 and 2012, the year 2013 actually saw adecreasein number of bed bug infestations inmovie theatreswhich was down by 10%.Airlinesalso reported fewer infestations, (nearly by 2%) andretailstoreswere down by 21% as compared to 2011.

Why are detection methods not as effective as they were?

Researchers believe that we have more bed bug cities in USA today than ever due to the fact that the bugs have developed genes that help them produce anti-pesticidal substances. Moreover, simply visual observation for detecting bed bugs is no longer reliable; pest control companies are therefore encouraging consumers to use active monitoring traps and pitfalls to detect bed bug presence.

It is an Epidemic

The rise in number of bed bug cities is showing that America is in the midst of a bed bug epidemic. It is therefore essential that complete removal of bed bugs is done using Integrated Pest Management systems that include heat treatment, the use of right products and continuous monitoring. Only this can help prevent infestations so we can reclaim our bed bug cities back.

Got bed bugs?Here are 10 products that can help you get rid of and prevent them.

Bedbugs bounce back: Outbreaks in all 50 states

Published 4:00 am PDT, Sunday, April 8, 2007

Walter has stopped hugging his friends. He is throwing out his clothes and furniture, and he rarely comes out of his Tenderloin hotel room anymore.

He’s not suicidal, but darn near. He has bedbugs.

Nearly eradicated in the United States 50 years ago, resistant strains of "super" bedbugs are infesting mattresses at an alarming rate. In what’s being touted as the biggest mystery in entomology, all 50 states are reporting outbreaks of the blood-sucking nocturnal critters.

Pest control companies nationwide reported a 71 percent increase in bedbug calls between 2000 and 2005. Left alone, a few bedbugs can create a colony of thousands within weeks.

"We never treated bedbugs until 2002. Now we have a dedicated bedbug crew working on this every day," said Luis Agurto, president of Pestec in San Francisco.

Agurto’s arsenal includes a vacuum, steam heat to cook the bedbug eggs and targeted spraying of insecticides. It takes three, eight-hour visits and about $500 to $750 to exterminate one room. A whole house would cost closer to $5,000.

The bulk of Agurto’s clients live in low-income hotels and shelters in the Tenderloin, but he’s been called to five-star hotels and suburban homes in Walnut Creek.

Bedbugs have been found in moving vans, public transit seat cushions, airplanes, college dorms and even a Bay Area meditation retreat. They spread by hitching a ride on your clothes or in your luggage and crawling off to infest your home or apartment building.

Nearly 300 bedbug infestations were reported to San Francisco health officials in 2006, more than double the number in 2004. Most of the cases involved travelers discovering bedbugs in upscale hotels.

The size and shape of a lentil, bedbugs lay eggs during the day and hide in your bed, clothing and light sockets. At night, they suck your blood, leaving itchy bumps on your skin and little bloody excretions on your sheets. They don’t pass diseases, but they are incredibly difficult to exterminate, even following their blood hosts who move to new apartments trying to get away.

The bedbug resurgence has sparked Web sites like bedbugger .com, where people share extermination tips, bite mark photos and counsel each other through the stigma. There are bedbug symposiums, cover stories in American Entomologist magazine and dozens of videos depicting infestations on YouTube. California just issued its first state bedbug guidelines, and New York lawmakers want to ban the sale of reconditioned mattresses after 4,600 bedbug cases were reported in 2006.

"The Laundromat near my building is packed, the tenants are in there, washing everything they own and giving each other knowing glances," said Walter, who has been battling bedbugs for five weeks and fears he will be kicked out of his Tenderloin studio and made a pariah if he reveals himself.

Lady Bug, a beagle professionally trained to sniff out bedbugs, makes regular rounds with Agurto’s Pestec crew in San Francisco. On Friday, the dog inspected Tina Blade’s room at the Empress Hotel in the Tenderloin, smelling the bed frame, baseboards and carpet.

To Blade’s relief, Lady Bug deemed the room all clear. Blade is not among the dozen people who have had bedbug infestations in the 90-room Empress, but she has been bitten at other single-room occupancy hotels in the neighborhood.

"I’d always heard that nursery rhyme, ‘Don’t let the bedbugs bite,’ but I never knew it was real until I moved to San Francisco," she said.

Empress manager Roberta Goodman is proactive about bedbugs. She conducts tenant meetings, keeps Pestec on call and has Lady Bug in every month to make sure the bugs are staying at bay.

"I can keep our community educated, but I can’t control the guests who are coming in and out; that’s why we do monthly checks," she said.

Bedbugs were nearly eradicated after World War II, when exterminators and homeowners used DDT to get rid of the pests.

Experts say bedbugs are making a comeback because of increased global travel and a shift toward less-toxic pest control. As people are backing away from harsh chemicals and indoor spraying, the bugs are becoming increasingly resistant to the pesticides.

"We don’t use as harsh chemicals as we used to, we don’t spray mattresses with insecticide before selling them anymore, and the bugs are getting increasingly resistant to the few chemicals we have left," said public health biologist Laura Krueger, who wrote the new bedbug guidelines for the California Department of Health Services.

Nearly all exterminators use pyrethroids, which are a synthetic version of pyrethrum, the substance found in chrysanthemum flowers. But last fall, at the University of Kentucky, some of the nation’s best bedbug researchers delivered some sobering news — while they could kill bedbugs born in the lab with pyrethroids, four groups of adult bedbugs brought in from the outside were unaffected.

Because bedbugs are such a new phenomenon, people don’t know what to do about them and are often unwittingly making their problem worse, said Nobugsonme, a New York woman who runs the Web site to help sufferers cope.

A victim herself who wanted to remain anonymous, Nobugsonme said in a phone interview with The Chronicle that a series of pest control visits is the only way to get rid of the bugs. Moving the mattress, sleeping in the living room, using a bug fogger or moving in with a friend will only relocate the bugs, she said.

"People who throw away all their possessions and battle this for months and spend thousands on pest control only to relocate and have the bugs reappear are really traumatized," she said. "They are getting only a few hours of sleep at night, they feel itchy all the time, some go to therapy over it."

Thirty percent of people don’t have skin reactions to bedbug bites, and may not notice an infestation until it has gotten out of control.

Pest control researchers are experimenting with alternatives such as steaming or freezing the bugs to death, and some New Jersey exterminators are gassing them with the termite killer Vikane.

UC Berkeley urban entomologist Vernard Lewis is trying to get grant money to build a baited bedbug trap.

Bedbugs give off a distinctive odor, described as rotting coconuts, and that’s probably how the males and females find each other, he said.

"If we can mimic that funk, that stink, I think we could make baits and monitor them," Lewis said.

Until the experts figure it out, bedbug sufferers will have to help each other fight back and raise awareness.

When Atlanta filmmaker Kyle Tekiela made a short bedbug film noir and put it on YouTube, he was shocked by how many people contacted him begging for help with bedbug problems.

"Students from all over the country sent me videos of their dorm rooms," Tekiela said. "This one guy did a 360 where the ceiling meets the walls and there was a three-inch band of bedbugs all the way around."

For, go to:

For, go to:

For state bedbug guidelines, go to:

For the National Pest Management Association, go to:

For a bedbug video, go to:



— Wingless insects of the family cimicidae.

— Small, flat, oval, reddish-brown body. Adults are about the size of an apple seed.

— Feed on human and animal blood.

— Active at night and bite any areas of exposed skin.

— Can infest a home and hide in crevices or cracks around beds or furniture.

— While some bites may go unnoticed, bites may also result in localized swelling and itching, and the areas may become inflamed or infected when scratched.

— Are not believed to transmit diseases to humans.

— Females lay from 200 to 500 eggs, which are covered with a glue and hatch in about 10 days. There are five progressively larger nymphal stages, each requiring a single blood meal before molting to the next stage.

— Can go without feeding for as long as 550 days.

— Can suck up to six times its weight in blood, and feeding can take 3 to 10 minutes.

— Adults live about 10 months, and there can be up to three to four generations of bedbugs per year.

Source: University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources


— Check your hotel bed mattress for bedbugs. Look in the seams of the mattress and box spring. Look behind the headboard, and pull out the drawers and check the seams underneath the drawers. Report any bugs to the manager and move to another room, but not next door, directly above or directly below the infested room.

— Keep your luggage on the luggage rack.

— Vacuum your suitcase and wash all of your clothes in hot water after you return from a trip. Use dryer on hottest setting.

— Inspect carefully before buying used furniture.

— Use metal instead of wood bed frames.

— Live minimally — get rid of the figurines, picture frames and clutter near your bed, which make a perfect playground for bedbugs.

Bedbugs in your house:

— Call a professional exterminator, who will need to make several visits over one to two months to kill all the adults and eggs.

— Wrap your mattress and box spring with a plastic or allergen cover and place the bed legs in cups of water.

— Fill wall cracks.

— Wash infected clothing and sheets in hot water and dry on the hottest setting to kill the bugs.

— When discarding infected possessions, wash and double-bag them in plastic first.

— Vacuum repeatedly, and immediately put the vacuum bag in double-plastic and discard.

— Do not move your mattress, sleep in a different room or sleep at a friend’s house — that will guarantee spreading bedbugs to other locations.

— Do not buy household insect sprays or bombs — bedbugs are resistant and will move to another room and infect more parts of your dwelling.

In San Francisco:

— Reluctant landlords who fail to eradicate bedbugs can be reported to the San Francisco Department of Health, Environmental Health Section, (415) 252-3800. Tenants can also file a complaint at 1390 Market St., Suite 210, San Francisco.

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