How to Fight a Scourge: Scenes from the Bedbug Summit

The mood was grim in Chicago, as exterminators and scientists from around the country gathered to propose solutions to the nation's bedbug infestation

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Adam Nadel / Polaris

A bed bug photographed under an Tescan SEM.

In the 1950s, after they saved the world from Hitler and before they perfected the three-martini lunch, the Greatest Generation wiped out bedbugs — or so they thought. They hit the tick-size parasites with DDT by the barrel, then mopped up with malathion.

But here's the thing about the tiny bloodsuckers: they have an amazing ability to stay on task. Years passed. DDT was banned. People grew complacent. Parents still said, "Sleep tight. Don't let the bedbugs bite!" But their children just giggled. Meanwhile, a few critters survived. In havens around the world, they focused intently on the bedbug agenda of hiding, feeding and multiplying, which they can do at a rate of 10,000 babies in three months.

And now they're back! Nimbly hitchhiking across the globalized planet, bristling with built-up resistance to insecticides, the common bedbug — Cimex lectularius — has planted its nasty little flag "in all 50 states and around the world," according to entomologist Jeffrey White, star of the Internet series Bed Bug TV.

New York City is being hit the hardest. Bedbugs have been found in the Empire State Building, at the United Nations, in the Time Warner Center and in the offices of the Brooklyn district attorney. They have infested cool shops like Hollister, Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria's Secret and Niketown. Even tony Bergdorf Goodman has hired trained beagles to sniff the premises for the telltale odor of these stinkbug cousins.

But once they make it there, they can make it anywhere. "New York is the handwriting on the wall," says bedbug expert Richard Cooper. In a recent survey of 1,000 pest-control companies across the country, 95% said they have encountered bedbug problems in the past year. Anecdotal reports suggest that the bugs are quite fond of Ohio. At the same time, infestations have risen 800% in Alaska over the past five years. Bedbugs love warm, dry climates. They seem to do just fine in the northern woods of Canada too.

At a hotel near O'Hare International Airport on Sept. 21 and 22, more than 350 people gathered for the first ever bedbug summit. Interest was so high that it sold out five weeks in advance. Government officials, academics, property managers, pest-control technicians, insecticide chemists and antibug inventors thronged lectures asking where the critters are coming from and how to kill them once they arrive.

It's possible that bedbugs are simply the latest in a long string of public panics over epidemics that eventually proved to be manageable, from killer bees to bird flu. But that would not quite capture the grim mood of the Chicago summit. One scientist showed, using DNA evidence, how the bugs hop blithely from continent to continent on clothing, carry-ons, backpacks and purses. Another tracked the eruption of bedbug colonies through a single multistory apartment building. Another flashed a photograph of a robust bedbug literally glistening with drops of poison rolling off its back. "These are tough critters," declared Michael Potter of the University of Kentucky. Dini Miller of Virginia Tech echoed, "It is nearly impossible to eradicate these bugs with insecticides alone."

So — deep breath — what do we need to know about these persistent, resistant little devils? Start with the fact that, even as they are leaping up our ladder of national fears, they neither vault nor fly. But oh, how they can scurry.

The good news about bedbugs is that they don't appear to transmit diseases. This is perhaps surprising, given their otherwise disgusting nature. A bedbug's life is nasty, brutish and gross — hiding in the crevices and cracks and folds of headboards, mattress seams, box springs, baseboards and bureau drawers until it's time to wander out in search of a meal.

Yet despite the fact that they are less dangerous than other bloodsuckers like mosquitoes and ticks, bedbugs can do very real psychological damage. "They're creepy," White explains. "They're invading your sanctuary, your bed, and suddenly you can't sleep because they're coming out of your walls, out of your box springs, to feed on you in the night. I've seen people fall apart emotionally because of an infestation."

So much for the good news. The bad news stems from their vile mating and travel habits. Male bedbugs are as relentless as the guys on Jersey Shore; they inseminate the females by stabbing them in the abdomen with an appendage that looks like a rusty can opener. Female bedbugs may wander as a way of escaping. Talented stowaways, they can hunker down in the seam of a suitcase, say, and because they can endure long periods in cramped environments without eating or even moving, they are perfectly adapted to modern airline travel. At the other end of the journey, their new host unwittingly welcomes them home by plopping the suitcase on a bed or sofa to unpack.

Bedbugs are often associated with squalor, but according to Cooper, their resurgence was initially aided by the jet set. The earliest contemporary infestations — starting in the late 1990s — were found in upscale hotels and resorts. The bugs aren't picky about whose blood they swig, however, and now the greatest danger Cooper perceives is the growing likelihood that bedbugs will become so populous in lower-income, multifamily dwellings that they will be nearly impossible to eradicate.

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