Pandemic may spare us from the bedbug plague
This year’s plague, the newly emerged coronavirus, is likely to spare many people from being attacked by an ancient scourge: bedbugs. Given the drastic pandemic-induced reductions in travel and nights spent in hotels, motels and other venues outside one’s home, the chances of being bitten by or bringing home these uninvited guests have been greatly curtailed.
But that’s not a license to become complacent about a pesky insect that has been around for at least four millenniums, defied eradication for more than a century and, under normal circumstances, can be extremely challenging to avoid.
Last year, in a survey of 50 U.S. cities by the Orkin extermination company, the nation’s capital proved to be the most heavily infested, followed by Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles. Orkin ranked
New York sixth, after Columbus, Ohio, although Terminex gave New York a dubious top billing among 15 U.S. cities. In just five years, from 2004 to 2009, annual complaints about bedbugs to New York’s
City Council rose to 10,985 from 537, prompting restrictions on how to discard mattresses.
Worldwide, professional pest managers have reported, the number of bedbug infestations increased by more than 4,500% in the early years of this century. The insects have become especially problematic in the United States, where an estimated 1 in 5 Americans has either been plagued by bedbugs personally or knows someone who has been, often at great expense.
A friend, whose suitcase became a bedbug vector apparently during storage in the luggage room of a high-end hotel in upstate New York, found one crawling on her when she donned nightclothes and sat down to read shortly after arriving home in Brooklyn. She spent $1,300 to get the house fumigated, and now routinely quarantines her luggage and its contents out in the freezing cold after a trip to minimize the risk of a repeat invasion.
What my friend didn’t know, however, is that bedbugs can live for many months without feeding on human blood, so waiting even weeks to unpack may not help. Brooklyn backyards and even home freezers may not be cold enough to kill them: Experts recommend minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit.
As an Orkin entomologist, Chelle Hartzer, warned about bedbugs, “They are excellent hitchhikers and they reproduce quickly, which make it nearly impossible to prevent bedbugs.” Increases in both domestic and international travel in recent decades contributed greatly to their current ubiquity. Complicating control efforts, they have become resistant to most commonly used insecticides, including pyrethroids.
No one, not the most fastidious among us, is immune to a bedbug infestation. They can be found just about any place where people sit or sleep – cinemas, offices, schools, churches, hospitals, buses, trains, cruise ships and airplanes, as well as in hotels and homes. According to a lengthy report by Australian scientists in Clinical Microbiology Reviews, an entire building’s infestation can start with only a few bedbugs or, possibly, even a single female.
One impregnated female can lay two to five eggs a day.
And the bugs can be devilishly difficult to detect. The eggs of this flightless insect are pearly white and the size of a pinhead; adults are brown or reddish brown (if they had a recent blood meal) and the size of an apple seed, about a quarter-inch long. Two French doctors, writing in The New England Journal of Medicine in June, reported that “between blood meals, bedbugs hide in dark places, such as household cracks and crevices, walls, luggage, bedclothes, mattresses, bedsprings, bed frames, spaces under baseboards, loose or peeling wallpaper, electrical switch plates and conduits for electrical cables.”
Although they can bite painlessly at any time of the day, most often they come out of hiding at night to feast on the blood of their sleeping human hosts, sometimes leaving a telltale trail of blood on bedsheets. The bugs neither hop nor jump, but they can crawl fast – several feet in under a minute – for such a tiny creature.
Bedbugs rarely transmit disease, although excessively scratching their itchy bites can result in secondary infections. (On the positive side, the Australian authors wrote, their scent glands secrete a substance that inhibits microbial growth and that may one day become pharmacologically useful.)
Along with a maddening itch, knowing that bedbugs are in one’s home can drive a person crazy. The French scientists reported that “sleep deprivation, insomnia or sleeplessness are commonly associated with infestation.” The psychological toll can be extreme, resulting in nightmares, anxiety and an inability to function, they added.
“People infested with bedbugs may become socially isolated,” the Australians wrote. “With some individuals, even when the problem is solved, the psychological trauma can develop into a delusionary state, whereby the patients feel bites and insects crawling on them even if the bedbugs have been eliminated.”
Pesky bedbugs have been around for at least four millenniums, defied eradication for more than a century and, under normal circumstances, can be extremely challenging to avoid.