How Bed Bugs Took Revenge on Humans and Invaded the World

bed_bug_mattress

In Brooke Borel’s unbelievably terrifying Infested, the author manages to entertain and educate us about that disgusting object of collective despair — the bed bug — somehow without making us cry. Borel’s book attacks the creature from every angle with daring, agile prose, opening our eyes to its attendant urban myths, origins, literary and artistic representations, and perhaps most importantly, its revenge on the human race. In the below excerpt, Borel considers just that.

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Reprinted with permission from Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World by Brooke Borel, published by the University of Chicago Press with additional support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. © 2015 by Brooke Borel. All rights reserved.

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As the pest controllers battled their first bed bugs, urban entomologists didn’t yet know about the infestations, let alone the pyrethroid problem. Most were making a living studying more common urban banes such as ants, roaches, or termites, and few had thought much about bed bugs since Robert Usinger’s work, if they had even been alive and practicing that long ago. Just as in the pest control industry, the virtual absence of the bugs meant little incentive for research.

That changed around the early 2000s when pest control operators and industry people began talking to academics about what they saw as an alarming increase in bed bug cases. One was Rick Cooper, the vice president and technical director of Cooper Pest, a second-generation pest control company that his father had opened in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, in 1955. A quiet man with unruly dark hair and glasses, Rick, along with his older brother, grew up working for the family business during summer breaks from school, and the brothers took it over in 1991.

Rick was relatively unusual amongst his exterminating peers, with a keen interest in insects that eventually led him to a doctoral program in entomology at Rutgers University. But despite growing up fighting urban pests and spending years in the lab, Rick never saw a bed bug apart from those preserved in alcohol in taxonomy class. That changed in 1999 when he treated an infested hotel. Within a year, he had half a dozen more bed bug cases; within two years, the calls were steady; within three or four, he was presenting on bed bugs at US industry conferences, where most of his fellow pest controllers had yet to see a bed bug because the problem was, so far, mainly geographically isolated to the East Coast.

It’s not unusual for academics to attend these meetings, and one from the University of Kentucky, an entomologist named Mike Potter, noticed Cooper’s presentation and pulled him aside in the hallway between sessions. The university entomologist acknowledged that this bed bug thing was interesting, but said he just wasn’t experiencing the same problem in his part of the country. The two parted ways. Months later Potter called Cooper with a fresh perspective: “Okay, Rick,” he recalls saying, “tell me everything you can about bed bugs. Haven’t had a call on them for nineteen years, but now the phone started ringing a month ago and it hasn’t stopped.” Bed bugs had hit Lexington.

By 2004 a good friend convinced Cooper to present his work to a different sort of audience: the biennial National Conference on Urban Entomology in Phoenix, Arizona. There in a Hyatt conference room shaded from the hot desert air, Cooper shifted nervously in front of around seventy urban entomologists before launching into an impassioned plea for someone — anyone — in the audience to start studying bed bugs.

Cooper flipped through PowerPoint slides of rough numbers on the bugs’ spread through the Northeast, Florida, and California, and argued they would soon pour beyond those regions and fill in the rest of the country. His fifteen minutes ran out before he could open the floor to questions, but soon he was surrounded by scientists peppering him with wheres and whys and hows. He had no answers. Most of his audience left interested but skeptical. “Bed bugs won’t come back,” they said. “Neat story, but not worthy of research dollars,” most seemed to agree. “You’re fearmongering” was the subtext. But a few others thought Cooper was right. One was the same Orkin director who had found bed bugs in a Florida hotel years earlier, who also had given a talk about the bed bug’s comeback at the meeting in Phoenix. Another was an entomolo- gist named Dini Miller, who began setting up her own bed bug lab at Virginia Tech later that year. And Potter and his colleagues at the University of Kentucky, in particular an expert in insect behavior and chemical ecology named Kenneth Haynes, also started plan- ning their bed bug lab. The scientists from Kentucky and Virginia would soon have the first formal, active bed bug research labs in the country in decades.

The scientists sought to answer: Where had these bed bugs come from? How were they able to spread so quickly? And why were they so difficult to kill with pyrethroids? To start, the researchers had to dig back into old literature to learn about the bugs and try to pick up where it left off. This led Potter, Miller, and others to papers published in the thirties and forties, as well as to Usinger’s Monograph, the most recent significant work, which was out of print. Some of the scientists were able to borrow worn copies through inter- library loans, but others were faced with paying up to $300 for the 1966 edition. As the scientists studied the texts, a slew of conjec- tures on the origins of the new resistant bed bug emerged.

One thing was clear: bed bugs follow humans. We are their food, and thus they have evolved to accompany us as we move about the world. This pattern of travel is one the insects have performed for at least thousands of years, as Usinger and others have pointed out. Even after the widespread use of DDT, some bed bugs sur- vived and they found pockets of humanity on which to feed. But not everyone agreed about where those reservoirs existed and how the bugs spilled beyond them.

In the United States, one hypothesis suggested, the bugs were homegrown, perhaps surviving in communities overlooked by most of society, such as subsidized housing and homeless shelters. Anecdotal evidence supports this idea, with reports and photos of bed bugs ravaging people in projects from Harlem to Washington, DC, in the decades following DDT’s rise. Without money and community support, even this miracle pesticide was ineffective. Or perhaps the bed bugs found refuge near non-human hosts, surviving on chicken blood on poultry farms scattered throughout the country. In either case, all the bugs needed to break out of these reservoirs was to hitchhike, moving from one community to another on the cuff of a pant leg or in the crease of a backpack of a person visiting family or friends, or going to work, or moving up the social strata to middle-class apartments or homes. Or maybe the bugs moved from chicken house to farmhouse to pickup truck and beyond. As the people from the bed bug reservoirs went about their daily routines, the bugs would have spread, perhaps abetted by the changes from pesticide sprays to bait.

There are more efficient vehicles for dispersing bed bugs, other experts countered, as well as possible reservoirs situated beyond geographical confines. One such vehicle: the airplane. One such reservoir: the entire rest of the world. In 1978 the US Congress passed the Airline Deregulation Act, which removed the government’s control over key aspects of the industry: pricing, routes, and schedules. This allowed new airlines to come to market and also encouraged existing companies to add new planes to their fleets. By the early eighties, as the laws phased in, the airlines quickly learned that people liked cheap tickets. To lure customers, competitors undercut one another. Cheaper tickets and more available routes helped boost domestic travel; in the decade following the act, annual flights within the United States more than doubled despite the fact that high fuel prices hurt the industry overall.

In the early nineties, partially influenced by the momentum of American airline deregulation, a similar phenomenon happened for international flights through the first open skies agreements — policies that pushed global commercial flights toward a free market system. Since then, the United States has inked these agreements with more than 130 nations. Between the early nineties and early aughts, flights to and from the United States from virtually all parts of the world increased, as did traffic between dozens of other countries. With more airplanes crisscrossing the globe carrying more people from more places, each taking suitcases and trunks and carry-ons stuffed with clothing, bedding, and gifts to and from their home cities and villages, there were more opportunities for bed bugs to hitchhike.

Of course, these are just a few possible strands of the bed bug resurgence narrative. An increase in global mingling, other experts claimed, could also be attributed to modern-day wars, with soldiers stationed around the world for extended periods of time and particularly in the Middle East, the bed bug’s alleged region of origin. Others pointed out the increase in emigration and subsequent travel back to motherlands to visit family and bring gifts, with return trips laden with comforting, familiar items to take away the sting of homesickness.

Also plausible: the role of growing worldwide wealth and a new global economy. People with more money can buy more things, which are increasingly manufactured in factories scattered all over the world and then shipped by plane or train or boat to accumulate in closets and dressers and bedside table drawers. Those companies send managers to check on overseas factories and processing centers, requiring plane rides and hotel rooms. On a more local scale, an increase in manufacturing and purchasing may have led to more people replacing old furniture, which they leave on the sidewalk for the garbage truck or someone looking for a free couch.

On a broader scale, more and more people are moving to cosmopolitan areas worldwide, cramming closer and closer together and making it easier for bed bugs to transmit from one home to the next. More than half of the planet’s 7 billion people live in cities. There are also simply more of us than there used to be, as the world population has nearly tripled since 1950. Not only have we provided better opportunities for bed bugs to spread, whether by global trade or consumerism or city living; we’ve also increased their food supply.