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Explaining the bedbug’s modern comeback

A patient with bedbug bites.
James Heilman/Wikimedia Commons
A patient with bedbug bites.

For the last decade or so, bedbugs have terrorized the urban landscape. Now they have their own book, “Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated our Bedrooms and Took Over the World,” in which science journalist Brooke Borel explains how an enduring pest has made a comeback.

Borel’s interest in the topic developed out of personal experience. She had bedbugs three times in New York City from 2004 to 2010. “In 2009 my boyfriend, now my husband, got them in his apartment, then I got them in mine,” she says.

In the midst of one such encounter, she was surprised to learn that while bedbugs may seem like a new kind of problem — a weirdly untoward symptom of modernity — in fact, they’ve plagued human beings for as long as we’ve been laying our heads down to sleep. “If you talk to people [from] before World War II, there were bedbugs all over the place,” she says.

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The bedbug population only declined after the war thanks to an onslaught of industrial pesticides like DDT, which was embedded in everything from wallpaper to screen doors. Eventually, however, people realized the health consequences of DDT exposure weren’t worth the gains in pest control and stopped using the chemical. At the same time, bedbugs evolved genetic resistance to the pesticides we do use (pyrethroids), and an increase in air travel made it easier for the gnashing little critters to spread globally. Thus, a panic was born.

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Around the same time I spoke with Borel, I happened to get confirmation of just how bad bedbugs were in previous eras. I was reading “A War of Shadows,” a recently republished World War II memoir by a British special forces officer named W. Stanley Moss. Moss describes his swashbuckling escapades in Crete, Macedonia, and Siam, mining bridges and attempting to kidnap Nazi generals. Through it all, the Germans often appear far less menacing than the little biting bugs that greeted Moss everywhere he slept. In one typical encounter, he went to bed beneath clean blankets in a Macedonian village, but, as soon as he turned off his light, “the insect army mounted its attack.” He elaborates:

We placed a pair of blankets on the floor, switched on our electric torches, and sat in the centre of the room, a boot constantly at hand, beating off attacks the whole night through. Dawn revealed the squashed bodies of thousands of insects all around us: fleas, lice, bedbugs, and parachuting bugs.

In most ways we have it a lot better today, though the seemingly random nature of bedbug infestations takes its own special toll. Borel talked with people who’ve stopped going to movies and otherwise given up activities they enjoy out of fear of bedbugs. “There’s research showing even people who don’t have prior symptoms of anxiety show anxiety symptoms after [having bedbugs],” she says. Maybe, then, in at least one sense, we were better off when bedbugs were more common — and people were more comfortable simply beating them off with a boot.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.