Essay/
Cities
Photo by Tim Flach/Getty

Bugged

Bed bugs crawl under our covers, suck our blood and disappear, leaving us on a razor’s edge between reality and delusion

Brooke Borel

Photo by Tim Flach/Getty

Brooke Borel

is a science writer and author. She is a contributing editor for Popular Science and her first book is Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World (2015).

3,500 words

Edited by Pam Weintraub

Syndicate this Essay

The other day, I pulled up a map of my Brooklyn neighbourhood on the Bedbug Registry, an online database of self-reported bed-bug infestations, and a familiar dread clenched my gut. It was a feeling I thought was long gone. But the infestations were marked by red dots that spread across the streets like a rash of throbbing bed-bug bites. My apartment, thankfully, wasn’t there. Still, I appeared to be surrounded. I didn’t like it.

With my computer mouse, I clicked on the dots close to my street number. An entry for a building around the corner, above a laundromat run by one of the building’s tenants, described a bug-infested bed base leaning in the laundry’s entrance for several days. Down the street, another blamed an infestation on a neighbour who worked as a flight attendant. And, a few blocks away, someone claimed: ‘We saw people in white hazmat suits carting stuff out of some apartment in this building.’

Hazmat suits, I thought. You don’t say.

We share a long history with bed bugs – small parasitic insects that plump up to the size of an apple seed when they gorge on human blood – and it stretches back hundreds of thousands of years. The bugs might have originated in Mediterranean caves, where they fed on bats, and then shifted attention to our ancestors, who then bequeathed the pest, generation after generation. Eventually, as humans interacted through trade and travel, the bed bug conquered much of the globe.

But its dominance went through a hiccup in the five decades following the Second World War. During this time, the bug was a mere phantom in the United States and parts of Europe, Asia and Australia, wiped out, in part, by DDT and other modern chemical marvels. The pest was so rare that it shrank in our collective memory until it seemed like it didn’t exist at all, save as a bogeyman in a nursery rhyme: Good night, sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.

Then, starting in the early 2000s or so, bed bugs descended like a plague on New York and other cities across the world. The exact story of their comeback isn’t clear, but the best version is this: not long after the DDT deluge, some of the bugs had evolved resistance to the insecticide – an evolutionary inevitability – and survived in pockets worldwide. Then, as new airline regulations made travel cheaper and easier, the resistant bugs spilled from these confines, landing in cities with more people crammed together than ever before. Today, more than half the world’s population lives in urban spaces, which, with their vast apartment complexes, are kindling for a bed-bug infestation of massive proportions.

Those of us born in the post-war years were so naive to the bug’s existence that its sudden resurgence felt like an unprecedented and orchestrated foreign attack. It was great fuel for angst. ‘If something catches you by surprise that you don’t know about, it’s scarier than something that you grew up knowing about – that’s just part of living,’ says Franklin Schneier, a research psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute who has treated patients with bed-bug anxieties.

the swelling of new bites made my legs look like grotesque props from a horror movie

Soon, the lingering threat of a bed-bug infestation was part of our collective psychological urban fear, like getting shoved under a subway train as it barrels into the station or being crushed by debris from a dodgy construction site.

I know from experience. My punched-gut feeling during my recent perusal of the Bedbug Registry was familiar because I’ve had the bugs three times in three New York apartments. The first was in Hell’s Kitchen in 2004, and I had no idea what was attacking me at night – only that it tormented me, itched, and sent me to the emergency room with a nasty bite on my elbow that had become infected, sending red streaks up the back of my arm. My doctor put me on antibiotics and, later, steroids to combat the swelling of new bites that made my legs look like grotesque props from a horror movie. (For the record, most people don’t have such a bad reaction to a bed bug’s bite.)

My doctor tested me for Lyme disease, which came back negative, and told me to call an exterminator. I did, again and again, but nothing helped. After a couple of months of this torture, my father suggested I had bed bugs – he thought he had read about such cases in a medical journal. I didn’t believe him at first. But then I started my own research and learned that the bug was real, complete with a natural history and Linnaean name: Cimex lectularius, meaning ‘bug of the bed’ or ‘bug of the couch’.

What followed felt like a descent into madness as I did load after load of laundry, tore apart my room, and hired a new exterminator – likely essential acts. I found only a single bed bug, although more could have been in hiding. Sleepless weeks followed: I lay covered in mosquito repellent by night, staring at my ceiling and flinching at every skin twitch, my bed pulled away from the wall and surrounded with double-sided sticky tape – useless tactics, all. But I had no new bites, and the problem appeared to be gone. My strong allergic reaction might have been lucky. I had caught the bugs early, before they were able to multiply beyond my control.

In the summer of 2009 in Brooklyn I experienced them again – twice in two different apartments. This time I knew what to expect, but the mental anguish was no less acute. I wasn’t alone. Between my first infestation and these new ones, bed‑bug violations across the city jumped 4,880 per cent. The next year, the numbers swelled again and the city was in full panic. CBS declared it the ‘Year of the Bed Bug’. There were bed bugs in the Empire State Building, the Waldorf Astoria, and Victoria’s Secret. It seemed like New Yorkers might contract an infestation just by existing, rubbing shoulders with the wrong stranger on the bus or buying underwear.

Even now, 15 years after the bed bug’s resurgence, the city suffers from shared post-traumatic stress. And although an actual infestation is its own horror, worrying about non-existent bugs is also a mindfuck. ‘Anxiety is about anticipation of threat in the future. It’s about things that we feel like we can’t control, but need to control,’ says Schneier. ‘Sometimes, when people are afraid, they try to compensate by repeatedly checking for bed bugs in order to get control over the situation.’

Another irrational means of control is to look on the Bedbug Registry and avoid its tainted buildings. But after my own recent searches, I took a closer look and saw that the laundromat entry was from 2010, the flight attendant from 2011, and the hazmat procession from 2009. None of these buildings had complaints more recent than 2012. They were like so many of the old or unconfirmed claims that linger on that website, living on the internet forever like a map of haunted houses. I thought about the uncountable questions I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances regarding the site’s ominous hints: Should I rent from a place that the registry says had bed bugs three years ago? Should I buy a piece of used furniture from a woman who lives in a building with a past complaint? Is a building’s buggy past a glimpse into its future?

It’s hard to say.

The Bedbug Registry maps aren’t New York’s only misleading bed-bug datasets, and others are skewed in a more unsettling way. In 2004, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) – the agency that manages much of the city’s rentals – received 537 bed-bug complaints through its hotline, colloquially called 311. Of those complaints, further inspections by department officials – in which someone came to the apartments and saw physical evidence, perhaps bed‑bug scat, eggs or the insects themselves – confirmed 82 of these cases. Both complaints and actual violations, in which a complaint has been confirmed after inspection, rose precipitously in the coming years, peaking in 2011 with 13,140 and 4,481, respectively, before slowly going back down.

Last year, the HPD reported only 2,268 confirmed bed-bug cases, the lowest in seven years. A department spokesperson told the Daily Intelligencer that the decrease was due to ‘better information available to the general public regarding how to prevent and deal with infestations’, adding that ‘people are now considerably more vigilant’.

‘I was hesitant to admit to friends I had bed bugs. There is a stigma’

But the numbers are deceiving. The HPD oversees only residential rentals – buildings with three or more apartments and one- and two-family houses. This doesn’t include co-ops, condos or private homes. Nor does it include the nearly 180,000 apartments in public housing, which shelter more than 615,000 people. Nor does it include commercial buildings, hospitals, schools or government buildings. No nursing homes. No college dorms. No hotels. And many of these places are magnets for bed bugs, which are especially intractable in sprawling complexes with multiple units, where they can creep across the hallway, through the wall or even through the electrical outlets.

Of the people who might call 311, some simply don’t. According to Jeff McAdams, a New York attorney who has consulted on dozens of bed-bug cases: ‘I would say at least half of the people who contact me have made these complaints. Of the half who haven’t, I recommend they do as one of the first things.’

Take, for example, a man I’ll call Peter, who’s rented in an uptown brownstone for more than a decade. Just a few months after moving in, Peter noticed a rash that spread across his body over the course of the day. It took him a year to find out it was a delayed allergic reaction to bed bugs biting him at night, and several more years to call an exterminator. ‘I was at a complete loss. I couldn’t tell anyone, I was hesitant to admit to friends I had bed bugs,’ he said. ‘There is a stigma or humiliation.’

When Peter finally hired a professional to treat his apartment, his relief lasted only six months before the bed bugs returned, likely from a neighbour. He continued to hire private companies for the next several years, afraid to reveal his shame to the landlady. When she did find out, he says she didn’t believe him even after her own pest controller confirmed the bugs’ presence in his apartment. Soon, the two were entangled in multiple lawsuits. Only then did Peter file a report with 311 and earn the building a confirmed violation.

New Yorkers who come forward might be no better off. Take Harrison, also not his real name. He and his fiancé moved into a rent-stabilised Brooklyn apartment more than a year ago. Within months, they had problems including a gas leak and collapsed ceiling. The couple filed complaints with the city and put their rent in an escrow account, which they’d release once the apartment was fixed; the landlord sent them an eviction notice and took them to housing court. Then, they realised they had bed bugs and, soon after, that the building had a recent history of infestations, which the landlord, by New York City law, was supposed to disclose before they’d signed the lease.

Harrison thinks the landlord is trying to make the building unlivable, to turn over tenants until the apartment no longer qualifies as stabilised and can thus bring in a higher rent. And because the landlord took the couple to housing court, their names are on the so-called tenant blacklist – a database that landlords can access to screen out undesirable renters. Once on the list, it’s hard to find a rental. Even in cases with a sympathetic landlord, the blacklisted can be required to pay rent of six months to a year up front, among other impossible requests. Take a legitimate legal stand against bed bugs, and risk a mark of infamy that will follow you the rest of your existence in the city – a different sort of ghost.

Bed bugs leave phantom traces in buildings from which they’ve been exorcised, lurk where they aren’t acknowledged, and spark litigation in the places where they are, which makes deciphering the truth of their presence all the more maddening. They live up to their name: bug likely came from the Scottish or Welsh word for bogey, goblin or ghost.

Like ghosts, bed bugs mostly haunt our minds. ‘Bed bugs are a perfect storm for a phobia. They are instinctively repulsive,’ says Schneier. Then there’s the shame: ‘One factor that helps people cope is to share the experience with other people. And if you feel like it’s your fault, like you’re dirty and should be ashamed about it, then you both lose out in that support from others, and you might start thinking of yourself in that way.’

That Paul and Harrison asked me to use aliases is telling. To admit publicly to an ongoing bed-bug problem is to risk being shunned by family and friends who wish to avoid contamination. Part of this worry comes from the fact that we generally revile not only bed bugs but all insects, especially those that infiltrate our homes, which over the centuries have become increasingly pristine and sealed off from the outside world. An estimated 19 million people in the US suffer from entomophobia and still more simply find the creatures disgusting.

In his book The Infested Mind (2013), the US philosopher and insect ecologist Jeffrey Lockwood suggests two reasons for this. The first is evolutionary: we are primed to startle at the quick movements of an insect. While many are harmless, some are capable of destruction by way of venom or disease, so it might make sense to simply avoid them all. The second is cultural: we learn how to react to insects, in part, from our families and peers. If others jump on a chair at the sight of a roach, we learn to follow.

‘They are an insect version of the vampire tale, and evoke that sense of creepy psychosexual invasion’

But why do bed bugs specifically spark such terror? Other bloodsuckers that live in or near the city spread debilitating illnesses – the mosquitoes that buzz in our ears every summer might carry West Nile virus and, each time we walk in the woods, we risk the bite of a tick that could give us Lyme disease. By comparison, and despite decades of research, scientists haven’t proven that the bed bug can spread a single infectious disease to humans. Still, ask anyone if they’d rather encounter a mosquito or a bed bug, and my money is on the mosquito every time.

And if you ask bed-bug sufferers about the fear, most say it’s due to when and where the insects attack: at night while we are in bed, our sanctuary, often the only place we can find respite from the world and be alone with our private thoughts and actions. It’s also where we sleep, when are at our most vulnerable, literally paralyzed during cycles of rapid eye movement so that we don’t act out our dreams. That the bed bug picks this moment to strike, to taste our essence, is too much.

‘The bed bug crawls into our bed at night and feeds on our blood, and then disappears,’ says Lockwood. ‘They are almost an insect version of the vampire tale, and almost evoke that sense of creepy psychosexual invasion.’

In 2012, a team of Canadian public health and housing specialists published research in the British Medical Journal Open suggesting that bed-bug infestations can lead to insomnia and general anxiety even for people with no history of such disorders. The trauma is more acute for people who suffer from pre‑existing mental illness. In a series of case studies published in 2012 in Psychosomatics, New York psychiatrists wrote about two patients with delusional parasitosis, a belief of infestation in the absence of any evidence. One, a man in his 30s, had a compulsion to clean his home with bleach every day despite six weeks of treatment and antipsychotic medications. The other, a 75-year-old woman, brought with her to the hospital pieces of tape dotted with lint and dust, convinced the detritus was bugs.

The New York case studies also described two young women who suffered from actual bed bugs. One had acute adjustment disorder, anxiety and depression, while the other was bipolar. Both nearly killed themselves over their infestations. The first tried to wash down 22 painkiller tabs with booze; the other, as exterminators treated her apartment, walked around the city casing potential bridges from which she might jump.

‘For a lot of people, repeat infestations especially engender a sense of hopelessness,’ says Evan Rieder, a psychiatrist and lead author of the paper. ‘They found themselves socially isolated because they were infecting others, exposing them to infestation. Their levels of anxiety and fear were increasing. Meanwhile, they couldn’t feel safe in the space which is usually reserved for sacred activities of human daily experience, like sleep and sex.’

The psychological burden of a bed-bug infestation leaves sufferers on the razor-thin edge between reality and delusion. Indeed, an infestation – even the threat of one – gives the bugs power, in our minds, that defies the limits of their actual biology. People start believing every wild claim on the internet: that the bugs live for a year without eating, that the eggs survive even longer, or that bed bugs lurk indefinitely in the walls of a building no matter how long ago or how thoroughly it was treated.

we have to treat our infestations not only for us, but for our neighbours

In the novel Open City (2011), Teju Cole aptly describes this shift from the rational to the supernatural:

I thought of the bugs in their countless millions in all the five boroughs of the city, of their invisible eggs, of their appetite, which was greatest at the hour before dawn. The problem began to seem less and less a scientific one … The concerns were primeval: the magical power of blood, the hours given over to dreams, the sanctity of the home, cannibalism, the fear of being attacked by the unseen.

Living in a city is different than living in the suburbs or the country: everyone is right there, so close that you breathe in what I breathe out, I hear when you cry, and we can never be alone even at our loneliest moments. We share our walls, our hallways and, yes, our bed bugs. It’s tempting to pretend that the neighbours’ problems are theirs alone, but it isn’t really possible here in the long run.

Because of our proximity, nothing will alleviate a city’s bed-bug trauma – and, let’s be honest, all the other traumas – unless everyone pitches in. Our collective bed-bug anxiety is also our collective responsibility. Landlords and tenants, for example, must be transparent about their bed bugs, and we have to treat our infestations not only for us, but for our neighbours. A lesser-known version of the infamous nursery rhyme goes like this: Good night, sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite. And if they do, then take your shoe, and beat them till they’re black and blue.

Our ghost stories are also a shared responsibility. Aside from the recent dread sparked by the Bedbug Registry, my own mental torment from bed bugs is mostly gone. My brushes with the bugs led me to spend four years researching and writing about them, and the resulting knowledge helped release my need for control, quenching the anxiety just as turning on the light vanquishes ghosts.

And yet, I’ve unintentionally left behind my own ghosts to haunt my fellow city dwellers. At the time it seemed a necessary warning, but now I’m sorry for it. When I look up one of my previous addresses on the registry, I find four entries – warning signs that might unsettle anyone trying to find a place to live, or clench the gut of a neighbour. Are the bugs still there or not? It’s impossible to say for certain. The first entry from that apartment is from 2009. It was written by me.

Brooke Borel

is a science writer and author. She is a contributing editor for Popular Science and her first book is Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World (2015).

Syndicate this Essay
aeon.co

Enjoyed this article?

Get Aeon straight
to your inbox
Join our newsletter
Aeon is not-for-profit
and free for everyone
Make a donation
Essay/
Fertility, Pregnancy & Childbirth
The macho sperm myth

The idea that millions of sperm are on an Olympian race to reach the egg is yet another male fantasy of human reproduction

Robert D Martin

Essay/
Illness & Disease
Chronic

For big pharma, the perfect patient is wealthy, permanently ill and a daily pill-popper. Will medicine ever recover?

Clayton Dalton