“Don’t let the bedbugs bite.” If you grew up in the last few decades, you could be forgiven for thinking that was just a piece of nursery doggerel recited by unthinking parents—surely a “bedbug” was nothing more than a myth to scare children, a monster under the bed. But anyone who’s followed the news the past few years knows that sadly, these pesky little monsters are real.
In fact, the bedbug, cimex lectuarius, has been an unwanted guest in human homes throughout history. The tiny, reddish-brown insects have a talent for survival, and a taste for human blood, and now they’ve made a comeback. They were essentially eradicated in the US in the years after World War II, due to improved living conditions and liberal use of DDT, but nature is persistent. Denser human populations, increased travel, and resistance to contemporary pesticides have allowed bedbugs to regain a foothold in our lives. The pest’s resurgence was first noted on the East Coast in the 1990’s, but they’ve increasingly spread to places once thought free of them. “They’ve kind of taken off and exploded since about 2003,” says Ron Sutton, of Ann Arbor’s Aggressive Pest Control. “They’re sneaky, and people unfortunately carry them around. It’s nobody’s fault.” Sutton encourages people to research the bugs for themselves, but cautions that only professionals can adequately eliminate them. “People just do some uneducated things,” he says, “and they can spread them.”
It isn’t time to panic—the good news is that bedbugs won’t kill you. Their bites can cause allergic reactions and skin irritation, but they aren’t known to spread disease. But the economic and psychological toll they take on their victims is painful enough. It’s a combination of bedb
ugs’ sheer “ick” factor and the tends to unsettle.
Hidden in plain sight
The pests are fiendishly well adapted to the places we all live—they lurk in dark places, corners and crevices and of course bedding, and are mainly active at night, when they’re hardest to spot and their victims are asleep and vulnerable. Even in full light, they’re small and nondescript enough that they can blend right in. They can go a long time without feeding, emerging to strike again even when it’s thought they are gone. And, yes, they’ve grown resistant to many chemicals used to kill them—chemicals which can of course carry health risks of their own.
If you’re faced with this crawly menace, the Ohio Department of Health recommends removing all clutter and thoroughly vacuuming the infested area. The vacuum bag should be sealed and immediately disposed of. Affected clothing and bedding should be put in a clothes dryer on the highest heat setting for at least 20 minutes. (Heat is one of the bedbug’s few weaknesses.) And mattresses should be sealed in a zippered cover for at least a year to kill any unwanted stowaways who remain. Pesticides may still be required, but should only be handled by licensed exterminators. And don’t panic—but be sure to know the facts.