The lighthearted bedtime saying "good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite" has recently taken on a more relevant, and more annoying, connotation.
Bed bugs, often considered to be a sign of filth and disease, are springing up in the cleanest of places. They were once thought to be a relatively rare household problem, but now the pests have been found in an alarming number of places across the nation. High-end fashion stores are temporarily shutting their doors, and homeowners have been forced to spend thousands of dollars on extermination.
In the summer of 2010, stores in New York City such as Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Hollister all had to evacuate and exterminate their buildings after reports of bed bugs. Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn was forced to shut down its triage room for a few hours on July 12 due to an infestation. Bed bug sightings have even been reported at high end hotels, such as the W Hotel on New York’s East Side. In addition, New York offices and residences have been forced to clear out until the problem is solved.
While bed bug infestations have been on the rise nationwide, New York’s bed bugs seem to be the most widespread — and the hardest to kill. A study titled “Biochemical and Molecular Analysis of Deltamethrin Resistance in the Common Bed Bug” in the Journal of Medical Etymology has shown that New York bed bugs are growing immune to some commonly used pesticides such as deltamethrin. In fact, the study claims that New York bed bugs are 264 percent more pesticide resistant than bed bug strains found in Florida.
So what exactly are these critters that are causing nationwide irritation? Bed bugs are part of the family Cimicidae, a class of parasitic insects. They evolved from a species known as nest parasites that would inhabit birds’ nests, according to the Harvard School of Public Health website. Bedbugs moved on to human homes and now reside in dark cracks and crevices of furniture, especially mattresses and couches.
No bigger than an apple seed, bed bugs are small and ugly. They have dark brown, oval shaped bodies that appear flat from the top.
While they can feed on any warm-blooded organism, bed bugs have a penchant for humans. The insects’ preferred mealtime is during the night, but will make a daytime appearance if they are exceptionally hungry. Their bites look like teeny mosquito bites, so it often takes awhile to realize that those itchy spots aren’t your average mosquito’s summer meal.
Although pesky, and frankly gross, bed bugs are relatively harmless. According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, “bed bugs and their bites are a nuisance, (but) are not known to spread diseases.” Besides the itch — and of course the unseemly red bites — bedbugs are nothing more than unwanted dinner guests.
So how did these little pests explode on the scene, so to speak? Ironically, our crusade to be more environmentally friendly might be to blame, according to Larry Pinto, a consulting urban entomologist and founder of Pinto & Associates, a pest control publishing and consulting firm.
He says that while travel and the new trend of secondhand shopping may be factors in the resurgence of bed bugs, the ban on insecticides made with chlorinated hydrocarbons, specifically a potent pesticide called dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, is the main reason for bedbugs’ comeback.
In 1972, the EPA banned DDT due to its horrific environmental consequences, particularly its danger to birds and the thinning of eggshells. The ban on DDT contributed to the return of the bald eagle, the population of which has increased steadily since the 1980s.
As the bald eagle population grows, so do reports of bedbug infestations. According to the National Pest Management Association, the number of bedbug reports has increased fivefold in the last four years. While this could be due to any number of reasons — increased travel, more conservative uses of less-effective pesticides — the rise of bedbugs is annoying, expensive and seemingly getting worse.