Bedbug infestations have been reported in towns and cities in every American state in the last few years, according to experts at the federal government’s second annual bedbug summit, held in early February in Washington, D.C. The insectile invasion of American homes and public places is expected to worsen. Experts say that increased resistance to pesticides means the tiny insects, which feed on warm-blooded animals, are here to stay, especially in densely-populated cities.
In New York, six percent of city residents reported finding bedbugs at home in 2009. The bugs were also found last year at some of Manhattan’s top hotels, shops and theaters, as well as at landmarks including Lincoln Center, the Empire State Building, and the United Nations. More than 1,000 cases of bedbugs were confirmed in city schools, an 88 percent increase from 2009.
The problem has drawn world media attention, including a humorous news animation by the Taiwan-based Next Media company showing the city overrun by enormous rampaging bedbugs.
It's not funny to Christine Drabicki. The Michigan woman is a plaintiff in one of several lawsuits which have been filed against New York’s luxury Waldorf-Astoria hotel, where world leaders often stay. She alleges she was bitten on her arms and chest, causing allergic welts, when she stayed at the hotel in May 2010. Drabicki also claims that she unknowingly took bugs home to her two daughters, who were also bitten.
“It wreaked havoc on us,” Drabicki told reporters when she filed suit in November. “It was like I was being invaded by something. I didn't know what it really was.” According to Drabicki, the family had to camp out at her parents' house for weeks, and spent thousands of dollars to fumigate their home. The Waldorf-Astoria declined to comment on the lawsuits, but in a written statement, said the hotel has a thorough inspection program.
“Some medical people feel it's not a direct health issue because it's an insect that doesn't transmit or vector a disease,” says Lou Sorkin, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “But on the other hand, it affects people. People have to go see dermatologists if it affects them physically, they have very bad itching, secondary infections because of scratching."
Sorkin is one of the rare people who has voluntary contact with bedbugs. An occasional feeding on his arms and hands keeps his study collection alive. He houses them in a jar covered with a fine-mesh screen that permits only their mouthparts through.
“There's hundreds or thousands of bedbugs in the jar,” he said. “I just invert it on my arm and they feed through the screening.” To give a reporter a closer look, however, he uses a tiny paint brush to transport several hungry bedbugs of different maturational stages onto the back of his hand. One is an adult, the size of an orange pip. The other is so tiny it’s hard to see, even after Sorkin points it out: a faint pin-prick. “Here is a first instar nymph just feeding right now,” Sorkin says. “You can see it becoming red."
A hundred years ago, people were not surprised to encounter bedbugs in rooming houses or hotels. But, as Sorkin notes, the insects were routed from American homes in the 1940s by pesticides, particularly the now-banned DDT, and people quickly forgot that bedbugs existed. Many Americans who grew up with the childhood rhyme, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite,” assumed the insects were fiction.
Trained dogs are currently the most reliable detectors of early infestation of bedbugs.
Now, people are waking up again with itchy bites. Pesticides have become increasingly less lethal as bedbugs have evolved strong resistance. Only high heat or freezing are currently effective against the bugs, which can live up to a year without feeding, hiding in mattresses, walls or furniture.
Most experts say that trained dogs are currently the most reliable detectors of an early infestation. A trained dog can sniff out even a single bedbug, as in a residential test performed by a New York pest control company called M&M Environmental. The handler uses a bedbug hidden in a sealed jar. “Find your b’s,” handler Danny Camacho tells “Champ,” the company’s star performer. The dog promptly locates the jar under a couch cushion, signaling with a paw.
Bedbug dogs are not infallible, however. For that reason, Camacho says, human handlers must confirm a dog’s response with a visual inspection for the tiny spots of feces and blood that bedbugs leave on their surroundings. Otherwise, homeowners and businesses may spend thousands on unnecessary fumigation. And in New York and other cities, only the wealthy can afford to police their homes and businesses for speck-sized intruders. A visit from Champ costs about $200 for a small apartment. Inspecting an entire school or apartment building would be at least several thousand dollars. But critics of the city’s anti-bedbug program say it’s only cost-effective to eradicate infestations before they spread.
“The earlier you intervene, you keep costs down,” says like Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. “The cost to people by waiting or delaying this is astronomical. Right now, if we're not careful, the bedbugs will win.” Stringer noted that public school officials who suspect an infestation are instructed to mail a dead bedbug to the city’s environmental agency. Only then will the city send out inspectors and fumigators. That could feed an endless loop of infestations between homes, schools, public transit, stores and hospitals.
It may be a question of minimizing the problem, rather than eradicating it. Sorkin and other experts predict global travel will enable the migration of different strains of bedbugs, spreading itchiness and psychological mayhem. Sorkin notes that bedbugs already have been found on public transit, airplanes, cruise ships and military installations. But he does point to one hopeful prospect: consumer electronic devices for detecting early bedbug infestations are being developed and could soon be available.