“What a scream Muriel made/ Obviously she was afraid/What was it?/ No one knows/But what you think in Muriel’s clothes/It was a bed bug that found himself into Muriel’s Treasure/ That bug was very clever to find that area.” – Lord Kitchener
The first few days started out with simple precautionary steps like taking off my shoes when I entered my apartment, vacuuming every nook and cranny and washing all my linens. But a week after learning that someone in my building had bedbugs, I was a woman obsessed.
Though pests or bugs rarely make me squirm, once I learned the hassle of dealing with bedbugs, I really began to freak out. What began with routine procedures like throwing out my doormat and cleaning regularly, turned into a neurotic ritual of changing my clothes every time I entered the house, thoroughly examining myself in the mirror everyday for bites, frantically pulling back my sheets and checking for critters every time I got into bed and tossing and turning in the middle of the night just waiting for one of them to latch on to me. If this was my reaction knowing that someone else in my building had an infestation, you can only guess what would happen if I actually saw a bedbug in my apartment.
The increasing bedbug breakouts throughout New York City have thousands of people like me waiting neurotically in anticipation, and wondering if they are the next victims. With nearly 10,000 reports of bedbug infestation this year – a 33 percent increase from last year – the problem only seems to be getting worse before it gets better. Not only do the pests make people irrational and paranoid about breaking out with irritating welts, they also make people cringe at the thought of spending hundred of dollars on exterminators and replacing their furniture and textiles during a recession.
Many experts say that all it takes is citywide education and cleanliness in order to avoid the pests, but this proactive mindset is currently lost upon most New Yorkers, who currently have far more problems to deal with. As the experts struggle to find a way to improve the situation and inform the uneducated, the hypersensitive live in fear, and on the flip side, the majority of people take no precaution because they just don’t care. In one of the most progressive and cosmopolitan cities in the world, these tiny creatures have created a divide between the rational and the irrational and neither has found a happy medium. The only hope is the rare individual who understands that with diligent cleaning, treatment and precaution, one can put an end to the filthy pests without all the drama.
This year complaints and inquiries to the city’s 311 hotline increased from 10,509 to 22,218, according to New York City Councilwoman Gale Brewer. Although the City does not document the number of infestations, a group called New York vs. Bedbugs used the Freedom of Information Act to find that bedbug reports have increased by 866 percent from 2004 to 2005 and have gone up every year since. Exterminators say that the requests they get for bedbug inspections are higher than ever and this niche of business is keeping them afloat during these times of economic crisis.
“Our calls have increased by 100 percent,” said Dom, an exterminator at Dial-A-Bug Pest Control in Brooklyn, who declined to give his full name. “We do twice as many [bedbug calls] as we used to do. Over the last five years it’s gone up several hundred times.”
The big question on everyone’s mind is why are bedbugs such a problem now? After the banning of DDT in 1972, bedbugs surged in the late 1980’s after being nearly eradicated in the 1950’s. Now, as the city attempts to go green, people are requesting more eco-friendly treatments like freezing and steaming. “People are asking for more green approaches that aren’t as effective but are less harmful towards humans,” says Dom.
But as to why it is such a big problem in New York City, there is plenty of speculation but no definite answers. “There’s no one reason really,” said entomologist Lou Sorkin, of the Natural History Museum. “Over the years there was more use for targeted pesticides and baits. You had cockroach baits and rat baits, which weren’t effective on bedbugs at all. People didn’t really think about bedbugs before.”
And now that people are more aware, it’s possible that just the number of calls is going up when the same amount of people had them all along. “It’s more than it was years previously because people are reporting it,” Sorkin claims. “Some people don’t report it because they think it’s a dirty thing to have and they are embarrassed so they don’t report it.”
Sorkin says also that the increasing amounts of people traveling to and moving within the city are also contributing factors, as the bugs can travel in your furniture, clothes, linens and suitcases. Since New York is such a densely populated city, once the bugs are here, it is easier for them to spread at fast paces when people live in such tight quarters like apartments. In addition to this, thousands of travelers who visit each year stay in hotels.
“One reason they [the bugs] spread is because you have a lot of apartment living in the city,” Sorkin says. “If you have individual homes and residences spread out like in most other cities, they are less likely to spread.”
This could explain why cities like Toronto and Cincinnati have been able to lessen their bedbug numbers, but this may also be attributable to these cities’ established bedbug task forces that document and treat outbreaks. Both task forces have a database where they log the area that has reported bedbugs so they can try to control further infestations. Though Mayor Bloomberg recently proposed a Bedbug Advisory Law, which will establish a board to try to educate the community and stop bedbugs, it has not yet been passed by the city.
Experts and rational people like Sorkin say that education is the key to the city’s getting rid of the creatures. “A lot of it is just that the education is lacking and people don’t realize that kind of species they are looking for,” Sorkin says.
Where most people are looking for the reddish brown insects that they often see in pictures in a basic online search, most do not realize that these depict only the adult stage of the bedbug, Cemix Lectularius.What people should really be looking for is the immature phase. A bedbug goes through five stages before they reach adulthood, but unlike a flea, which feeds off the residuals of other adult fleas when it is young, a bedbug is born with an adult beak and mouth so it begins feeding directly from the host (you) from birth. When they are in stages one through five, the bedbugs are a pale straw color and can often be translucent. An immature bedbug is as thin as a sheet of paper and 1/37 of an inch long. The more they feed, the darker and plumper they get. Most people are unaware of these transitions and often have bedbugs in their home without knowing it because they do not know what to look for.
Most people have also not been informed that bedbugs can live anywhere in the house and are not just limited to beds or textiles. “The name is misleading because they don’t really live in the bed,” say Dom, the exterminator who refused to give his last name. “They live in areas surrounding the bed like clothing, furniture and bed stands.”
Sorkin says that the pests can even live in crown molding and are thin enough to fit in the cracks of floorboards and the slits in wood. Depending on the temperature of the household, the bugs can survive up to 30 days without eating. Bugs living in 55 degrees Fahrenheit or lower can live for a month without food, while bugs in high temperatures require more food because the heat increases their metabolism. When the bugs are not feeding, they cluster in corners and crevices, sitting and waiting until their bodies require more food.
But once the bedbugs bite, they leave large welts like fleabites that often itch and can become infected. This is when people tend to overreact. When landlord Thomas Alamo learned that a tenant on the fifth floor of his Upper West Side building had an infestation two weeks earlier he said his “first reaction was panic. I was terrified!”
Alamo, who lives in the building, has spent $650 so far to exterminate the room that was originally infested and the room next door where the bugs spread. This fee includes a follow-up extermination seven to eight days after the first treatment in order to kill any left over eggs. He has spent another hundred dollars or so on sprays to treat his own apartment on the first floor of the building and to spray the frames of the ten units in the complex. Though Alamo has taken the responsibility on himself to treat his building, he says it is really the tenants’ job to prepare for the extermination, which can be a lot of work.
“It’s easy to call in an exterminator,” says Alamo. “The problem is preparing for the exterminator. Everything has to be vacuumed and sealed in a plastic bag. Everything has to be laundered. Clutter has to be eliminated. It’s a big job.”
Residents like Eben Smith have not been as lucky as to have a landlord like Alamo. Smith, who lives in Brooklyn Heights, says that he noticed he had bedbugs last September after he woke up with swollen, red bites around his ankles. “It [the biting] was actually pretty bad. They were like mosquito bites but redder and more itchy,” says Smith.
Smith’s landlord said that the tenant was legally and financially responsible for treating the bugs, but Smith soon discovered that under New York City Housing Law 2008, the landlord is responsible for taking care of all bedbug infestations. “Other than biting you incessantly, ruining your sleep, often causing you to burn all your furniture if the infestation is bad enough, not dying,” having “the ability to hibernate for years so you can be never be sure they’re gone and traveling from human to human easily,” the insects, Smith says, also caused a major rift between himself and his landlord. He admits that he worries about getting resurgent outbreaks since he has already had them once, but that he does not care enough to take preventative measures.
Alamo is the complete opposite but his hypersensitivity is definitely not making his life any easier. “It’s extreme stress because you know I feel responsible and I don’t want it to spread in the building,” says Alamo. “I don’t sleep and I’m on edge. The smallest thing— I jump! For the past two weeks it’s been terrible.”
But to make up for worriers like Alamo, there are some people like Sorkin in New York City who understand how common bedbugs are in such a big city and approach the issue the same as they would any other glitch in their New York lives. When David Gould, a tenant in Alamo’s building discovered that he had a bedbug outbreak, he didn’t panic but instead read up about bedbug infestations online and attacked the problem with a vengeance by cleaning his apartment thoroughly and treating it with sprays. After that, all he did was keep up with cleaning and stop worrying about it, he says.
“All you can do is vacuum, clean and spray as often as possible and then go on with your normal life,” says Gould. “Think of it this way, if you live in New York City, you have to deal with it. It comes with the territory.”