Friday, September 27, 2013

My Bedbug Story

Took a road trip to Montreal and upstate New York which included a day trip to the Big Apple and so Aidan unpacks his bag and comes up to me with a little bug on a sheet which he had taken on the trip and I agreed with him that it looked something like a deer tick which are common in New York, and they carry Lyme Disease, but when I put on my magnifying goggles and then verified it online, it was Insecta Hemiptera Cimicidae Cimex lectularius Linnaeus: bedbug. The sheet it was on had been unpacked for a little while so to be safe I looked his mattress over carefully and lo I found a little cluster of the bugs, various sizes, in a crease of the box spring near the head. I killed them all with a few steam puffs from a hot iron. They died so easily.

I lived with cockroaches for several years in Seattle and one summer I rented a ground floor apartment in Houston and they were three inches long. I've hated cockroaches and now I hate bedbugs too.

In 1996 Asian Longhorn Beetles -- another insect pest -- arrived in the U.S. in wooden pallets, just to Chicago and not more than a few blocks from my home; these big beetles kill hardwood trees and if left unchecked they would become epidemic. Fortunately Longhorn Beetles can't fly very far so they typically populate in tight clusters, that is, until someone moves some brush or firewood and then another cluster pops up more or less randomly and within 50 miles or so. Those beetles – big and pretty -- were easy to spot, stop, and kill and Chicago did just that with early detection, a prohibition on moving wood, inoculation of surrounding trees, and constant vigilance. They were all gone before I could even get a picture, a fact which I will always regret.

Photographing insects is a hobby of mine, I've been doing it for years. Arthropods are simply marvelous with their spiky jointed legs, brilliant colors and strangely imaginative features -- not to mention their horrific behavior. Anyone with a nice macro lens who's tried it is likely to agree. I once found a Mantispid, a sort of cross between a wasp and praying mantis, and it drew over 300 likes and 40 comments on the Entomology facebook page. Score. So, because I hoped and expected to never see another bedbug ever again, this time -- unlike with the Asian Beetles -- I did not miss my chance. I had already taped it shut, doors and outlets, but I crept into the infested room anyway and carefully pinched one from the bedspread, took it downstairs, flipped it on its back and plunged a pin through its belly. This is exactly the picture I wanted. So, you see, finding a bedbug was not all bad.

Everyone knows New York City has bedbugs but Chicago now has more, and according to a video loop in my hardware store Uptown (about 3 miles south of me) is the geographical apex. Along with Rogers Park. That’s where I live. Come to think of it, the building next to me recently had men in hazard suits going in and out, and lots of mattresses and couches were piled in the alley. No, we didn’t get these bugs from New York, I think we got them from next door. We called New York and Montreal anyway, to warn them, and to apologize. We also called an exterminator.

Adult bedbugs are about the size of an apple seed, and each of the five nymph stages is progressively smaller back to the egg which is still visible, white, like two grains of salt stuck together. With my flip-down jewelers glasses I could even see the little rings around the egg tube, and the hole in the end where one had emerged. The first nymphs are as small as the egg they came from and almost white when they're hungry -- red when they're not. The nymphs shed skin at every stage so there are casings, bugs, and plenty of black specks if you look carefully; the feces are the first and easiest thing to spot. It’s not pretty, but all they eat is blood, so that’s all they defecate as well. Little blood-poops that smear easily.

What I’ve learned about bedbugs is a bit disconcerting; we may be entering an era in which they are “around,” and we have to get used to them, like cockroaches. That's like it was before WWII, I've read, before DDT became a standard consumable. Everyone best be prepared.

And so, what's the deal? These bugs spend most of their time wedged in cracks, folds, or seams. They like porous surfaces and places where head and butt are both touching surfaces. They come out to eat, like once a week. Our friendly exterminator estimated they spend 99% of their time hiding.

The good news is that they are fairly easy to spot, they're predictable, and they don't jump onto pets and spread around the house that way. In fact they stay as close to their food source as possible, in other words by the head of your bed and that's right where I found them. Their droppings are plentiful, hardly discrete, and they smear, of course, blood red. My exterminator explained that not only do they poop blood, they also spit a little anticoagulant into you when they bite so you leak a little too when they're done. Unfortunately they also spit a little anesthetic so you don't even know it's happened till morning, or even for a day or two. They initially congregate at the head of beds but they expand out from there as their colony grows -- toward the foot of the bed and up the walls. It seems the females flee from the males because of what entomologists call “traumatic insemination.” He simply pierces her body and inseminates the whole cavity. Too much of that can kill you. And from our perspective, females fleeing is not not a good thing because by that time they are certainly pregnant.

Eventually I got thinking about how quickly they could spread, and I got out my calculator. Please someone check my math, given the assumptions this is what I get for one, two, four and six months’ worst-case scenario. Given that a female starts laying eggs at the adult stage 6, and each stage takes a week, then at 45 days she starts laying her 4 eggs a day. It takes a week to hatch and the gender ratio is indeed 1:1, as is typical for animals. So let's look only at females – say one pregnant female is in a suitcase you bring home. I’m guessing that like a queen bee she keeps sperm in long term storage so she stays fertilized even on her own. She lays eggs at the rate of about four a day, but we're only concerned with females, so 2(f) a day.  Soon there are a stable 14 female eggs at any time because after one week while two more are laid daily, two hatch. At day 46 there are suddenly 3 adult females as the first two eggs reach maturity, and every day then there are two more adult females and that goes on for six weeks. Each of these adults is impregnated of course, as males are born too, so the number of eggs rises during the next cycle, linearly but at twice the rate of adult females because each has two eggs f every day. But on day 53 the first four grandbabies hatch, along with two more from pioneer mom so that's six new females for a total of 95 -- then ten more on day 54, 14 more girls on day 55, then 18 more, 22 more, 26 more and so on each day, adding four more than had been added the day before.  These are feeding but not yet fertile.

Three months pass and we shift again as the first grandbabies become fecund. So now instead of a gentle exponential growth if you can call x+4f gentle), at 97 days -- three months plus a week for hatching -- it really gets exciting. You can see this in the charts. My take away point: pay attention. You have about 50 days to crush a little colony. In the second 50 days it gets much worse, and if you let it go five months, kiss
your world goodbye; people driving by your house will start scratching.  That's when your neighbors get some. My extermininator described going into an apartment: like a murder scene.  Granted, the graph describes full meals and no premature deaths, but just look at the big numbers on the y axis of the last chart.  Then double it; those are just the females.

It gets just a little worse; pack one away for awhile and the whole thing is delayed again because they can live a long time without eating -- probably seven months to a year, depending on the temperature. And if you import a batch of eggs instead (and unfortunately for us, they are indeed laid in clusters) the whole scenario is delayed a month and a half while those nymphs chew their way to adulthood. We can calculate the chance of at least one male and one female in a batch of eggs. With just two eggs, the chance is an even 50-50 that you'll have at least one of each gender. With five eggs it's a 93.75% probability.

What more? They feed at night and are drawn toward heat, moisture, and still pockets of carbon dioxide (that’s you, sleeping). They don’t like dog and cat fur, thankfully, because their wimpy legs are built for scurrying, not for clawing in like a dog tick does so they don’t immediately migrate around your whole house. On a flat surface they move about as fast as ants, and since they can't climb slippery surfaces your stuff in an open plastic bin is probably safe.

Predictability is apparently their weakness: they stay near the head of your bed if they can because every nymph must eat before molting and they molt five times before they can breed.

My advice: get a pair of jeweler’s flip-down goggles and keep a look-out. You'll see them all -- eggs, nymphs, feces, and casings; they're untidy, near your pillow, and easy to spot. They are supposed to smell like rotten raspberries, almonds, or bad B.O., depending on what you read, but I didn't smell anything. Dogs can be trained to sniff out even a tiny batch, every time. You can purchase hypoallergenic mattress covers that will keep them out (or in) but you have to keep it on for a year to kill any trapped inside.

A lot of people don’t react to the anticoagulant, so if you know someone who swells up with a mosquito bite you might invite them for a sleepover, but don't tell them why -- some will have a dramatic reaction -- big big swelling, and bites that leave permanent scars, especially if you scratch them off, as they're likely to do. They do make bed bug traps which will do the same thing without the itching but hey, the human bug-bait method was recommended by our exterminator so I thought I'd pass it on. Another fun fact: while the little critters just drink blood, they can't actually spread the blood diseases, not yet, I've read.

Heat makes them die faster. At 40 degrees they'll starve in a year, at room temperature it just takes 7 months with no food. At 104 degrees they last 24 hours, at 115 degrees just 60 minutes and at 125d, 60 seconds. When I hit them with steam, that's 212 degrees, they just fell right over. You can buy a "PackTight" which is basically an overpriced canvas box, with a zip top, rack, heater and a probe thermometer so you can tell how hot it is in the middle. It's like cooking a turkey. But be warned, you ruin a lot of stuff at 125 df.

I suppose it doesn't help to know that cockroaches eat bedbugs; so do centipedes and mites, I've read.  Mice, probably do, too, if that's of any use.

Chicago stopped the Asian Longhorn Beetle from spreading, stopped it cold.  But here's why I think that bedbugs are different such that the game is already lost. 1) they're furtive -- mobile only 1% of the time, mainly when you're sleeping. 2) they're hardy. They'll live up to a year without eating. 3) it's a chore to get rid of them. We had to heat all our things to 125 degrees and we've been living a month with our clothes in plastic bags. 4) It's expensive, too. 5) The bites just don’t bother some people much; some won't notice, or won't care. 6) they are transferred unpredictably -- in used furniture, backbacks, cuffs, books -- so you'll find them, well, wherever people go. 7) there's a social stigma that makes the problem more common than people will want to admit. (That's why I wrote this blog. Hey, we got 'em ... and you can too!) 8) the cost of eradication falls on homeowners, not taxpayers, and 9) here's the clincher: the reservoirs are mainly behind closed doors, and on private property.

Any epidemiologist will tell you that all you need is an R0 greater than one -- more infestations than eradications, and bedbugs are here to stay. I'm guessing it'll be more like 3:1. Or 5:1.  It's over.

So back to my personal story: We caught ours real early this time, thank goodness, and as it turned out I probably killed almost all of them with my iron -- it's all over but the phantom itching. And there's that one great thing I keep coming back to.

I got my picture.

Update: There may be hope for Chicago after all.  The City passed a Bed Bug Ordinance which goes into effect December 2013.  In any rental unit where infestation is found or suspected, the landlord must hire an exterminator until the bugs are gone.  Not only that, they must  also inspect the two adjacent units left and right as well as those above and below and treat them too, if necessary.  And if so, the peripheral inspection continues until all adjacent bugs are killed.  Landlords cant rent an infected unit and have to inform all new tenants on how to detect and treat bed bugs.  Anything infected has to be wrapped in plastic before going into the dumpster.  Second hand bedding has to be labeled as such.  All the paperwork for all of this has to be made available to City inspectors. 

Tenants will have legal responsibility too.  Here, excerpted from my alderman's summary of the bill: "A tenant shall notify the landlord in writing of any known or suspected bed bug infestation in the building, or any recurring or unexplained bites stings, irritation, or sores of the skin or body which the tenant suspects is caused by bed bugs." 

Tenants not only have to cooperate in the reporting and treatment -- by law -- there is one last sentence that may be the final screw.  "Any person who is found in violation of this article shall be fined not less than $300.00 nor more than $1.000.00 for each offense. Each day that a violation continues shall constitute a separate and distinct offense to which a separate fine shall apply."

Right on!  Start issuing fines, to tenants too -- and it just might work.


  1. I've started scratching already. I will strip search all our beds first thing in the morning. Thanks for the science lesson...I think.

  2. Those graphs are helpful, as these pests multiply rapidly, reinforcing the thought to take action quickly. It's very hard to DIY a pest problem, so people would have to rely on pest control to do the trick. Hopefully a mandatory pest control would be approved in the future, so that people can get their houses de-bugged every once in a while. Thanks for sharing these with us!

    Mindy Dawson @ Cooper Pest Solutions


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