In 1913, the Department of Agriculture issued a warning to housewives about a bug called cimex lectularius, then known as a “chinch,” “crimson rambler,” or “mahogany flat.” Now we call it something else: a bedbug.
Even then, the bedbug was said to show “a certain degree of wariness and intelligence from its long association with man.” The Department of Agriculture chose to look on the bright side: Thank God the damn thing lost its wings ages ago, because “otherwise there would be no safety from this pest, even for the most careful and thorough housekeeper.” Nearly 100 years later, freedom from cimex is increasingly hard to find. Summer 2010 has been the Summer of the Bedbug.
Mayor Bloomberg’s office, realizing bedbugs have become a public nuisance and a health risk, released a 39-page report on how it planned to combat them. Slate noted that the campaign seemed to consist mostly of speaking sternly to bedbugs from the steps of City Hall.
If there are more bedbugs than ever, how are we going to get rid of them? Short answer: We won’t.
Science, logistics, and economics make eradicating or even controlling New York City’s bedbug population nearly impossible. Those triplicate red bites on your arm; those sleepless nights when every piece of dust feels like it’s crawling along your skin; those friends who are abandoning their apartments and using trash bags as dressers — welcome to the new normal, circa 2010, also known as bedbug paradise.
We’ve killed (nearly) all of them once before. The last time we had the upper hand was in the era of DDT, a miracle pesticide that razed everything in its path. DDT required one treatment to the bed, and that’s all she wrote. Bedbug populations plummeted. Michael Potter, the country’s foremost expert on bedbugs and a man his brother described to me as the “bedbug Buddha,” wrote that within three to five years of DDT’s introduction, “it became hard to find populations of bedbugs on which to do further testing — another testament to the knockout punch of the material.” It meant cuddling up with a deadly neurotoxin, but hey, win some, lose some.
Just as the bedbugs were dying off, something predictable to students of Darwin occurred: new outbreaks of bugs that were resistant to DDT. They had evolved. Sixty years later, DDT is no longer on the market, and bedbugs are still making evolutionary progress.
Scientists, exterminators, and bedbug advocates (or, rather, advocates for the stricken members of homo sapiens) all told me that they’re seeing increasing resistance to pesticide in today’s bug populations. They city’s dense housing stock and army of pesticide-toting exterminators have combined to press the fast-forward button on evolution. A few years ago, a team of researchers found that New York’s bedbug populations had levels of resistance to the most commonly used pesticides that were 264 times higher than a colony of bugs in Florida.
Bugs pick up pesticide toxins topically. From there it seeps into their body, where the toxin should, theoretically, begin to take control of its nervous system. A susceptible bug will then start to twitch as its nerves — which normally control mobility, breathing, and blood flow — go into overdrive. Eventually the bug dies.
The problem is that pesticides have already killed off a lot of the weaker bedbugs. Nature has selected for the sturdier guys that can withstand larger toxic doses. Consider another endemic New York City resident: the barfly. Six drinks will send a lightweight under the table. But it will give the merest beginnings of a boozy buzz to the guy who’s at McSorley’s every night. Among the bedbugs, there are more and more alcoholics, and they're all high-functioning.
(It is no consolation, but pesticide-resistant bedbugs may be the least of our problems if the dire predictions of widespread antibiotic resistance come to pass.)
So, what to do with these genetic superbugs? Burn them. And if that doesn’t work, freeze ‘em. Exterminators no longer just treat houses with pesticide, as they did in the forties. Now they’re employing the full arsenal. That includes using heat and steam machines that reach over 180 degrees. In other scenarios, exterminators use what is essentially dry ice to freeze them, like they’re a villain from Batman.
These techniques have their own weaknesses: They don’t find any of the bugs that have already scurried to safety. The heat, steam, and freeze are contact killers — if they miss the bedbugs when they’re first applied, they miss completely. Pesticides, on the other hand, can kill the things long after the exterminator is gone, assuming the bugs are susceptible. It’s the difference between being shot by a sniper and stumbling over a land mine.
Even those measures sometimes are not enough. If pesticide-resistant bugs are hiding in wallboards or deep crevices, nothing is going to kill them — and they can stay hidden for upwards of a year without food. That leaves us with the the nuclear option of extermination: fumigation. It’s the only thing that will guarantee 100 percent eradication. But it’s expensive and hard to pull off in a densely packed city. You need to contain the area being fumigated, not allowing anyone in or out, and that’s not possible in a 40-unit Lower East Side walk-up. Plus it’s often far more expensive than the pesticide/heat/freeze regimen, which, according to Jeffrey White at Bed Bug Central, usually runs $800-$1,200. Michael Batenburg, proprietor of the cleverly named Bed, Bugs, and Beyond says he could find a fumigator for $1,000.
Many places can barely afford the normal extermination regime, let alone fumigation. And that economic calculus, not the pesticide resistance, is the real reason experts say we’re never going to kill bedbugs once and for all. Ray Lopez, a member of the city’s bedbug advisory board, told me there are plenty of people in East Harlem that can’t get their landlords to bring exterminators in. (This is illegal.) He offers them advice on how to deal with the issue themselves, but it isn’t nearly as effective as what exterminators can do on a massive fumigation budget. Bedbugs are equal-opportunity infesters, but bringing them under control may ultimately depend — like so many other New York City real-estate matters — on the size of your paycheck.