(John-Reynolds via iStock)

"A drop of blood with legs": How the bed bug infiltrated our bedrooms and took over the world

They terrify us, these bloodthirsty beasts hiding and waiting to nibble. Their amazing history dates back centuries


Brooke Borel
April 26, 2015 4:00AM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over The World"

Meet the Bed Bug

Picture a bedroom. Maybe it’s yours. Maybe the bedding is clean and crisp, a laundry-fresh comforter is tucked around the mattress, and your clothes are hidden away, neatly folded in your dresser or hanging in your closet. Maybe, instead, the sheets are twisted, the blankets askew, and your jeans from yesterday are on the floor next to the hamper. It doesn’t matter. Somewhere in that bedroom, small secretive bugs may have squeezed into a crack or hole imperceptible to your clumsy eyes: the joint of the bed frame, the head of a screw in the back of your nightstand, or perhaps a fold in the lining of the suitcase that is still sitting, unpacked, in the corner. The bugs are reddish brown and flat, and are most comfortable in these tight spaces, where they spend most of their time waiting. Waiting for you.

Advertisement:

These are bed bugs. Their knack for concealment is why entomologists sometimes call them cryptic insects, although the uninitiated often think, incorrectly, that they’ve never seen a bed bug not because it is good at hiding but because it is invisible to the human eye. Somehow, although our history with this ancient pest stretches back many millennia, its brief sixty- year absence from a large swath of the world shrank our impressions of its physicality to microscopic dimensions. It became both an imaginary and an invisible threat. This made the bed bug’s return as a real animal that takes up space in the world— our world, our beds— all the more unsettling. But despite the bed bug’s ability to hide and to seem invisible, it is not. Some who have seen one say it resembles a drop of blood with legs. Others offer less gruesome analogies: an adult bed bug is the size and shape of a lentil or maybe an apple seed. Whatever the comparison, the insect is a physical being. You can cradle it in the palm of your hand, look into its tiny eyes, and watch it march across your mattress.

While a bed bug’s life may seem secret to us, it carries on the same basic routines as any other animal: it eats, seeks shelter, and has sex. For a bed bug, food is always blood. It hunts down each blood meal, as entomologists call it, every few days to a week and almost exclusively at night. From its hiding place in the bed- frame joint or the nightstand screw, it senses the carbon dioxide from your breath, the heat from your body, and, perhaps, some of the hundreds of other chemicals regularly emitted from your skin. It ventures out, scurrying across the floor, up the bed legs, and across the sheets. When the bed bug finds you, it grips your skin with clawed feet and unfolds its mouth— a long tube called a proboscis, also called a beak— to probe the flesh, seeking the best place to bite. Within the beak are the bug’s upper and lower mouthparts—the maxillae and mandibles, respectively— each divided into right and left sides. When the bed bug is ready to penetrate the skin, the toothed mandibles lead the way, snipping through like scissors to make a path for the maxillae, which follow. Once inside, the mouthparts restlessly seek a blood vessel. Unlike some insects that guzzle pooled blood, the bed bug is a bloodsucker and takes its meal from blood circulating inside a living thing. Assisted by the difference between the high pressure of the blood vessel and the low pressure of its empty body, it fills like a water balloon attached to a spigot.

To find the perfect spot where the blood flow isn’t too fast or too slow, the bed bug’s mouth performs extraordinary acrobatics, sometimes bending more than ninety degrees as it explores the flesh. Once the bug settles on a vessel, it injects saliva packed with a cocktail of forty- six proteins. Some are anticoagulants to prevent clotting, for a blood clot would be deadly as a half- chewed hunk of steak lodged in your throat. There isn’t much room to play with. The bed bug’s mouth is just eight micrometers in diameter—thinner than a strand of silk, but just wide enough, as a human red blood cell is seven and a half micrometers across. Other bed bug saliva proteins act as vasodilators, which widen the blood vessels, or prevent hemostasis, which keep the blood flowing; still others have antibacterial properties or help with lubrication. Like other blood- feeding insects, the bed bug may also numb its host with proteins that act as anesthetics to help avoid detection, although no one has scientifically proved this.

An adult bed bug’s bite lasts around eight minutes, during which its flat body plumps to double or even triple its original size. Young bed bugs, called nymphs, require less blood, although they need to feed at each of their five stages in order to grow. If they don’t, they remain in arrested development indefinitely, or at least until they starve to death. After a bed bug feeds, it concentrates the protein- rich red blood cells, squeezing the rest of the meal—mainly a liquid blood component called sera— out of its rear midbite. These drops and, later, the fully digested blood meal, fall to the bed sheets and dry as black stains, a telltale bed bug mark. Sometimes, too, bed bugs leave a signature as a line of bites along a person’s body, a result of several bugs biting at the juncture where the skin meets the bed sheets. (“Like pigs to the trough,” as I’ve heard one medical entomologist describe it.)

After feeding, an adult bed bug skitters back to its bed- frame joint or screw head or suitcase, or wherever else it has made its home, at speeds of up to four feet per minute. Nymphs move considerably slower. Both find their way with specialized receptors on their fine antennae and, perhaps, in their feet, which detect chemicals called pheromones that help guide insects’ social behavior, oozing from other bed bugs back at the refuge. These are called aggregation pheromones for the fact that they encourage the bugs to group together. (All bed bugs also emit alarm pheromones in times of danger to warn others away, and females may also use chemical signals to help nymphs find their first meal.) Once a bed bug has tracked down the aggregation pheromones and it is safe in its hiding spot, it snuggles in with anywhere from five to dozens of others, including both nymphs and adults. They pack in tight amongst their own eggs, cast skins, and shit, giving off a musty, fruity odor that was described in 1936 by an entomologist as an “obnoxious sweetness.”

After a meal, bed bugs often engage in rough-and-tumble sex, in part because a satiated female is sluggish and her plump body makes her easy to mount. (Once, at a bar, I overheard an entomologist call the bugs “chubby chasers” for this fact.) Bed bugs are part of a club of just a handful of invertebrate classes that mate by an unusual practice called traumatic insemination, and they hold the title for the most highly adapted form, as well as the most studied. It goes like this: The male bed bug climbs onto his lover’s back, his head resting on the left side of her pronotum, the outside of the first segment of the thorax that is roughly equivalent to her neck. He grasps her with the claws of his feet and tucks his abdomen so that it curves around her body, holding her in a violent embrace. At the tip of his abdomen is a hypodermic appendage called a lanceolate paramere, which is essentially the bed bug’s penis. He swiftly stabs the female’s underside and ejaculates into her body cavity. It’s more like a shanking than a romantic coupling.

Advertisement:

To counteract the male’s stabs, the female bed bug has evolved a unique protective organ called a spermalege. On the outside, it appears as a small notch on the right side of her segmented abdomen, which physically guides the paramere to the correct spot—the male may stab anywhere, but the female subtly directs his aim. Inside the spermalege, a mass of immune cells called hemocytes, analogous to white blood cells, protects the female from bacteria that coat the paramere and helps heal her love wounds. The sperm, which have their own anti-microbial properties that may shield them from bacteria and help further protect the female, make their way into the female’s circulatory system and ultimately collect in bags attached to her ovaries. There, she stores the sperm, using just a bit at a time to stretch her fertilization period to between five and six weeks. This is a particularly handy strategy if she is swept away, alone, to a new home.

Once fertilized, the female may lay five eggs a week, which can add up to several hundred over her lifetime, although just as with any animal, this varies from one individual bug to another, impacted by her circumstances, such as access to food and the temperature of her home. However many eggs she lays, she exudes a gummy substance that cements them together and to the surface where they are laid. (“Looks like mini caviar,” a gruff Brooklyn exterminator once told me, although I later decided they are more like tiny grains of rice.) The female bed bug lays these eggs from a genital tract that is perfectly functional and could be used for a more traditional mating style. Yet still, the male stabs, and more often than necessary. A female bed bug needs to mate just once for every four blood meals in order to produce the highest possible number of eggs. Males typically initiate sex twenty to twenty- five times that often. If a population of bed bugs has too many males, they may stab the females to death in their overenthusiasm and leave them no time to heal from their wounds. Or so some scientists claim.

Entomologists have been trying to understand the bed bug’s strange mating ritual for nearly a century. The answer may lie in an evolutionary biology concept called sexual conflict, where one sex of a species evolves features that increase its chances of breeding, but at the other sex’s expense. Their partners co- evolve strategies to counteract these unwanted advances. This sexual arms race is relatively common. Fruit flies battle over how long the male’s sperm can survive in the female’s reproductive tract. Muscovy duck males have alarmingly long curlicue penises, while the females have labyrinthine vaginas that twist in the opposite direction to turn away unwanted suitors. As for the bed bug, the male’s stabbing ways may have evolved so that he could better compete with his rivals; by stabbing his paramere directly into the female’s body, closer to her ovaries, he might get his sperm to the target a little faster than a beau that chose the old- fashioned route. Other research suggests that the last sperm into the female’s sperm bags are the first to make it to the ovaries, which means the last male to mate with a female may get to cut the paternity line. This could explain why males mate at such mad frequency. Yet another possibility is that the male’s approach evolved in response to female adaptations that tried to thwart his moves. Regardless of the cause, and unfortunately for the female bed bug who lacks good resistance against over- mating, it appears that she is currently losing this particular battle of the sexes

All this activity describes just the hidden world of the common bed bug, Cimex lectularius, which is the species that has reasserted itself in temperate climates worldwide over the past fifteen years (in this book, “bed bug” will generally refer to C. lectularius). Around a hundred related species live out shadowy parallel lives, mainly in the nests of birds or the roosts of bats rather than your hypothetical bedroom, where they feed on pigeons and chickens and sparrows and mouse-eared bats. Collectively, these bugs are called Cimicidae (pronounced sigh-MISS-uh-dee), or cimicids.

Advertisement:

Cimicids belong to the Linnaean order Hemiptera, or the “true bugs,” which is why entomologists spell out “bed bugs” as two words (by contrast, a house fly is two words because it’s a true fly, while a butterfly, one word, is not). All Hemiptera have sucking mouthparts in order to puncture the outer layers of the flora or fauna on which they feed and to drain the fluids inside, whether it’s the sap in a leaf or the juice in another insect or, for cimicids, the blood of a more complex animal. The true bugs’ name comes from hemi- for “half ” and -ptera for “wing”; they are named so for the fact that their wings form a hardened shell at the top, where they attach to the body, and a thinner membrane toward the tips. The wings of many Hemiptera form a signature X pattern when folded across their back. But cimicids have only the stunted nubs of rudimentary wings, possibly because they have adopted the simplest eating strategy an animal can have, which is to sit and wait for food to arrive. The bugs have no reason to fly because we always return to our beds, just as birds do to their nests and bats to their roosts. Wings would also burden cimicids, tangling in feathers and fur during a meal.

Other than the common bed bug, which lives primarily in temperate regions around the world, only two other cimicid species regularly feed on human blood. One is the tropical bed bug, Cimex hemipterus, the common bed bug’s counterpart in the tropics. Like the common bed bug, this species recently resurged across the world, particularly in Asia, India, and Australia, the latter of which which is overrun with the common bed bug in the cooler southern regions and the tropical bed bug in the warmer north. The other is Leptocimex boueti, which feeds on bats and people in West Africa.

To the untrained eye, bed bugs, bat bugs, and the various bird bugs all look pretty much the same. They have wide- set eyes and short antennae. Their oval bodies are segmented, giving them a striped appearance, and bristle with stiff hairs, as do their three pairs of legs. Adults are dark brown and their color shifts to mahogany when they feed. Nymphs are white with eerie red eyes when they wriggle from their eggs. As they mature, they turn the color of straw and then gradually darken to brown. But while they may look the same to most of us, each has characteristics befitting life in its own unique niche.

Advertisement:

*

When I first sought to uncover the secret life of the bed bug, I spent two hours on a Saturday morning on the phone with an entomologist who was studying the insect. It was the only day she had time to talk; bed bugs had taken over her life, and she worked all hours during the week studying the insect and fielding panicked calls from people with infestations.

During our interview, the entomologist told me about a book called Monograph of Cimicidae. It was published in 1966 by Robert Leslie Usinger, who worked and taught at the University of California, Berkeley, in the '40s through the '60s. Although some of its contents are outdated, it remains the heftiest bed bug book in existence, phone-book thick with 585 dense pages describing the seventy- four bed bug species that were known at the time it was written. When I sought a copy in 2011, it was relatively easy to find because the Entomological Society of America had issued a reprint the year before, at the height of the bed bug panic. At $74, it worked out to a dollar per species. The book started me on my much longer bed bug journey, remained a constant companion even as I dug through other papers and texts, and would pop up in places I did not expect.

Advertisement:

He was also the most significant contributor to bed bug research in the last century. When Usinger wrote his tome, and somewhat still today, entomologists identified cimicid species by slight variations in the bugs’ legs, bodies, and other prominent features that are indistinguishable to my naked eye. But when I flipped through the monograph for the first time, the variety from one species to another was dizzying. The magnified views of Usinger’s clean ink drawings, as well as those by a few colleagues, spanned more than 150 pages. The species had their own portraits, which revealed that some bugs are long and thin while the others are short and fat; some are balding, others hirsute, and the hair of each grows in a unique pattern; antennae may stick out ninety degrees from the side of the face, or angle toward the front, or bend back to point at the insect’s rear end; legs are long and spindly or short and squat or something in between; and abdomens range from thin and pointy to a near- perfect circle. Detailed figures compared antennae of many species at once, illustrating distinct lengths and shapes and constellations of hair, or lay out the differences between a series of legs, some of which are mottled and others uniformly shaded. Still other drawings compared bed bug genitalia. One series showed female bat bugs and bird bugs and bed bugs, the varying shapes and positions of their varying spermaleges delicately outlined, and another laid out the array of bed bug penises, all of which crooked to the left but differed in length, girth, curvature, and pointiness.

Usinger wrote several pages on each cimicid species, but he dedicated most of his monograph to Cimex lectularius. Bats and birds, after all, may be tormented by bites, but they can’t intellectualize what plagues them (or, for that matter, hire an exterminator). People are a different story. We spill the most ink for the animals that spill the most of our blood. The enigmatic common bed bug is no exception.

*

How did this strange insect come to be? And how is it now so widespread? In a way, we created the modern bed bug: it evolved to live on us and to follow us. We became an efficient vehicle to spread it around the world. As such, its long story and uprising is intricately intertwined with our own history, and understanding its path helps illuminate ours.

Advertisement:

Usinger suggests, and most experts today agree, that the bed bug got its start in caves somewhere along the Mediterranean seaboard tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years ago in what is now considered the Middle East. Bats likely lived in those caves, as they still do today, and they were host to parasitic bugs. Hypothetically, our ancestors— or perhaps close kin such as the Neanderthals, with whom our early relatives interacted and sometimes even had sex— sought shelter in these caves. When they did, some of the bat bugs took notice. Here was a new potential source of food. Temporary parasitic insects such as these are uniquely adapted to their host, especially when they live a restricted life with access only to a certain food source. Their mouthparts and legs, for example, are shaped to deal specifically with the skin and blood of whatever animal they feed on. These early bat- feeding bugs that were able to also bite our ancestors would have had characteristics allowing them to feed on an entirely new mammal with a strikingly different biology and lifestyle.

The shift from one host to another, and the subsequent altered version of the bug that would eventually emerge, was likely a messy process, and the precise moment when it began is unknown. But a simplified version of the story is this. Compared to the bugs living off of bats, the bed bug would evolve wider and longer mouthparts to accommodate for our ancestor’s larger red blood cells and thicker skin. The newer bug developed less hair to make it easier to climb over our ancestor’s smoother bodies. Its legs lengthened, morphing from short and strong, which helped to grasp a bat’s furry body, to long and quick, which made it easier to run from slapping hands. Its circadian rhythm shifted, too, so it could feed at night, rather than during the day when bats roost; even today, the bug changes its feeding schedule to match its host’s sleep cycle. The new bugs passed these favorable traits to their offspring. And as time went on, people began to live in more clustered homes in camps and villages, and the relationship with the bed bug grew  stronger. The bug thrived in increasingly condensed dwellings, its reproduction and spread boosted by the heat of our hearth-warmed homes. As early civilizations expanded interaction with one another through trade and travel and moved from smaller villages to cities, the bed bug did, too.

The earliest hard evidence of our coexistence with the bed bug comes from Tell el- Amarna, an Egyptian archaeological site that lies 170 miles south of Cairo and dates between about 1352 and 1336 bce. Ancient Egyptians occupied the city that used to exist there, Akhetaten, for around a quarter of a century, during the reigns of the pharaohs Akhenaten and Smenkhkare. The city fell just before the start of the rule of Tutankhamun, or King Tut. The region’s hot, dry climate preserved the flesh of insects including fleas, several food pests, and what have been identified as bed bugs, which were excavated in what may have been the former sleeping chambers of the el- Amarna tomb builders and guards. Bed bugs were still present in the region more than a thousand years later, appearing in a third- century bce Egyptian papyrus that described a spell to keep them away. And they were likely still there beyond that. By at least the ninth century, the bugs were nearby in what is now Iraq, according to the Arabic scholar al- Jahiz, who wrote: “They feed on warm blood and have a crazy preference for man. They have no protection, so one easily sees them. In Egypt and similar lands, they are very prevalent.”

Early historical documents do not differentiate between a common bed bug and a tropical one, particularly in the regions where the species may have overlapped. But some version of the bug lurks in the texts of three of the world’s oldest living religions that sprung from Middle Eastern lands: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Christian references to the bugs appear in The Apocryphal New Testament, which describes, among other things, legends of second- century apostles. In the book’s story of John, bugs attack the apostle at night. He tells them: “I say to you, you bugs, be considerate; leave your home for this night and go rest in a place which is far away from the servants of God!” And they did until morning. For their good behavior, John told them they could return to their homes, and so they “hastened from the door to the bed, ran up the legs into the joints and disappeared.” The passage doesn’t specifically call the insects “bed bugs,” but they would indeed live in the joints of a bed (although they’d never be so well- behaved, God’s servants or not).

Advertisement:

In Judaism, the Talmud explicitly speaks of bed bugs at least twice. The most promising reference dates between the fourth and sixth centuries and recalls Mishnah Niddah, the classical rabbinical code that explains the rules on women’s purity and menstruation. This particular Mishnah states that if a woman has blood on her bedsheets or clothes, she is considered impure and has to refrain from sex until seven days have passed and she has taken a purifying ritual bath. But if she can show that the blood is from something else— from a cut, or from slaughtering animals earlier in the day, or from a crushed bed bug— she’s still pure. (Today in Yiddish, the bugs are called vantsn, which translates literally as “bed bug,” loosely as “small disgusting creatures,” and forms the root of vantzel, which is used as an insult against people who are short.) Finally, some Islamic academics think there may be a bed bug reference in the Sahih al- Bukhari version of the Hadith, a record of the Prophet Muhammad written in the ninth century. In this Hadith, Muhammad says: “When anyone of you goes to bed, he should dust it off thrice with the edge of his garment . . .”— which the scholars interpret as clearing the space of bed bugs in preparation for sleep.

As best as we can trace the bed bug’s spread, it advanced from what is now the Middle East and North Africa through Europe and Asia. While it isn’t known for certain how the bugs made the trip across the Mediterranean Sea, a possible scenario is that they hitched rides on the ships that crisscrossed the waters during the Bronze Age sea trade. By at least 423 bce, the bugs were in Greece, according to descriptions by the Greek playwright Aristophanes; A preserved bed bug found at an Egyptian archaeological dig dating to between 1352 and later the bugs were also mentioned by Aristotle and Dioscorides. In Greece they earned the name kóris, which some etymologists suggest is the root of the word coriander, possibly because the spice’s crushed seeds give off a sickly sweet smell similar to that of a bed bug infestation. The ancient Greeks considered the bug both an undesirable pest and a homeopathic treatment for a long list of ailments: they hung hare or stag feet from their beds to ward off the bugs, yet ate them with meat and beans to treat fevers, with beans alone to cure snakebites, and with wine or vinegar to ward off leeches. They also crushed the bugs into balms to treat urinary pain or to regrow plucked eyelashes, and made the insects’ fluids into depilatories.

By 77 CE bed bugs landed in modern-day Italy, according to Pliny the Elder, a Roman scholar and encyclopedist; later they would appear in the poems of Horace. Romans gave the bed bugs the first half of their modern Latin name, Cimex, which translates as “bug.” Linnaeus, that great classifier of life, extended the designation to Cimex lectularius nearly a thousand years later, which means “bug of the bed” or “bug of the couch.” Like the Greeks, Pliny said the bugs could be used medicinally, suggesting an injection of burnt bed bug ashes and rose oil for earaches, although he questioned the wisdom of eating them with beans.

From the edges of the Mediterranean, bed bugs emanated farther east and north, their spread made easier by our increasingly congested cities and penchant for travel. They entered through large cities or seaports and were relatively uncommon farther inland at first, although they eventually spread throughout the countryside. By 600 they were in China, where the ancient Chinese mashed the bugs into a paste to treat external sores and eventually would name them chòu chong, or stinky bug, in Mandarin. In nearby Japan, the bugs were called tokomushi, floor bug; tokojirami, floor louse; and Nankinmusi, the Nanking bug—possibly named for the former capital of China, a city that the Japanese associated with diminutive and rare foreign curiosities.

Advertisement:

By the eleventh century, the bugs were documented in Germany, where they would eventually be named venerschen (little venereal), nachtkrabbler (night crawler), and tapetenflunder (wallpaper flounder). Centuries later the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe would describe the demon in his famous Faustian legend as “the lord of rats and eke of mice, of flies and bed bugs, frogs and lice.” By the thirteenth century, bed bugs were in France, where they were named punaise, from puer, or “to stink.” By 1583 they made it to England, where they were dubbed “bug,” the earliest use of which allegedly specifically referred to the bed bug and may have originated from the Scottish or Welsh word for bogey, goblin, or ghost. Soon the bed bug was so common in Europe that the popular natural history The Animal Kingdom, first published in 1817 by the French zoologist Georges Cuvier, claimed that it was “too well known to need description,” although the book dedicated a page of dense text to the domesticated dog.

From Europe, colonists unwittingly brought bed bugs to America aboard their ships— even on the Mayflower, according to folklore. Some Englishmen claimed it was the other way around and that the bed bugs snuck into England in timber shipments from the New World— an unlikely suggestion since bed bugs feed on people, not wood, and wouldn’t have infested virgin lumber to begin with. By at least 1748, the bugs were common from the English colonies up into Canada, first appearing in gateway seaport towns and then working their way into other settlements through trade and travel.

As settlements grew, so did the bugs’ territory, and eventually they would earn nicknames like “the redcoats” and “mahogany flats.” They hitched rides into homes on used furniture, travelers’ luggage, and maids’ laundry baskets, spreading between adjoining houses and adjacent tenements. They were prominent in offices and theaters. Soon, like their hosts, bed bugs headed west on covered wagon caravans and, later, by railway to conquer the entire continent. One account of the rugged prairie life recalls “swarms of bed bugs” that could be scooped from the walls of sod houses and measured with a spoon. Eventually, Native Americans incorporated the pest into their languages. In Navajo the bed bug is wósits’ílí, and in Cherokee it is galuisdi. In Hopi the bugs, or perhaps a closely related species, are pesets’ola, which serves as the base for the verb pesets’olmaqnuma and means “to be hunting for bed bugs,” a phrase used when someone is falling asleep. Bed bugs similarly infiltrated Australia when the first European settlers arrived there in the late 1700s, according to the few existing historical accounts that mention the insects, and likely also snuck into other temperate colonies across the world. These regions, too, have their own bed bug histories.

By the early 1900s, the pest was so common in the United States that it turned up everywhere from downtrodden alleys to fancy hotels. There was a Bed Bug Hill in New Jersey and Bedbug, California, a mining town. Fake bed bugs were sold for around ten cents a package in magazines such as Popular Mechanics and Billboard. The American realist painter Edward Hopper made his own bed bug gag, painstakingly crafting a watercolor bed bug family, cutting each member out, and then attaching them to the artist Walter Tittle’s pillow as a practical joke. Americans mixed bed bugs in tinctures and other medical mixtures to treat fever and chills associated with malaria, as well as constipation, coughs, hemorrhoids, liver complaints, muscle contractions, skin ailments, seminal emissions, and frequent yawning. And in 1926 a special agricultural bulletin from Michigan State University proclaimed that bed bugs had “been established all over America for so long a time that no record of a ‘bugless’ America seems to exist.”

Advertisement:

From there the bed bug worked its way not only into daily life but into our artistic expressions of it. The British medical entomologist James Ronald Busvine, whose experiments helped prove the bed bug’s hardy resistance to pesticides in the fifties and sixties, understood how a bloodsucking insect could spark creativity: “They will provide literary curiosities as symbols of piety, of love, of human insignificance. They are subjects of ribald verse, of quack medicine and of morbid fascination.”

Indeed, bed bugs were written about in the pages of Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Langston Hughes, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Henry Miller, who loved the bug’s name so much that it appeared in seven of his most famous novels. The bugs, too, were lamented in early blues songs, from “Black Snake Moan” by Blind Lemon Jefferson to variations of “Mean Old Bedbug Blues” by the likes of Lonnie Johnson, Furry Lewis, and Bessie Smith. In 1936 the song crept into American country music when Ernest Tubb, the Texas Troubadour, recorded a version complete with guitar picking and yodeling. And in the fifties and sixties in the Caribbean, popular calypso tunes about bed bugs took on a sexual theme. One song recorded separately by Mighty Spoiler and by Lord Invader contemplated reincarnation as a bed bug in order to bite women’s buttocks. And in “Muriel and the Bug,” recorded by Lord Kitchener, a bug seeks out Muriel’s “treasure.”

*

Back in your bedroom— the clean or messy one, whomever you are— let’s say you have woken up to an itchy bite or a smear of dried blood on your sheets. Or perhaps you’ve noticed a spray of small flecks that look like mold or ground pepper stuck to the edges of your mattress. Maybe this has happened before, but you just now accepted that there is a pattern. You see that the bites are lined up in a row or that the blood spot has the remnants of a crushed insect leg. Or maybe, on closer inspection, what looks like ground pepper is in fact bed bug scat. You now realize that these are the signs of the nocturnal romping of bed bugs. Maybe you did notice before but didn’t want to believe it. It doesn’t matter. This time let’s say your findings spark a bed bug hunt, and you rip off your sheets to find a small cluster of bed bugs huddled in the seam of your mattress inches from where your pillow normally rests. And so you do what people have been doing for hundreds or thousands of years when faced with bed bugs: you kill them, and by whatever means possible.

Advertisement:

Excerpted from "Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World" by Brooke Borel. Published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright 2015 by Brooke Borel. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


Brooke Borel

Brooke Borel is a science writer and journalist. She is a contributing editor to Popular Science, where she authors the blog Our Modern Plagues.

MORE FROM Brooke Borel




BROWSE SALON.COM
COMPLETELY AD FREE,
FOR THE NEXT HOUR

Read Now, Pay Later - no upfront
registration for 1-Hour Access

Click Here
7-Day Access and Monthly
Subscriptions also available
No tracking or personal data collection
beyond name and email address

•••


Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •