Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite


“If the devil is to be personified in any form, it should be as a bed bug.”
Dr. Amy L. Fairchild, Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

The audience was itching for the program to start. After it began, the itching began in earnest. It’s hard not to itch when watching a slide show on bed bugs. And this was a slide show worthy of an NC rating, if the motion picture industry gave out such designations for over the top ickiness.

We saw macro photos of bed bugs laying eggs, shedding their skins, copulating, and sucking blood. There were slides of hundreds, even thousands of bed bugs in jars, swarming on beds, crawling on walls, and feeding on human skin. (This is when they blow up like tiny brown balloons).

The slide show at the Museum of the City of New York was courtesy of Louis Sorkin, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, and, it’s safe to say, his presentation brought some audience members to their feet—as they walked out. “It’s too gross!” exclaimed the woman sitting behind me. (Her reaction was prompted by several photos of people who had sustained many, many bed bug bites).

Bed bugs, once a cute mention when tucking a child into bed, have become a global problem. “There’s not a single country in the world where this problem doesn’t exist,” said David Cain, managing director of Bed Bug Ltd., in London. “It’s a global pandemic.” Cain joined a panel of several experts to talk about the bed bug problem worldwide and in cities like New York.

The museum’s program was billed as one that would discredit myths and detail what the city is doing to confront the problems. However, the evening produced more questions than answers and more confusion than clarity. While several members of the panel debunked certain methods for dealing with infestations, that didn’t stop some audience members from plugging their company’s products and services during the question and answer period. (One company had a bevy of young women in jackets emblazoned with “Stop Bugging Me!” passing out samples of an aerosol spray at the museum’s entrance).

Bed bugs have been around since ancient times and humans have been battling them ever since. Once thought to plague the domiciles of the poor, bed bugs are now the equal opportunity pest. In New York alone, the little buggers have invaded upscale stores like Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister’s, and Nike, as well as the Empire State Building, Lincoln Center, and the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

One myth was dispelled, that the insect we are seeing now is somehow a “super bug,” able to withstand whatever treatment method being used. “It’s the same species,” said Sorkin.

Why has the bed bug problem exploded and spread worldwide? Cain resisted placing the blame on immigration and travel. “Society forgot about the bed bug,” he said. “The pest we were almost done with is back.”

Dr. Amy L. Fairchild, department chair, sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said that in the 1800s, bed bugs became linked to cholera, typhoid, polio, even the Bubonic plague. While no longer blamed for serious illnesses, bed bugs do cause skin rashes and trigger allergic reactions. However, the insect’s chief impact is a psychological one. “It’s a major mental health issue,” said Gale Brewer, a member of the City Council representing Manhattan’s Upper West Side and the northern part of Clinton. “If you get them, you panic.”

To some extent, the insect’s name is misleading. Bed bugs may inhabit a bed, but they may also be found in carpets, behind mouldings, in curtains, and on wiring. They may come out at night to feed, then retreat to hiding places. The panel’s experts viewed encasing a mattress and box spring in plastic as a useless and expensive exercise.

While there are many bed bug treatment companies on the market, the panel advised caution when engaging these services. In New York City, the landlord is responsible for hiring an exterminator, but the tenant needs to cooperate, do research, and ask questions.

The panel did have some tips and advice:

Check monthly. Take your bed apart and look for evidence of an infestation. Don’t overlook other areas where the bugs may hide. “It’s easier to treat the problem when the population is low,” said Yasmine Hecker, CEO of Prep4BedBugs, LLC.

Learn the ages and stages. Bed bugs come in all forms besides the reddish brown adult version. Look for eggs, shed skin, droppings.

Avoid contact. “You only get bed bugs if you come into contact with them,” said Cain. “Think bed bugs, think exposure.”

Less is sometimes more. Cain said that he has seen homes explode after insecticide “bombs” were overused and ignited a stove’s pilot light. Similarly, aerosol sprays are often ineffective, merely serving to drive the bugs to another area.

One message that was driven home: we’re all in this together. Those who often battle the bed bug problem are those least able to deal with an infestation—the poor and the elderly. The panel members encouraged everyone to reach out to help others in the community.

In the war years in Great Britain, the bed bug was a significant problem that stigmatized the poor, said Rene Corea, from, adding, “We do not want to go back to that time.”

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