Bedbugs: not just for poor people anymore

A highly icky New York Magazine article explores the bedbug boom in New York City. Once the monopoly of impoverished tenement dwellers, these sociable parasites are now freely enjoyed by highfalutin' types on the Upper East Side. Of the many interesting factoids in the story, a reminder that the highly toxic chemical DDT was really pretty great at keeping bedbugs at bay in decades past.


  1. the highly toxic chemical DDT was really pretty great at keeping bedbugs at bay in decades past.

    It was also really great at getting into pregnant bald eagles.

    just sayin’

    1. Doubly good, then– trying to sleep in a room full of pregnant bald eagles is also next to impossible.

      1. I remembered seeing a headline about the dogs recently, so I googled it. I was surprised to find a bedbug dog industry.

      2. The article didn’t mention dogs as a scam, it just says it’s not a foolproof method. On page 4 the dogs find the source of the bedbugs.

        I think the dogs are trained to smell the blood in the bedbug excrement.

        I live in NYC and know a lot of people who have been plagued by bedbugs. It’s so much worse than I ever realized, only having known them from “don’t let the bedbugs bite”.

        1. @Cruxx: “Any schnook with a mutt can train it to bark, then call his cousin Larry to “exterminate” the “bugs” that the dog “found.” That scam is now widely regarded as a growth industry.” (page 2)

          1. ohh..uuhh.. yeeah I saw that >.> my bad.

            They aren’t saying that bedbug dogs in general are a scam though, more that there are scammers who will use a combination fake dog/exterminator combo.

  2. There’s not too much icky about bedbugs. They are the most godawful, horrendous, mandible-licking, bastardly bugs around, but “icky”? I usually think of cockroaches when I think of icky, or something that isn’t cool enough to sustain itself by sucking down a larger creature’s vital fluids.

    Diabolical, conniving, scheming, unadulterated unicorn-sacrifice-level evil? Yes. Icky? Not so much.

  3. Hey, aren’t pigeons a problem in New York City? And I have it on good word that by the year 3000, owl infestation will be a major problem. So DDT away.

    It’s funny, when I went to Europe, I tried to make my Arizona origins more exotic by bringing a scorpion encased in a solid glass dome, like you get in tourist shops here. I told people that before we go to bed, we have to check our beds for scorpions, and if we find one, the only safe way to kill them is to encase them in a solid glass dome. If you squish one and miss the stinger, they’ll release a pheromone and you’ll wake up covered in scorpions.

    Good times. Of course, these days I’d have to put a Utah flag on my backpack.

  4. I had to deal with a bedbug infestation when I got my mattress out of storage after a long-distance move. The bites…oh dear god, the bites…

  5. I’d be willing to bet that all the people saying how utterly awful DDT is, have NEVER suffered through a bedbug infestation.

    Words really can’t describe how awful it is getting eaten alive while you sleep. It’s something you have to suffer through to understand. I experienced it for a year and it was sheer misery.

    Not only do the bites itch ten times worse than mosquitoes. You stop sleeping because of the anxiety the infestation causes. And when you stop sleeping, your life becomes miserable quickly.

    No one is suggesting that we go spray DDT in massive quanitities all over the environment. BUT when I was suffering through my year-long infestation, I would have loved to have something, anything to kill those bastards.

  6. Screw DDT, use diatomaceous earth. Completely harmless* to pets and humans, and insects can’t build up resistance to it any more than humans could build up a resistance to bullets.

    * apparently there are different kinds, and one version may cause respiratory problems, so make sure you get the right kind.

  7. A really good way of detecting bedbugs is to prepare a trap with dry ice similar to what is described in this science news article:

    Bedbugs are attracted to the CO2 we exhale while we sleep. This is a much more cost effective way than having a bug sniffing dog come over, which can set you back more than 150 bucks. I know because I looked into it. My girlfriend’s apartment became infested with Bedbugs last summer. I was more than lucky that they didn’t migrate to my apartment. I spent over six months in a psychosomatic bug bite hell, scratching at bites that didn’t exist, while also waking up in the middle of every night to check my mattress for any sign of the critters. I finally rest in peace, but I now have a protective cover on my mattress and still fastidiously scan for any signs.

    There is also a Bedbug registry to locate buildings that have actually reported infestations:

  8. They descended from batbugs, by the by. During the last ice age, when your ancestors moved into the caves, the batbugs, the ancestors of the bedbugs, came down to say howdy. It’s kind of romantic, isn’t it? Like how your grandparents met.

    When the weather warmed up, the bat/bedbugs came along with the humans, who proceeded to make their very own caves called houses. And life was good for the bedbugs.

    Sometimes people still get batbug infestations when they’ve had bats roosting in the attic or the chimney all summer. When the bats leave in the fall, the cast off batbugs are HUNGRY and LONELY and they try to comfort themselves by drinking your blood. But they don’t persist like the bedbugs do. They eventually die, pining, I suppose, for the beautiful bats who jilted them.

    I’m not sure that bedbugs ever gave a good goddamn what your social status was, just the rich folks hushed it up when they got infestations.

    As I understand it, there have been some small populations of DDT resistant bedbugs hanging around in parts of the US since back in the days when bedbugs were everywhere. Yes, everywhere, just like they are NOW.

    When the dogs are trained properly, and the training is maintained properly, they are really good at sniffing out bedbugs. What’s more, they can tell the difference between live bedbugs and dead ones, the difference between the skins left between moults, and they only alert for the live material. Even a beagle with a head cold can tell the difference between blood and bedbugs. And they don’t alert for just the droppings. Dogs are used to establish if there are live bedbugs still around after there have been treatments to get rid of them. It makes no sense to have them alert for dead bugs or blood or droppings in those situations. They can also inspect a room in about the tenth of the time that humans can, and are far more accurate.

    It isn’t enough that you train the dogs. You have to reinforce the training every day. The dogs are fed when they alert for a bedbug. And this means, you guessed it, that the handlers have to have live bedbugs on hand and that means, you guessed it, they have to feed these bedbugs.

    So there are scammers. If you need to use a dog, make sure it is certified. It’s the National Association of Entomological Scent Detection Dogs or something very like that. NEDSCA, so it must be canine. National Entomological Scent Detection Canine Association. Whatever. You’re on a computer, you’ve got Google. So google it already.

    Not everyone itches or has a reaction to the bites. It’s pretty common to have a couple sharing the bed and only one person gets chowed. Or perhaps just one person reacts to the bites. I’ve a friend doing research on the little suckers and she feeds her subjects a couple of times a week. She has them in a glass vial with a cheesecloth on the top, and puts in against her arm, and patiently waits for them to get a blood meal. It doesn’t, she says usually hurt. The babies, she says, can be incompetent feeders, the first time around. They are less stealthy when they pierce the skin. Probably if you are bad at making that puncture, as a bedbug, you do not survive. Probably you are the one that wakes up your supper, who then squishes you and screams.

    My friend shows no welts, no rashes and does not itch. And she is a lovely delightful person and if you met her, you would never know. You would be charmed, as you should be, and you would ask her out to dinner. And if you were lucky, she would agree to it.

    The good news about bedbugs is that they do not, as far as is known, vector disease. They feed once each instar, and the time between moults is longer than blood-borne pathogens can survive. So that is the good news. But sometimes people who live in the middle of a severe infestation can get really weakened from the relentless feeding.

    The bad news is infestations can be wicked bad, and if you have a severe one, good luck to you with your diatomaceous earth. I hope it works, I truly do. I loathe insecticides, but living with a bedbug infestation is something I don’t want to do.

    People get freaked out, get traumatized. If they were fine beforehand, let’s just say they are not the same after a bad bedbug infestation. If they were already prone to stress disorders, bedbugs can totally unhinge people. Truthfully, they unhinge almost everyone. Makes me twitch just thinking about it.

    The bugs get into furniture, clothing, books, the walls and small spaces of your house. They’ll lurk in the wooden bench seating in churches, and then come out and nibble on the calves of the devout as they pray. And a few are likely to hitch a ride home. Flying on a plane? Bedbugs like to do a bit of luggage hopping in the overhead compartment. Think about the seating in trains and theaters. Think twice about doing the curbside gleaning when people put out bulk trash. Secondhand furniture? Not so appealing. Some stores end up distributing bedbugs inadvertently. Don’t even think about used mattresses. Bedbugs are a bear of a problem in dorms. Yes Virginia, it might have been hard for you to get into an ivy, but it wasn’t for the bedbugs. When you travel, take care. When you have houseguests, cross your fingers.

    When you travel, inspect hotel rooms before you agree to take them. At first, leave your luggage in the hall. Pull back the sheets of the bed and the bed pad and look at the mattress. Look for the droppings or the stains from the droppings, which are most likely to catch in the seams. Check the headboard and the area around the bed. Only when you are satisfied, then bring your bags into the room. Don’t leave them on the floor, put them up on a rack. If the walls are smooth, bedbugs are unlikely to climb them.

    Don’t use the closet. Don’t put your shoes under the bed, don’t THINK of it. If you must hang something, hang it in the bathroom on the shower rod. Bedbugs cannot climb up smooth tile. Enjoy your stay!

    Bedbugs don’t care if you are from Long Beach or Malibu, if you are from Westport or Bridgeport. They never did. They don’t care if you are religious or an atheist, gay or straight, into steampunk or StarWars. Bedbugs care about the real you, what is inside, what is beneath the skin. Bedbugs love you all!

  9. Oh, and I forgot to mention the dogs will also alert for live eggs. Which is quite important.

    And it can take a long time and many treatments to get rid of them.

    Contact your state agricultural experiment station, or the extension office of your state university for more information. Talk to an actual entomologist, for pity’s sake. Some of these exterminators are very good and really know their stuff. But some of them, certified or no, not so much. They are probably consulting the state entomologists, so whey shouldn’t you?

    And if you got ’em, these bedbugs, good luck. And if you don’t got ’em and feel cocky, don’t. Bedbugs are going to the top of the charts with a bullet. And when you smile like that, you just look so so delicious.

  10. DDT is fairly non-toxic for humans, which is why it was so popular—it killed things people don’t like, while not killing the people.

    DDT was not banned, it was restricted. It is illegal to use in agriculture (where huge amounts were used, and get into the broader environment), but has never been banned for public health reasons (especially malaria, for which it still sees some use, although mosquitoes are evolving resistance).

    1. It may only be used against disease vectors. Bedbugs are possible disease vectors (never proven, but nothing stands against it) so i’m not sure about the legality.
      @ill lich: do you know about any studies on the diatomaceous earth’s efficiency against bedbugs/insects? In fowl-lice it is supposed to work mechanically, by sanding the insects until they dry out, so i am not sure whether it will work on bedbugs, unless you swathe yourself in diac.dust.

  11. anyone else feel itchy after reading the article?

    because I sure feel itchy. Really itchy!

  12. Just once I would like to read about a pest without the DDT troll-bait.

    Yes, anon, I have been bitten by bedbugs, and no, I am not in favor of DDT or things like it. I had no unique problems ridding the unit I rented of bedbugs; it’s like any other insect infestation, you need determination and hard work. DDT is beloved of people who are allergic to work and lazy of mind, of course, and that’s why we have DDT resistant bugs now.

  13. It took six months to get bed bugs out of my home. It wasn’t quick or easy. Sure, seeing dead bed bugs means the pesticides are working, but the eggs those bugs have been laying…..daily… will continue to hatch for weeks and those bugs can go weeks with out eating if need be, but they hatch hungry. Repeated treatments will be required. You can watch videos on how to inspect your home at The occupants possessions need to be treated. The elderly residents need help with preparation and education. Otherwise, their “little” problem isn’t going away anytime soon.

  14. We don’t needs new or old stronger pesticides its not hard to kill ebd bugs try droppong one in a glass of water it will die very quickly. What the problem is is that people don’t know how to use the approved products correctly.

    Call an expert in to do the job follow his or her instructions and you will be bed bug free in no time.

    If you are in a multi occupancy unit things are a bit different. There is no point just treating one unit they all need checking. This can take a long time so can be quite expencive, and who wants to pay when they don’t have a problem.

  15. What if DDT were made legal for bedbug control for a limited period, say a six month window starting January 1, 2011? You could kill off existing populations in short order, requiring another few decades for them to return to present levels.

    And I somehow doubt a lot of bald eagles hang out in expensive New York condos.

    1. DDT is already legal for that purpose and it’s already legal to use even more powerful poisons as well. OH, REALITY, YOU ARE SO CRUEL!!!!

      Any time someone even mentions DDT, they have an axe to grind. They usually want you to support some scheme that you would not support if you were fully informed, so they start by trying to convince you of giant conspiracies of evil green fascists under the bed stealing your DDT. Once you believe that insane bullshit, you are ripe for their other insane us-vs-them memes and can be converted into yet another marching moron.

      “Ah, fresh victims for my ever-growing army of the undead!” — Montgomery Burns

  16. “DDT is beloved of people who are allergic to work and lazy of mind, of course, and that’s why we have DDT resistant bugs now.”

    Like Van Helsing, I have come up against this blood-sucking spawn of the devil a few times. It is very common in artist live/work spaces where shoddy carpentry affords them a plethora of hiding places. But it has reached an epidemic proportion in NYC.

    I have seen them crawling on the A / C train that connects with JFK. One dropped like a ninja onto my husband in a Park Slope supermarket.

    Because of my apartment with old, cracked skylights, I have to worry about them hitching a ride with a bat or a pigeon and coming back into my home. We have a full metal shop here, and they would find plenty of places to hide. I also have really nice furniture that I am loathe to put out on the street.

    I have boiled pounds of bedding. My husband once spent two months caulking all the wooden slats in our ceiling at another place. I have painted, bombed, sprinkled diotemaceous earth (which works up to a point, but it takes time and dedication.) But DDT works. I’m probably not supposed to say this. Maybe I’m going to jail now for killing a bald eagle. But a biologist friend made me a batch, and it worked like gangbusters. I know immediately when they bite me, because I have very sensitive skin and can’t handle any bug bites. This put an end to it for good.

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