When things go bite in the night

In the corner of the freezer in a Brooklyn apartment, next to a nearly empty three-year-old carton of ice cream, Anoki had stashed two bed bugs. They were in a plastic takeout container triple-wrapped in cheap plastic sandwich bags, and they had been dead for a long time, having sat there for more than a year. Anoki (not his real name because I promised not to use it) originally put the bugs in the freezer in case his landlady needed proof before she would pay his extermination bill. But then he left them there. He did this for the same reason that he had kept the last bite of the LaSalle Vanilla Swiss Almond, leftover from the first time he'd ever shared ice cream with his girlfriend, Daelyn (also not her real name) on one of their early dates: it was the physical representation of a significant memory. The ice cream was a happy one; the bed bugs were not. "He didn't even let me know that he put the bed bugs in the freezer," Daelyn told me when I met the couple on a snowy January day more than a year after they'd gone through their bed bug infestation. "And I was like, 'Why is this empty bag in here?' And then I opened it and I was like, 'Oh, okay,'" she said, laughing. "And you put it back?" I asked. "Yeah. I knew why he was keeping them." I met Anoki and Daelyn through a mutual friend when I was going through a phase of wanting to talk to as many bed bug survivors as possible. We arranged to meet at a coffee shop a few blocks from their apartment, but when we arrived it was filled with silent people tapping on laptops and curled over steaming cups — too quiet for a candid conversation about infestations and bloodsuckers. We moved to a noisy bar next door and ordered a round of hot toddies and stouts. Anoki and Daelyn, both young and hip in knit caps and plastic-rimmed glasses, told me their story.

Anoki first started getting bites around a year and three months earlier, not long after he and Daelyn moved in together. At first he thought the red bumps on his stomach were just a series of rashes, but the itch was fierce and they kept coming back in different places. His doctor gave him antihistamine pills, creams, and a referral for a dermatologist, who gave him more cream and pushed for steroid shots for the swelling. But neither doctor could tell Anoki the cause of the increasingly frequent bumps or how to stop them.

Daelyn had no bites and was busy with her first semester at graduate school, and so Anoki was left alone to scour the Internet for clues. His searches led to websites talking about bed bugs with pictures of bites. He ripped off the sheets and mattress cover to inspect the bed but found nothing. Weeks went by. Each morning brought a new outbreak of bumps, which spread from his stomach to his arms and shoulders. He called the landlady, and she brought in a fatherson pest control team. Not long after the son of the duo arrived for an inspection, he lifted the mattress and exposed four bed bugs sitting in a spot that Anoki swore he had already checked. Two of these went in the freezer; the other two were squished and thrown away.


Then came a whirlwind of stressful cleaning and purging, made worse by the stench of a pesticide-drenched apartment, an upcoming visit from Daelyn's family, Daelyn's finals, living with a significant other for the first time, an already-tight budget stretched too thin, and no money to buy a new bed. Each piece of lint sparked a frenzy of new inspections; each torn jumbo trash bag spiraled into worrying whether the clothes inside were now contaminated, or whether they could avoid another trudge to the Laundromat.

Daelyn's proclivity toward anxiety and depression made her guilt over the bugs especially weighty. Had they come with her during the move, she wondered, or from a used chair they had bought together? Anoki had his own struggles, including obsessive-compulsive disorder. Still, his therapist commented on how well he was handling the bed bugs; this was especially evident when Anoki, after the bed bugs appeared to be gone, let the once-incessant inspections and cleanings fade. He had no new bites. The apartment was back in shape. It took mental acrobatics, but he knew it was time to move on.

And so Anoki found himself staring at the bed bugs in his freezer just a few weeks before our meeting. He and Daelyn had finally been able to afford a new bed and had just thrown out their old mattress after wrapping it five times in plastic painter's sheets secured with heavy-duty tape, despite the fact it had been deemed bed-bug-free for a long time. He took the takeout container that held the bugs, left the apartment, and walked several blocks before dropping them into a sidewalk trash can.

"How did it feel to finally get rid of them?" I asked.

"It felt amazing," he said.

As I listened to the couple's story, I thought about all of the other bed bug rituals and compulsions people had told me over the previous months. Hiding bed bugs in the freezer, in context, isn't so strange. There is the apartment building owner who downs antihistamines like a nightcap before bed, which he told me calms his nerves better than any alcohol can; the family who got rid of nearly everything they owned after a bed bug scare, including both of their cars; and the journalist who threw out all of her newspaper clippings, which spanned many years of work, and dozens of personal journals, even though her exterminator said she never had bed bugs to begin with. The first time I met him, a friend of a friend revealed to me that his wife, who has a deep fear of uncleanliness, grew so worried about the stories of bed bugs in theaters that she eventually refused to go to the movies unless they both wore protective polyethylene suits — the kind people use when they're doing lead or asbestos decontamination. The couple tried it once, much to the unease of fellow theatergoers, and then stopped going to the movies entirely. Another friend who lives down the street from me had bed bugs, which her roommate's boyfriend apparently brought in from his own infested apartment, and for months after a successful treatment, she would text photos of spider beetles and baby cockroaches to her exterminator along with the message: "Bed bug??????"

Then there is the woman who got bitten by bed bugs in a New Orleans hotel room during a conference. She was worried she had brought some of the insects back to her Washington, DC, apartment, which she shared with four roommates. To prove to herself that none of her dozens of bites were new, and therefore possibly from a bug that had slipped home in her suitcase, she took a pen and started a complicated tracking system. First she made a small circle next to each bite in blue ink. The next day, she drew a triangle next to all the bites, noting those that had no blue circle. The next day, it was tiny squares. By the end of the week her body was so covered in ink that it wouldn't come off in the shower. There is also one of my favorite stories from a friend who had bed bugs in the New York apartment she shared with her boyfriend. The whole building was infested; the landlord was no help; the bugs required three treatments — things were tense. During an argument amongst the bagged clothes and the white drifts of diatomaceous earth, the boyfriend locked himself in the bathroom. An hour later, at which point my friend had almost given up and left him to his apparent tantrum, he emerged wearing nothing but his boxer shorts and said, "Maybe this will help us see the bites." He hadn't been hiding out of anger. Instead, frustrated with the bed bugs, he had been busily shaving off all of his body hair.


I empathize with these stories. During one of my bouts with bed bugs, I remember lying awake at night covered in insect repellent and staring at my ceiling, twitching at the slightest sensation on my leg or my arm. I had pulled the bed away from the wall, stripped off all of the blankets and sheets, and created a barrier made from double-sided tape on the floor. And I still got bitten. Another time, I forced a roommate to help me throw out my favorite upholstered chair because I was convinced bed bugs were biting me when I took naps on it. And I've also spent hours meticulously vacuuming each of the several hundred books in my library and steaming the internal seams of my dresser, inch by inch.

That an insect would inspire unease is no surprise. An estimated 19 million people suffer from an irrational fear of insects, or entomophobia. While many more don't suffer from the same paralyzing anxiety, they still feel revulsion or disgust when they see an insect. According to the philosopher and insect ecologist Jeffrey Lockwood in his book The Infested Mind, these emotional responses stem from two places: our evolutionary past and our cultural present. Evolutionary theory suggests that we are primed to be frightened by the quick skittering movements and alien forms of insects. Some, after all, are indeed dangerous and can deliver a venomous bite or transmit a deadly disease. It may have made more sense for our ancestors to avoid all insects — and even things that move or feel like them — than to be indifferent and thus vulnerable. The hominid that jumps at a harmless butterfly may feel silly but will have a better chance at living on to have children who are also easily startled. The hominid that reaches into a crevice without looking may die from an unseen sting. Our modern culture, argues Lockwood, nourishes these tendencies. We learn from our families and even our peers how to react to insects. If our parents squealed and grimaced over the sight of a cockroach when we were young, we are more likely to do the same.

Lockwood also notes that our increasingly urban spaces make it easy to avoid insects, or at least the majority of the 10 million species thought to exist worldwide, and this has diluted our ability to separate the dangerous insects from the benign ones. In the modern antiseptic living space, increasingly barricaded from the outside world, the presence of any insect seems like an invasion. And we have entered into next-level expectations for what constitutes as clean, with our antibacterial soaps and arsenals of cleaning sprays. This feeds into a heightened intolerance of even the occasional creepy crawlies.

But people who live near mosquitoes that carry malaria or West Nile virus don't shave their bodies or mark them in ink or cover them in protective Tyvek suits. They also don't dispose of all their worldly belongings or spend hours vacuuming them. Neither do people with cockroaches, rats, or silverfish. Bed bugs inspire behavior beyond what these disease spreaders or common household pests can muster. ("Logic goes out the window," as Anoki told me when we discussed the freezer incident.) What makes bed bugs different?

One possibility is because bed bugs attack in the night. When we sleep, we are vulnerable. Humans rely on a stage of rest called rapid eye movement, which may be important for memory consolidation, learning, and the regulation of emotions. It is also the period of sleep when we have our most intense dreams. During REM, which happens several times a night, the body is basically paralyzed so we don't physically act out those dreams, which leaves us defenseless. Evolutionarily speaking, humans and other animals that experience REM may be primed to seek shelter when they sleep; once they find it, they clear out debris and, possibly, parasites. They also bring in leaves or other materials that add comfort or conceal them from a predator. Animals continue to act out these rituals in modern domestic spaces that are generally safe — a dog circles its bed, for example, or a person may check that the doors are locked before turning in for the night. That same urge likely led our predecessors to caves, at least occasionally. Another way to look at the origin of bed bugs is that they arose directly from our need to seek a safe place to sleep.


The significance of our vulnerability during sleep is heightened by the darkness of night. This has long been lodged in the collective human psyche. Roger Ekirch, a sleep historian, has written: "Night was man's first necessary evil, our oldest and most haunting terror." In pre-industrial Western culture, Ekirch writes, the night provided a cloak of anonymity for murder and other violent acts, as well as for thefts and predatory beasts. It was the time when unattended fires — the only source of light — might cause a home to go up in flames. In our past, dark supernatural beings, too, seemed more active at night: ghosts, witches, and demons. Families protected themselves from both these real and perceived threats by shuttering their houses, locking their city gates, and saying a nightly prayer. To ensure a comfortable sleep, they would also go on nightly "bug hunts," examining their beds for what Ekirch calls the unholy trinity of early modern entomology: lice, fleas, and bed bugs. A clean and safe bed was a sanctuary for sleep as well as for intimate nighttime conversations and sex.

Although some of our nighttime terrors and rituals have ebbed, thanks in part to the electric lighting that keeps our world visible even when the sun goes down, there are residual fears. It doesn't take much to stoke them. In modern day, the writer Teju Cole beautifully connects this vulnerability to bed bugs in his 2011 novel Open City, when the protagonist sorts out his feelings on the bugs thriving in all five boroughs of New York: "The concerns were primeval: the magical power of blood, the hours given over to dreams, the sanctity of the home, cannibalism, the fear of being attacked by the unseen." This thought is echoed by nearly everyone I have asked: Why are you afraid of bed bugs? Their answer is a variation on the fact that the bedroom is a place of repose, a protected sphere that provides comfort even on the hardest days. It is where we feel safest to sleep, to close our eyes and let down our defenses. A thing that not only breaches this sheltered slumber but takes some blood while it's there feels like more of a violation or threat than the West Nile mosquito buzzing on the porch or the feverish rat digging through the trash out back. Bed bugs break our modern illusion of the cloistered bed.

We also have new expectations for sleep. Just as with our unprecedented new heights of cleanliness, the modern era has ushered in a different perspective on how and when we rest. We are in bed for shorter periods of time than our ancestors were, says Ekirch, and we often think of sleep as a nuisance or a luxury. For the sleep that we do get, there is more pressure to make it count. Unlike real threats, such as a deadly predator or an overturned open-flame lantern, or superstitious ones, such as a witch, a small annoyance like a barking dog or a neighbor's loud television are enough for many of us to declare our sleep ruined. Our pre-industrial ancestors may have had nightly bug hunts, but the bed bugs were a lesser threat to a good sleep; today the bugs have risen as a far more prominent peril.


Out of all of the insects, those that feed on blood may strike the deepest fear, possibly since our earliest interactions. According to Michael Lehane's The Biology of Blood-Sucking in Insects, bloodsuckers' ability to feed on blood – a rich, high-protein meal – may have evolved at least six unique times during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, which together cover 200 to 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs were still alive.

While the origin of the bloodsucking insects isn't known for certain, Lehane suggests two main possibilities. The first involves insects that lived in animal nests long ago. These insects may have accidentally ingested the dead skin and hair of the nest makers while taking meals on whatever they normally ate — maybe fungus or scat. Eventually, perhaps, some of the insects evolved to survive on live skin and then, much later, on blood, which they may have found through open wounds or broken scabs. The second hypothesis points to insects that had already developed sucking mouthparts to feed on plants or other insects; some may have accidentally bitten an early mammal or a reptile and had the right enzymes to digest its blood, birthing offspring capable of doing the same.

Whether blood feeders arose from either of these evolutionary paths or another one entirely, they eventually flourished. When the earliest modern humans arrived around 200,000 years ago, some of these insect species may have shifted focus to this new host. Or, more likely, the insects were already closely associated with our even older relatives and evolved with them. The bed bug's emergence in its hypothetical ancestral bat caves a couple hundred thousand years ago, then, makes it a relative youngster in the larger scale of insects that specialize on blood. Today it is one of around 300 or 400 insect species that regularly feed on human blood, out of 14,000 that feed on blood at all.

Top image: "Summer Amusement, Bugg Hunting," 1782. Credit: Thomas Rowlandson, courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. Other images: Wikiemedia Commons