/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Sat, May 14 2016
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  • Infested: an itchy, fascinating natural history of the bed bug

    Infested: an itchy, fascinating natural history of the bed bug

    The resurgence of the bed bug caught modern civilization flatfooted: an ancient pestilence dating back to the Pharoahs, gone for two generations, has returned with a vengeance, infesting fancy hotels and slums alike, lining our streets with mattresses spraypainted with the warning BEDBUGS. Infested, science writer Brooke Borel's natural history of the bed bug, looks at the bug's insurgency as a scientific, cultural, and economic phenomenon, and will leave you itching with delight.

    Brooke Borel is one of those New Yorkers who's had to deal with multiple bed bug infestations: three and counting, with all the concomitant life-disruption of laundering all the textiles, vacuuming all the books, throwing away soft furnishings. To make matters worse, the science writer is violently allergic to the bugs' bites, swelling and itching ferociously wherever the little bastards take their blood-meals.

    But as much as Borel hates the little critters and what they've done to her life, she nevertheless manages to do them justice in her 2015 book, which traces the history of bed bugs back 250,000 years, explores the role they played in popular and high culture, and roams the world and the conference spaces of Vegas hotels looking at the bed bug industry that has sprung into existence since the recovery of bed bug populations a decade ago -- a microcosm and cautionary tale about regulation, greed, science and bureaucracies.

    You've probably heard the story that the bed bug's recovery is due to the worldwide bans on DDT, but Borel is more nuanced than that. It's true that decades of DDT usage kept bed bug populations so low that when they returned, there was almost no one alive who still remembered how to fight them (and the old timers who did have first hand experience all recommended poisons that had long been deemed too dangerous to be used around humans anyway). But modern bed bugs are resistant to many pesticides, and many have resistance to DDT -- the mutants who hid out for decades as their breathern were slaughtered by DDT have repopulated the world.

    But there was, indeed, a couple of generations during which one of humanity's oldest and most reviled pests all but vanished, so much so that when the bugs came back, the major reference tome was long out of print. But the fraternity of bed bug experts had not lost all its knowledge.

    For example, Harold Harlan, a retired Army entomologist, had, for decades, kept and bred thousands of the bugs, collected from all over the world and stored in labelled jars, fed on his own blood. Harlan's borderline hoarding turned out to be hugely scientifically important, as his bugs were the genomic baseline for pre-pesticide-resistance comparisons with the modern bugs.

    Then there are the bed bug entrepreneurs, some selling ridiculous nostrums, others swearing they had secret, foolproof methods. Business was good for them, because people afflicted with bed bugs become desperate. A small but growing number of people poison or burn themselves to death every year after dousing their bedding with flammable material (alcohol, gasoline, etc); or setting off multiple (useless) bug bombs indoors in order to rid themselves of the pests. American know-how is on display in all its mottled finery as Borel travels to the trade shows where useless crap, dangerous chemicals, and, possibly, things that work are all peddled.

    Bed bugs figure heavily in our culture. They appear in medieval manuscripts and in hundreds of popular songs (Borel provides an appendix of music about bed bugs!). They play a heavy role in xenophobia, with every culture pointing a finger at some outsider as the source of the infestation. At one point, when Borel travels to Slovakia to visit the ancestral caves of the bat bugs that are the likely ancestors of bed bugs, she meets Slovaks who blame the bugs on Roma; and Roma who insist them come from the white Slovaks.

    Bed bug infestations have been a fact of life for our ancestors all the way back to early hominids. It may be that they are back again. Infested has some practical tips on avoiding and eliminating the critters, but more importantly, it offers an awesome social and scientific commentary that will make you respect the little fuckers.

    Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World [Brooke Borel/University of Chicago Press]

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