Good night, sleep tight
And don't let the bedbugs bite
This cute little nursery rhyme is recited to woo children into relaxation and sleep. If they understood it, and other bedtime poems and stories, they probably would be scared out of their wits.
Bedbugs have reappeared in the last several years, after a lapse since about the mid-1940s. Certainly, the development of DDT and its subsequent misuse led to the emergence of many insect strains that were DDT-resistant.
If only we had listened to Rachel Carson's warnings in her 1962 award-winning book, "Silent Spring." DDT resistance was paralleled by the resistance of bacteria to antibiotics as in MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and in XMDR (extra-strength, multiple-drug-resistant Mycobacterium tuberculosis). Darwin's "survival of the fittest" concept is certainly appropriate in explaining DDT and antibiotic resistance.
Further, an increase in air travel contributed to bedbugs' re-emergence. They travel without passports and survive in luggage, overhead bins, cargo transport areas and clothing. Passengers and airline personnel unknowingly carry their bedbugs and microbes with them. They stay in lodgings around the world, affording ample opportunity to spread their bedbugs and to acquire new ones. Those in "roach motels" are more likely to encounter bedbugs than those in A-1 residences.
As a frequent traveler, I was once horrified to experience a bout of bedbug bites. I was at a hotel one night near Providence, R.I.'s T.F. Green International Airport to catch an early flight. I remember feeling itchy during the night, and in the morning I noticed a series of red spots scattered over my body. As I slept, I had served as a repast for my uninvited bedbug roommates.
So what are bedbugs? Biologists classify them as members of the class Insecta. They are wingless, the size of an apple seed; adults are about 4 to 5 mm long and 1.5 to 3 mm wide.
The hematophagous (bloodsucking) insects feed every five to 10 days, although they are capable of living for a year without feeding. The feeding process, usually unnoticed by the host, lasts about five minutes. The bedbug pierces the skin and inserts two feeding tubes. Carbon dioxide on the host's skin serves as a major attractant, as it does with mosquitoes.
Bedbugs make their home in mattresses, pillows, upholstered furniture, luggage, clothing seams and clutter. They are elusive and mainly nocturnal, rendering them difficult to see. Blood spots (both insect and human) and fecal smears on the linens are telltale signs. A female bug may produce as many as 500 offspring.
The only good thing about bedbugs is that they haven't been identified as vectors (carriers) of disease, as are many insects. The mosquito, vector for the protozoan parasite that causes malaria, is probably the best-known insect carrier. In our own backyards, two mosquito-borne diseases are potentially fatal: West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis. (Lyme disease is tick-borne, and, morphologically, ticks are not insects.) Around the world, particularly in tropical areas, insects play a major role as carriers of microbial disease.
So far, bedbugs have not been identified as disease carriers. But a number of disease-producing microbes have made the "species leap": SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) spread from civet to human, AIDS from chimpanzee to human and "mad-cow" disease from bovine to human. Bedbugs could acquire new parasites that could be spread to humans.
Bedbugs are a serious infestation. They can trigger allergic reactions and asthma attacks. The resulting psychological impact and mental stress can be devastating, requiring professional help.
It appears that bedbugs are on the march. They've been reported in at least 15 states, and New York tops the list. In New York City, sites such as the Time-Warner Center and the men's changing room in the Empire State Building were closed temporarily so exterminators could come in.
Bedbugs are difficult to get rid of. Bombs, foggers, sticky tape and other home remedies are worthless. Professional extermination is required and is costly and inconvenient. Chemicals are toxic at the concentration required to be effective.
When you acquire an item at a flea market, yard sale or on a curb, particularly couches and other upholstery, you may be getting bedbugs, too.
Robert I. Krasner is professor emeritus of Rhode Island's Providence College biology department.