Bedbug stories crawling with hysteria

The media is feeding on the return of bedbugs
Saturday, March 8, 2008 | 10:59 a.m. CST; updated 6:55 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
The bedbug is about 1/5 of an inch long and wingless.

Nobody had seen one in decades. Then, five years ago, they started showing up in homes and hotels across the country, prompting a flood of calls to pest control professionals. And nothing, it seems, can stop them.

No, not bedbugs. Bedbug newspaper stories. Since the return of Cimex lectularius, as the bedbug is formally known, more than 400 articles have wriggled into print, all making roughly the same point: The bloodsucking critters are back, and in numbers that amount to a scourge.


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“They’re tiny, evil and everywhere in the city,” wailed a recent headline in the New York Daily News. USA Today trotted out a “Poltergeist” reference in November with “They’re ba-a-ack for a snack. It’s easy to say ‘Don’t let the bedbugs bite’ — until the paranoia-inducing, bloodsucking parasites shake you awake.”

Even the overkill-averse New York Times has partaken, spraying the city with no fewer than a dozen bedbug stories in the past five years. “Bedbugs are back,” reads a line from a 2005 Times article, “and spreading through New York City like a swarm of locusts on a lush field of wheat.” In an attempt to gain the upper hand on this apparent epidemic, the authorities here recently announced three town hall meetings on how to avoid or get rid of bedbugs.

But even in Manhattan — arguably the nation’s capital of bedbug journalism — calling this problem a plague overstates it. Quite a bit.

There’s nothing wrong with the basic outlines of the bedbug stories: The critters had all but disappeared in the 1950s, nearly eradicated by liberal applications of the now-banned pesticide DDT, and they have indeed made an unexpected return. But the scale of this “swarm” has been overstated, maybe wildly so.

Which, unlike the return of the insects themselves, is easy to explain. “The bugs are back” is so perfect a trend story that it seems hand-forged by the trend-story gods. It’s what happens when you combine a creepy villain, primal fear and squishy statistics.

“The reporters I talk to,” said Joe McInerney, president of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, who has fielded dozens of bug-related calls in recent years, “it’s like they’re all rooting for the bedbugs.”

What’s not to love? Oval-shaped, wingless, reddish-brown and hideous up close, the bedbug is about 1/5 of an inch in length and feeds on blood when it comes out for meals — which it does at night every few weeks.

During the day, it hides, favoring what pest control experts call “the bed complex” — the mattress, the headboard, cracks in nearby walls. You won’t feel their bite, even when awake, but they leave little itchy welts on the skin, which typically show up a few hours later. They’re not easy to kill, either, in part because exterminators had not dealt with them for years and have yet to develop targeted traps, as they have for cockroaches and ants. (Glue boards, insecticides and vacuums are the treatments of choice.) Ridding a home of bedbugs can easily cost $1,000.

Clearly, anyone with bedbugs has an unpleasant problem. And because bedbugs truly have returned from near-oblivion, the bedbug revival is a legitimate story. The question you hear from entomologists, however, is this: Does the problem warrant the quantity and scarifying tone of the coverage?

To answer that, it would help to know just how back bedbugs really are, which is trickier than you might think. Because the second coming of bedbugs is a relatively new phenomenon, there are few academic studies that answer that question. So bedbug journalists tend to focus on one stat: reports of bedbug infestations, usually made to pest control pros by apparent infestees.

A typical line reads like this one from a story in the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky: “The pest control service Orkin in Lexington has received approximately 30 to 40 calls about bedbugs this year; that’s at least twice the number of calls about bedbugs received by the pest control company last year.”

Generally speaking, it isn’t wise to seek hard data about any problem from a party that stands to profit as the problem gets worse. Pest control is a $6.5 billion industry in the United States, and a story about “The Business of Bed Bugs” in January’s Pest Management Professional says they could be the nation’s “No. 1 pest well into the future.” So we have what ethicists would call the appearance, at least, of a conflict of interest.

Even if no one is padding the totals, relying on reports from freaked-out callers is ill-advised. For one thing, there are so many people out there who think they’re being devoured by bugs — and aren’t — that psychologists have a name for it: delusional parasitosis.

“We had a lady come in here with a garbage bag she said was filled with bugs that were biting her,” said Matt Nixon of American Pest Management in Takoma Park, Md. “She handed it to my dad and she said, ‘If you open that and you get bit, it’s your problem.’ And there was nothing in there except lint, hair and dry skin. We deal with people like that every week.”

But there are so many bedbug false alarms that there’s reason to assume many perfectly sane people are ringing them. In New York, the city housing authority has fielded and checked out more than 2,500 bedbug complaints in the past three years; fewer than 500 turned out to be actual infestations. Even allowing for some overlap — two calls about the same bugs, for instance — that’s as many as two or three callers who don’t have bedbugs for each caller who does.

“Experience shows that residents may have heard rumors about bedbugs, so if they wake up with a rash or an itch, they think they’ve got them,” said Howard Marder, a spokesman for the authority. “Public health experts know this already: If you make people aware of a problem, reports about it are likely to go up.”

“Ten years ago it was spider bites,” said Donald Lewis, an Iowa State University entomologist. “Now, when people wake up with spots, dots and bumps that have no obvious explanation, it’s bedbugs.”

Tallying up calls to bedbug pros has one other flaw: Even the pros can misdiagnose the problem.

“I get samples every day, and fewer than half that arrive that are reputed to be bedbugs are at all associated with bedbugs,” said Richard Pollack, a health entomologist at Harvard University. “A lot of them are from tenants, landlords, apartment managers who say that a pest control company had come by and told them they have bedbugs. And they don’t. Then they give me a long, sad story about how they spent thousands of dollars to control bedbugs that didn’t exist at that address.”

Pollack said that what amazes him the most is the level of distress he hears in the bedbugged-out voices of those who call him: “It’s like they’ve been told they have terminal cancer.”

Where there are panic, distress and insects, there is a business opportunity. A kennel in Safety Harbor, Fla., trains dogs to sniff out bedbugs. (The pooch will sit when he finds a lode and point to it with his nose.) A company in California will cook your bedbugs dead by showing up with strategically placed heaters and warming rooms to 140 degrees. (Cost: $1,000 to $2,000.)

There has also been a boomlet in bedbug litigation, with guests suing hotels for millions of dollars, alleging they had become unwitting snacks in infested rooms. Most of these suits are settled, but in 2003 a brother and sister from Toronto won $382,000 from a jury in a case against a Motel 6.

Of course, if such cases spur the hotel industry to attack bedbugs before they attack guests, the suits might be a public service. What worry entomologists who have watched the “media frenzy,” as Pollack calls it, are the amateurs who buy pesticides to slather on their mattresses and around their beds. These chemicals often pose a far greater health risk than the creatures they’re supposed to kill. Unlike mosquitoes, bedbugs don’t carry disease.

“They have never been known to spread anything,” Pollack said, “except hysteria.”

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