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23-05-2015, 15:59

Tales of the bedbug, one of the world’s most reviled insects

Bedbugs sure get around. From housing projects, hostels and cheap hotels (and some that aren’t so cheap), the bloodthirsty insects hitchhike in the darkest recesses of weary travelers’ luggage and backpacks. They’ve made the rounds in a metaphorical sense too, appearing in poetry, prose, plays and, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite a few blues songs.

The cultural significance and the biology of the insect are the focus of Infested, by science writer Brooke Borel, who has suffered infestations both at home and while traveling. Lured by body heat and exhaled carbon dioxide, bedbugs (Cimex lectularius) pierce the skin of slumbering victims. The bugs’ hypodermic mouthparts have diameters barely exceeding the width of a human red blood cell.

Although bedbugs don’t transmit disease, Borel writes, these vampiric pests aren’t harmless: Proteins in their saliva can cause rashes and other allergic reactions, and the filth they leave behind can trigger asthma. Extreme bedbug infestations have caused anemia and either produced or exacerbated nervous breakdowns. It’s little wonder that the bloodsuckers are the fastest growing moneymaker for exterminators.

In researching this captivating book, Borel spoke with pest control specialists and scientists, some of whom regularly allow the pests they’re raising for research to feed on their own arms and legs (SN: 9/7/13, p. 32).

Borel traveled to Eastern Europe, where she collected bedbugs from a bat-infested attic. Similar finds elsewhere, plus genetic analyses of bedbugs worldwide, suggest that bedbugs first became acquainted with humans more than 200,000 years ago, presumably when our ancestors frequented caves where a similar species of insect fed on bats.

Bedbugs were well known to the ancients, Borel writes. They were mentioned by the Greek playwright Aristophanes in the fifth century B.C. A third century B.C. papyrus reveals that Egyptians had spells to repel the bugs. The insect came to the Americas with European colonists.

Our long shared history with bedbugs seems destined to continue. For a few decades, DDT and other pesticides kept bedbugs largely under control. Alas, bedbugs have evolved resistance to many pesticides and have staged a comeback in many parts of the United States and other countries.

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