How Our Modern Lives Became Infested With Bed Bugs

After being bitten by the tiny pests, author Brooke Borel set out to learn all she could about her blood-sucking foes

A blood-sucker creeping around on a potential victim's pristine white sheets. Alex Wild, Inc/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis

Few creatures are as psychologically horrifying as the bed bug, a parasite that lurks unseen during the day but creeps out of the cracks and crannies to feed at night. The bug crawls into our beds to stick its needle-like proboscis into a slumbering victim’s skin and suck out their blood. More people are falling victim to this scourge, which affects not just city residents but, increasingly, those in the suburbs and country.

After suffering from bed bugs herself, Brooklyn-based author and science journalist Brooke Borel set off on a major “know thy enemy” journey, learning all she could about the pests. Her exploration uncovered our species’ long-intertwined histories, the best ways to rid an apartment of pesticide-resistant bed bugs and the psychological extremes people can suffer due to the 5-millimeter Cimex lectularius. The project culminated in her new book, Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World. Rather than horrify readers, Borel hopes that her book “helps calm some peoples’ fears about bed bugs, and makes those who have never had bed bugs a little bit more aware and more cautious.”

Here’s Borel with more insight on the fruits of her six-year bed bug obsession (the following has been edited for length):

Why bed bugs as opposed to any other household pest?

I’ve had experiences with cockroaches, fleas and all those things, but they don’t have the same psychological impact as bed bugs. The first time I had bed bugs was 2004, a couple years after I moved to New York. I got some bites and didn’t know what was going on. This wasn’t in the book, but I was sitting at work and my boss walked by and noticed I had bright red streaks going up the back of my arm. She was like, ‘Oh my god, what happened to your arm?’ I wound up going to the emergency room. They put me on antibiotics, but they had no idea what was causing the welts.

I kept going through this cycle where the problem would go away and then I’d get bitten again, and I’d have an awful allergic reaction. I was on the phone with my dad one day and he suggested that maybe it was bed bugs. I didn’t believe him at first because I hadn’t heard that bed bugs were an actual insect. But I did some research and I wound up finding a single bed bug in my apartment. Then, I got them twice more in 2009. By that time, the broader-scale bed bug resurgence was becoming much more obvious.

How did you feel when you first found out what was causing the mysterious red welts?

Usually when you figure out the source of a mysterious medical problem, you feel relieved, but this wasn’t that much of a relief. My reaction was more, ‘What the hell is that thing?’ It sounds silly now, but I’d never heard that bed bugs were an actual insect—an actual species. I thought bed bugs just referred to any bug living in your bed. It also felt very violating, having this insect that lives in your bed and comes out at night to bite you. 

Today, it seems like bed bugs have always been a scourge of modern city life, but when you first got them in 2004, they were nearly unheard of. Can you tell me a little about the rise, fall and return of the bedbug?

We’ve had bed bugs for a really long time. Bed bugs lived with us in caves, and they followed us after we left caves. Throughout history, they were very common and found all over the place. But during World War II, the insecticidal properties of DDT were discovered. After the war, DDT was available commercially. It was very cheap and there were all kinds of different products, like DDT varnishes you could paint on drains and doors, and DDT-impregnated wallpaper. It happened to be very effective against bed bugs and brought their numbers down considerably.

Small pockets of DDT-resistant bed bugs continued to live around the world, however, and they eventually began coming back. Why it happened when it did is unclear, but global travel probably played a role. More of us are living in cities now, too, which makes it easier for bed bugs to spread from neighbor to neighbor. They began doing what they’d be doing from the beginning, which is to follow us.

If bed bugs have become resistant to DDT, how do we fight back now?

The only insecticides we’re able to legally use in our bedrooms today are, for the most part, a class called pyrethroids. These happen to work along the same molecular pathways as DDT. So the bugs that are descended from those that were resistant to DDT are also usually at least partially resistant to pyrethroids. This means a lot of bed bugs were already primed to be resistant to our insecticides, which has made it that much more difficult to control them.

To get rid of infestations, you almost always have to wash laundry and bedding in hot water and dry it all on high, as heat kills the bugs and eggs. You also typically have to pack the clean clothes and bedding into plastic bags to keep the bugs from getting back inside, as well as vacuum and get rid of clutter. A pest control operator then treats the him, usually using an approach called integrated pest management, which involves several tactics in concert, including insecticides, desiccating powders and various other chemicals or methods.

So it’s a very difficult process, and it differs depending on whether you live in a house or apartment. It also changes depending on how much money you have to spend.  

You uncovered numerous bed bug gems in your research. Was there a particular story or fact that you found to be most fascinating?

Some of the stories were just crazy. I came across a New York Times article from the 1960s about experiments on the use of bed bugs in combat during the Vietnam War and thought, 'That can’t be a real thing.' But I contacted the base where that work took place and they gave me the actual documents with illustrations and descriptions of the experiments. They were trying to use insects to figure out a different way to locate enemy fighters. The Viet Cong were very good at attacking through the jungle, which is why the U.S. Army used Agent Orange and other defoliants. But one other thing they tried to do was to create a detector that used an animal.

They began looking at insects that were already attracted to humans because they eat blood. They didn’t experiment with just bed bugs; they also looked into kissing bugs, fleas, ticks, lice and mosquitoes. They tried to build a detector with these insects inside, and then see if the insects would be able to detect a human from a certain distance, and if they would issue any specific movements. It was pretty bizarre, and they ended up abandoning the project.

Given our long history with bed bugs, it’s no surprise that they’ve crept into our music, literature, poetry and theater. Do you have a favorite example of bed bug-related art?

You can find lots of literature and music about bed bugs prior to World War II, before they went away. After that, the mentionings became less common. But now that they’ve had this resurgence, we’re seeing a huge renaissance of bed bugs in poetry, art and music. I think people are using art in a cathartic way, as a means of trying to deal with bed bugs. As for favorites, there are so many bed bugs songs out there that I started a Tumblr to keep up with them all. One of my favorites is an old one, “The Mean Old Bed Bug Blues.” There are several versions, but I like the one by Bessie Smith: 

Having learned so much about the bed bug, how do you view the pest now?

I certainly don't want to have them again, and I certainly don't love them. But I definitely respect them in a way I didn’t before. It’s been such an interesting and fulfilling project to work on, in so many ways. It began as an exercise for me: rather than not think about the fact that I had bed bugs and deal with it that way psychologically—by ignoring it—it was a way to do the opposite, to confront them and not be so frightened. So I don’t want bed bugs again, but I wouldn't change that I had them now that it’s over. 

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.