Editor's note: This article originally appeared on February 27, 2009. We are re-posting it because of current concern about bedbugs.
NEW YORK—Sleep tight and don't let the bedbugs bite? If only. The creepy critters have become such a nuisance here that the city council is mulling legislation that would establish a bedbug task force, ban the sale of used mattresses, train exterminators, and regulate mattress disposal. Just how infested is Gotham? According to the New York Daily News, there were 22,218 complaints to the city's 311 hotline about infestations of the blood-sucking hemipterans, a 34 percent jump since this time last year.
And the Big Apple is not alone in its battle against the bugs. In Chicago, the number of official complaints doubled from 900 to 1,650 during that same period, according to the Tribune. Boston already slaps warning stickers on discarded furniture and Cincinnati has its own bedbug task force. The bugs, which originally hailed from Europe, were nearly wiped out by DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) in the 1950s. But they have been making a comeback since the insecticide was banned in the U.S. in 1972, a decade after journalist Rachel Carson documented the chemical's damaging effects on humans and wildlife in her book Silent Spring.
"I'm petrified to turn the lights off at night," one discouraged New Yorker told Newsday this week. "I'm not getting proper sleep, I can't concentrate on work."
Contrary to their name, bedbugs do not only hang out in beds. They can be found in just about in nook and cranny and can survive for several months without a warm blood meal. The adults are reddish-brown, as about 0.2 inch (five millimeters) long, roughly the height of the numbers on a credit card, and resemble tiny cockroaches; when young, they're pale and about the size of a pinhead. They leave itchy red skin welts and cause endless grief for their victims.
So what's the story on these pesky ectoparasites? Is there any surefire way to avoid them—or to get rid of them if they grace you with their vampiric presence?
To find out, we spoke with Louis Sorkin, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History here, who sustains a personal colony of the bugs with his own blood.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What are bedbugs?
The common bedbug is Cimex lectularius. They are true bugs [of the order Hemiptera] in that they possess a hinged beak in the front of the head and have a stylet. The stylet is what is pushed through the skin to find a blood vessel inside. The bug sucks until it's full, and when it's finished it will go and hide and digest the blood. The body swells up to six times its normal size—from a flat insect to football-shaped.
So are they really just found in beds?
By virtue of its name, people always think bedbugs are found only in beds when, in fact, they fit anywhere their bodies can be hidden and they are as thin as a sheet of paper. They are found in all kinds of furniture, electric appliances, clock radios, computers, printers, behind pictures, books and, of course, bookcases. They are found in cracks and crevices in the wall and within walls as well as in electric outlets, wiring, pipes, plastic and metal conduits.
The problem with calling them a "bedbug" is people have an infestation and they throw out the mattress, but then the critters come back. It's really a nest or roost-inhabiting insect, and our homes are our roosts.