For three months in 2012, we had bed bugs. It was bloody horrible

An entomologist feeds bed bugs on his hand. Image: Getty.

Some years ago, a friend left a bag at my flat after a party. Not long afterwards, we finally found out why it was we couldn’t stop itching.

The next time I was due to meet my friend, I offered to bring his rucksack with me. "No," said his girlfriend. "Don't bring the bag back. Keep the bag."

Bed bugs, she knew, can travel in luggage. That was probably how we got them in the first place.

*****

For weeks we'd known that something was biting us, but we couldn't work out what. We suspected fleas. We suspected mosquitoes. But no change in our behaviour, no amount of cleaning, reduced the extent of the itching.

The man from the council's pest control department identified our symptoms immediately. Our bites came in clusters of three; and there were blood splashes on the sheets, where an unfortunate pest had got itself squashed, mid-meal. He diagnosed us with bed bugs, a parasitic insect species that’s been nibbling at humanity for as long as history records.

At first, this was almost a relief: at least we had a plan of action at last. But as the days went on, having a name for the problem became less and less of a comfort. When you’ve grown used to changing outfits every time you switch rooms, to minimise the risk of the problem spreading; when you’ve taken your furniture to bits, and the component parts have been drenched in foam; when you've spent a week acting the part of human bait, sleeping in separate rooms to lure the bugs out of their hiding places to where the poison might get to them... When you’ve done all this, and still the bites keep coming, you can’t help but think: What if this isn’t working? What if our bugs are resistant to the pesticides? What if they never go?

You search the internet, searching for reassurance that this is a minor problem; that it’ll be swift and easy to solve. You don't find any.

*****

There’s plenty of fevered commentary surrounding bed bugs. How widespread a problem they are. How hard they are to shift. But – and I now feel I can say this, because, after less than three months, our bed bugs did go – it's not clear how much of this is a factual description of an unpleasant reality, and how much of it is just, well, hysteria.

Let's start with the facts. Bed bugs are round nocturnal insects that subsist on a diet of blood. Most of the time they're thin and slightly see-through; once they've eaten, they're fat and brown. They can snack on other mammals, but given a choice, they prefer us. Consequently, they've got very good at hiding in our houses. In our beds; in cracks in the paintwork; in electrical fittings – anywhere, in fact, where they can get close to us but stay out of sight.

Not so long ago, bed bugs were basically everywhere, but heavy use of pesticides after the War all but finished them off in the West. As a result, most of us have never encountered any. You can grow up without even realising that the rhyme that begins “Night night, sleep tight” actually refers to a real and specific species of insect.

At some point over the last 30 years, though, they began to make a comeback. One theory is that the banning of DDT, which was doing some pretty horrible things to the wider environment, made homes less inhospitable to the bugs too. Another is that it results from the changing nature of international travel. We fly more often, and to less developed countries: in parts of the world, the bugs have never gone away, and globalisation has given them ample opportunities to hitch a lift to pastures new.

At any rate, numbers started to increase. In Sweden, in the years between 2002 and 2006, the number of recorded interventions by pest control doubled. In London, between 2000 and 2006, they quadrupled. In Australia, a study comparing the periods 1997-2000 and 2001-04 found that interventions were up 700 per cent.

A bed bug nymph, feeding on a host. The transparency makes the baby bugs hard to spot. Image: CDC/Harvard.

The place most frequently associated with bed begs, though, is New York. By the end of the last decade, the city had seen infestations in locations as diverse as theatres, department stores and office blocks. A city of condos and apartment blocks, with so many people living literally right on top of each other, gave the bugs ample opportunities to spread unchecked.

By 2009, the problem had grown serious enough for the US Environmental Protection Agency to hold its first ever Bed Bug Summit."In recent years," the agency’s official advice still says, "public health agencies across the country have been overwhelmed by complaints about bed bugs." At time of writing, the phrase “bed bug pandemic” brings up over 1.1m hits on Google.

*****

Bed bugs aren't dirty; bed bugs don't spread disease. They move slowly; they can't fly; they even, with a certain generosity of spirit, anaesthetise you when they bite. I, like a majority of the population, am lucky enough not to have any significant allergic reaction to the little sods: in the most literal sense, bed bugs can’t hurt me.

And yet – I know this sounds melodramatic, but it's true, nonetheless – living with them is one of the most unpleasant experiences I've ever had.


For one thing, it was an inconvenience. To prevent the bugs from spreading, our pest control expert had told us, we were to wear different clothes in the bedroom and the living room. No guests were to come into the house; no bags were to leave it. We were less than three months from our wedding, and these restrictions were, at the very least, a pain.

More damaging was the sense of violation. Your bed is supposed to be the place where you are most completely and utterly safe. The knowledge that something is waiting somewhere inside it, purely so it can feast on you while you sleep, is deeply unsettling.

Worst of all, though, is the lingering fear that you will never, ever get rid of them. Bed bugs breed quite ludicrously fast: one adult can produce as many as 500 children, and there's evidence that a single, fertilised female can be enough to infest an entire building (you'd think the in-breeding would cause them problems, but no). They can't grow or breed without eating, but you can't just take a holiday and let them starve: the bugs can happily go for months without food. Make it a waiting game, and you will lose.

This would be fine if the standard pest control strategies were guaranteed to work, but they’re not. The pesticides that have historically done the job are getting less and less effective. Some bugs have evolved exo-skeltons that prevent the poison from penetrating; others don't allow it to bind to the nerves, or break it down into harmless chemicals. The fact there's more than one strategy in play makes it all the more difficult to overcome the resistance. Oh, and we haven't invented an effective new pesticide in over 20 years.

"I'd get rid of all those books if I were you," he said. "First place they'd hide."

All this we learnt as we trawled the internet, seeking reassurance that we would find a way to evict our itchy new housemates. We learnt of "bed bug sniffer dogs", trained to locate the bug's nests using their sickly sweet scent alone. We read of homes in America with infestations that had proven immune to every treatment imaginable, and gazed in dumb horror at images of unfortunate people, covered from head to toe in large, red welts. We read internet forums with headlines like "Bed bugs won't go away", which contained helpful responses like, "Fake your death, use the insurance money to GTFO to another house". After discussing things, we decided we wouldn't rule this out.

"In New York, they tell you to just burn everything," an American friend told me. "Just give up and start again."

*****

It's clear that the bed bug problem is worse than it once was. Exactly how much worse, though, is surprisingly hard to say.

You can't, after all, count every bed bug: we're reliant on observational studies, based on those cases reported to housing authorities and pest control. That makes the figures prone to both under-reporting during periods of ignorance, and over-reporting during those of hysteria.

To make matters worse, most of the numbers that make it to the public domain are produced by the pest control industry: a group of people who have an economic interest in our being very, very scared. And, with the best will in the world, most of these “studies” are not exactly peer-reviewed. Some conflate “reported” cases with confirmed ones; others, absolute numbers with per capita ones. In 2011, one report ranked New York as the most bed bug infested city in America; another had it in seventh place.

The lack of hard data makes it hard to know for sure, but it’s just possible that, at some point in the last couple of years, the bed bug pandemic may actually have started to wind down. Figures from the New York Department of Housing Preservation & Development have shown a steady decline in interventions since their peak in 2010. Tighter requirements for landlords to take action the moment a bug is spotted seem to have helped; so, too, does greater awareness of what to look out for.

But while the past few years have seen numerous reports warning of the growing bed bug pandemic, surprisingly few have appeared suggesting that the crisis has passed and we can all sleep safe in our beds. This is not a story that the people who have the data necessarily want to tell.

An adult bug at work. Image: CDC/Harvard.

As the weeks went on, and the bugs showed no sign of abating, our nerves grew increasingly shredded, and my fiancée and I took it in turns to lose it while the other talked us down. With our wedding looming, and our flat still effectively out of bounds, we began to investigate a more radical solution.

The “heat treatment” involves covering the doors and windows of a building with plastic, then using industrial heaters to warm the interior up to 45 degrees centigrade, until everything in it is dead. It works; but it’s cripplingly expensive, horribly disruptive, and does untold damage to anything with wiring. I thus remain eternally grateful to the private pest control contractor who point blank refused to take my money, and chose instead to calm me down. "If the council's using pesticides it will get sorted," he told me. "Just give it time."

The council's own pest controller was rather less reassuring. "I'd get rid of all those books if I were you," he said. "First place they'd hide."

And then, one day, it stopped: we've not seen a bug since. In retrospect, given that we never found a nest and saw a grand total of three bugs during our three month occupation, it's probable that we were never that seriously infested in the first place. We were lucky.

But the experience has given me something akin to a phobia. I panic at unexplained itches; I panic when I spot something moving out of the corner of my eye. For three months of my life I itched, constantly, and all over, not because I'd been bitten, but because I couldn't be sure I hadn't. I've itched for the entire time I've been writing this, too.

All I'm really saying here is: don't get bed bugs. Trust me on this. You really won't like it. 

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.