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.