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. 

 
 
 
 

How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.