Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed-bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
Nearly a year has gone by since my bed bug episode, and I am just like those of you who have not been forced to live with these creatures – with one exception. Since last October I have been all but preaching about inspection and prevention, and spouting precautionary tales.
You would think, then, that I'd be the one person on the planet, aside from some entomologists and pest-control operators we could name, who would be uber-vigilant and regularly down her own medicine.
The truth is that I am not nearly as vigilant as I should be. I have become a bit comfortable, if not slightly smug in the knowledge that the bugs most likely came from a guy who isn’t my neighbor anymore. I have fallen out of the habit of inspecting: I’d have to flip my entire wooden platform bed to inspect underneath, and it’s heavy, and I have not worked out regularly since this whole thing started. Nor have I installed monitors such as ClimbUp interceptors.
There’s a feeling, I have to admit, of having been inoculated, though I am no more immune to a new case of bed bugs than I am to next winter’s influenza strain. (Many people do not feel this way; they remain paranoid for much longer. And on a deeper level I am sort of paranoid; part of me still believes that bed bugs are lurking somewhere, though intellectually I know it's not true, and I don't act on it.) Maybe it's the desire to put a bad experience out of my mind, but aside from that slight paranoia, I have been barely thinking about bed bugs at all, unless I am writing about them.
That’s what I was like until a few days ago, when I met up with David Cain, scientist and esteemed British bed-bug antimatter-kryptonite king. I dish bed bugs with him periodically when he’s in town, and this time he asked me if I had put down the passive monitors I’d bought from him at the end of 2009. These monitors are small, rectangular sheets of corrugated cardboard sheathed on each side in plastic and surrounded by a white edge that lies flush with one side.
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You stick the monitor somewhere on your bed frame—in my case it’s a platform bed, so I would put it flat onto the platform at the head of the bed if that is where the bed hits the wall (in the front corner if the bed is flush against the wall on two sides) and look for fecal stains on the white part monthly, checking off the appropriate little month-date box. If you see a fecal spot, you pull up the monitor—carefully—slip it into a ziplock bag (or two), seal tightly and get it looked at by a professional.
The monitors are built to attract bed bugs, providing their favorite type of harborage (cozy crevices) and giving them an ideal first stopping point when they arrive at your bed, according to Cain. He works with hotels across Britain and says the devices have done wonders to avoid infestations by catching them early. The monitors even come with a disclaimer to guests saying that their presence should be reassuring, not jarring, because it shows that the hotel is on top of a potential problem and is looking out for guests' well-being.
I had put down the first of the two monitors back in the old apartment, I told Cain, but the bugs must have already been ensconced in my bed’s crevices by then, so they never made it to the flat, corrugated-cardboard, plastic-covered bed-bug trap.
(Bed bugs tend to wander if their current location gets too crowded, or if an inseminated female is looking to get away from the rapacious guy bug who, rather than woo her with a bottle of Chianti, shoves his you-know-what in her abdomen in a practice known as traumatic insemination. Although the female bed bug is not traumatized per se, she has been known to crawl away afterward in search of a less stressful environment.)
I admitted this about my habits sheepishly, ducking because I knew I was going to get scolded. And scold he did.
“I’m not going to talk to you again until you have put that monitor down and started monthly inspections,” Cain said, all but shaking his finger at me. “I’m trying to help you. You’ve got to help yourself.”
He was dead right. I felt as foolish as I should have felt. Everyone should be inspecting this way. Catching an infestation early is one of the most important weapons in combatting this scourge. Inspecting your bed and its surrounding area (they have been known to huddle in screw heads in nightstands, for instance, and inside clock radios, behind picture frames, even under flaps of chipped paint) monthly is not nearly as big a deal as fielding a full-blown infestation. In this way it’s like cancer: Early detection is key.
So I say to all of you now that, chagrined and chastened, I am monitoring and inspecting regularly from now on. I flipped my bed this week and vacuumed all crevices thoroughly. For good measure I sealed and discarded the vacuum bag. I have scrutinized and vacuumed every inch of my futon mattress (which is encased, by the way, not to prevent bed bugs but to keep the mattress clean and put a layer between it and any potential problems).
This weekend I will dig out the passive monitor and put it, as per Cain’s instructions, at the head of my bed, under my mattress, below where my own head goes. I will send him a photo to that effect. Given the expense, messiness and chaos of a bed-bug infestation, it would behoove all of you reading this to incorporate a monthly inspection into your routine.
Next week: Mental coping strategies in the age of bed bugs.
Theresa Braine is a NYC-based journalist and bed bug survivor whose work has appeared in the NY Daily News, People, Newsday and other outlets. Bedbugged! is her weekly column about life in the trenches and climbing out with your sanity intact.